As delineated on its website, the West Virginia Master Naturalists’ mission is to “train interested individuals in the fundamentals of natural history, nature interpretation and teaching, and to instill in them an appreciation of the importance of responsible environmental stewardship.”
The program also supplies qualified volunteers to assist government agencies, schools and non-government organizations with research, outdoor recreation development and environmental education and protection.
The Master Naturalists program’s roots extend 20 years, stemming from a partnership of the West Virginia Division of Natural Resources, the West Virginia University Cooperative Extension Service, the Canaan Valley Institute, and Davis and Elkins College. The first WVMN training session occurred a year later in spring 2004 at Hawks Nest State Park.
The Master Naturalists maintain chapters throughout the state, including in Kanawha, Nicholas, Raleigh, and Greenbrier counties.
Along with serving as the Kanawha Valley chapter coordinator, Rebecca Linger is the West Virginia Master Naturalist Program’s state president, a progression that was, basically, a natural one for the Charleston resident.
“I’ve always been an outdoor girl,” Linger explained. “Growing up in Ohio, my dad used to take us on walks in the local woods and point out things to us.”
When Linger moved from the Pacific Northwest to West Virginia in 2006 to become a professor in the University of Charleston School of Pharmacy, she brought her lifelong outdoor interests with her. “When I came here from Seattle, I had been a naturalist docent at Discovery Park, a city park there, so I already had that immersion in nature.”
Seeking extracurricular diversion from her academic responsibilities, Linger took a fall nature walk at Kanawha State Forest, where she met Jim Wagge, then-Master Naturalist coordinator. “I joined in 2007. One thing led to another, and that’s where we are.”
Linger said the MN state membership numbers about 1,000, with the Kanawha Valley chapter having approximately 325 people on its roster.
“The Master Naturalists Program has mainly two parts: nature education for our members so that they become experts in nature topics, and the other part is to take that knowledge and educate the public,” Linger said.
“One big thing the Kanawha Valley chapter has been doing this past school year and last summer is going out into Kanawha County schools and presenting nature topics to the kids,” Linger said.
At the outset, Master Naturalists visited elementary school summer camps in 2022, she said. “We talked about white-tailed deer with them. We brought a pelt, some antlers and hoofprints. We talked about what to do when you see a deer, how deer are beneficial to us, that sort of thing.”
When classes resumed last fall, group members visited after-school programs and discussed box turtles with students. “We just brought shells, not live turtles,” Linger clarified. “They’re wild animals and we didn’t want to stress them out. We talked about what to do if you see a box turtle — take him off the road, leave him alone and help him get home.”
The Master Naturalists expanded the scholastic connection recently with Outdoor Classrooms at Kanawha State Forest in Charleston. Spring programs began in mid-April and conclude next week when the academic year ends.
“It’s Master Naturalist driven,” Linger said, “but it’s the Kanawha State Forest Foundation that’s the hosting entity.” (The two organizations pooled their resources to open KSF’s Nature Center last August.)
“On Tuesdays and Wednesdays, groups from elementary schools come to the forest and rotate through four different activities,” Linger said. (Approximately two dozen Richmond Elementary School second grade students visited on May 16.)
“We go to the arboretum behind the Nature Center and talk about trees. We talk about plants that grow in the forest; I do a lot of those, talking about which plants are edible, which have medicine in them, which have pollinators. The kids love it.” (Linger has published a book on medicinal and edible plants, “A Guide to the Toxicology of Select Medicinal Plants and Herbs of Eastern North America,” available on Amazon.)
West Virginia Department of Environmental Protection and West Virginia Division of Natural Resources representatives take part, she said. They bring aquatic insects from nearby Davis Creek and explain to students about their habitat and how insect life can determine a stream’s health.
‘Bear’ essentials and more
“We also have a couple of activities in the Nature Center specific to the age group,” Linger added. “If they’re in second grade and younger, we talk about black bears and show them bear skins. It’s really cool. We have a skin of a bear shot in the summertime; its fur is really thin. Another was probably shot in the fall or winter; its fur is really thick. We talk about how a bear keeps itself warm, what they eat — one of the bear pelts has the head and the feet, so we can talk about claws and how bears mark their territory with them.
“We introduce and really educate them about bears. We tell them do not run if they see a bear. We ask them, ‘Is a bear a predator or prey?’ They say, ‘A predator,’ so we say, ‘That means you’re the prey. If you run, what’s the bear going to think you are? If you run, he’s going to chase you, but if you don’t, he’ll probably leave you alone.’”
Students in fourth and higher grades can study owl pellets. “Owls are interesting birds. They’re a raptor that eats rodents, other birds and other living things,” Linger said. “When they eat their prey, they eat it whole and it will sit there in their gizzard to digest. Its stomach acid isn’t as strong and it doesn’t fully digest hair and bones. It will regurgitate a pellet of undigested bones and fur.”
Master Naturalists present the youths with collected, sterilized owl pellets at the Outdoor Classroom. Students use tweezers and similar implements to open and inspect them. “We explain that they’re like a hairball their cat throws up; it’s not poo, like some of them think at first,” Linger said with a laugh.
Students also have a chance to play games of pioneer times, color and make crafts during the Outdoor Classroom.
Linger said the Outdoor Classroom’s success will likely lead it to being offered again next school year.
“Teachers have been very complimentary. A principal came out to one, took me aside and said, ‘This is the best organized thing we’ve had in a long time.’”
Educators interested in participating in the Outdoor Classroom program can email email@example.com for further details.
More information about the West Virginia Master Naturalists is available at www.mnofwv.org.
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