Chances are, if you've ever had the opportunity to take part in a community conservation program involving the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department, you've done so with the help and support of a trained master naturalist.
Whether it's youth education programs, native plant restoration or a program designed to help control an invasive, exotic plant or animal, Texas Master Naturalists have become an integral part of statewide conservation programs.
The program was designed to enlist volunteers to help Texas Parks and Wildlife in its parks and wildlife management areas. There was a single founding chapter in San Antonio in 1997.
Fifteen years later, there are 44 chapters across the state, and the program has evolved to become a way for the parks department to increase service to its constituents. To date, Texas Master Naturalists has trained more than 7,400 volunteers.
"The program is all local with chapters in the communities, and all the projects are focused on networking with landowners (public and private)," says Michelle Haggerty, chief of the master naturalist program.
"The program is really one size fits all," Haggerty says. "They can focus on specific areas that appeal to them. The advanced training lets them choose an area of interest for them."
"There are three requirements for membership," Haggerty says. Members must complete 40 hours of training, plus eight hours of advance training and 40 hours of volunteer service their first year.
Each year thereafter, members have to complete at least 40 hours of volunteer work in a Texas Parks and Wildlife Department-approved program and take eight hours of advanced training.
The advanced training allows them to continue to focus on specific areas that are most attractive to them.
The volunteer effort has measurable value to the state, Haggerty says. Chapter members in Texas provided 283,000 hours of service to state facilities last year, which the parks department valued at $5.52 million. And the program is growing by about 30,000 volunteer hours per year.
"It's very valuable work," Haggerty says. "There are some state parks and natural areas that couldn't function without volunteers from their local areas." Volunteers help implement youth education programs and operate parks and nature centers. They may work on prescribed burning programs or they may provide leadership for specific conservation programs such as horned lizards or birding.
"Most people who join the program say they just wanted to be able to make a difference," Haggerty says. "They wanted to learn from experts in those fields and do hands-on work and be around people who shared an interest in conservation, especially when it came to working with youth."
Haggerty says anyone with an interest in volunteer work in conservation can contact a local chapter of Texas Master Naturalists to begin the education process. Start by looking at the organization's website, http://txmn.org, and click on "find a chapter."