Training Virginians to be Master Naturalists has been Michelle Prysby's number one task since 2006. More than 80 citizens from throughout the state recently gathered in Wytheville for Virginia's first Master Naturalist Conference to broaden their knowledge base on trees, insects, birds, habitats, and watersheds.

“The Virginia Master Naturalist program has grown rapidly since its inception, with 25 chapters statewide and 574 participants who have completed training,” said Prysby, the state’s program coordinator, who is based in Virginia Tech’s Department of Forestry in the College of Natural Resources.

The program’s mission is to train a statewide corps of volunteers who provide education, outreach, and service dedicated to Virginia’s natural resources. Certified Virginia Master Naturalists must complete a rigorous course of study that includes 40 hours of classroom and field time, followed by 40 hours of volunteer service. They study biology, geology, environmental science, and a general history of Virginia that goes back several hundred million years. Participants represent a wide range of ages and occupations, from scientists to homemakers, but they all have one thing in common — a love of nature and the outdoors.

“It is a remarkable learning opportunity for people who love nature,” said Donna Cottingham, a freelance writer from Richmond who attended the conference. Participants complete field study as well as advanced educational sessions. Field trips deal with topics such as igneous rocks, animal scat, plant reproduction, macroinvertebrates, and predatory insects. Master naturalists travel with backpacks filled with binoculars, magnifying glasses, notebooks, journals, cameras, and a variety of field guides to identify trees, flowers, shrubs, ferns, mosses, and more. If they don’t have the answers to questions readily available, they know exactly where to look them up.

To complete the required 40 hours of volunteer time, Virginia Master Naturalists may choose from a wide range of activities. For example, citizen science projects may involve surveying wildlife populations, monitoring water quality, or participating in a frog study that involves learning frog calls. Community education opportunities include teaching workshops or working with children in the “No Child Left Inside” initiative. Or you may find volunteers building bat houses, rain barrels, or wildlife habitats. Last year, participants logged 7,449 volunteer hours.

The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, Virginia Department of Conservation and Recreation, Virginia Department of Forestry, Virginia Museum of Natural History, and Virginia Cooperative Extension sponsor the program. For more information, visit the program website, or contact program organizers via e-mail.