San Antonio has given a lot of gifts to the world. To name but a few: the Spurs, puffy tacos, Alamo lore, and, one you may be less familiar with: the Master Naturalist program.
The Alamo Area Master Naturalists (AAMN) are the founding chapter of the Texas Master Naturalists, a program which has been replicated across the United States and now boasts international chapters as well.
Here, in a state not known for being particularly tree-huggy, a group of passionate students of nature created a program to provide state and local environmental organizations with an educated volunteer base to maximize their effectiveness.
Now, 16 years later, more than 700 of these Master Naturalists can be found in and around San Antonio, peering through binoculars, crawling in the brush, and handing out trees for CPS Energy tree giveaways. They are teaching kids, rescuing animals, and leading interpretive hikes for all ages. You may not have noticed, but they can be found almost anywhere that people and nature intersect.
AAMN is now accepting applications for its spring training session, which lasts from Feb. 20 through April 24, 2014. At the end of April, AAMN Class 34 will join the ranks of educated and passionate volunteers utilized by Texas Parks and Wildlife, San Antonio Parks and Recreation, San Antonio River Authority, and many other organizations. Many send their own staff members to take the class as well, to further enhance their understanding of the environment they are hired to steward and interpret.
Classes convene at the AAMN headquarters at the Phil Hardberger Park Urban Ecology Center, a brand new building, hailed for both sustainability and beauty. There they will have examples of best practices in preservation, conservation, and restoration at their fingertips.
Joining the program in 2013 was one of the best decisions I’ve made. I had lived in the area for nearly 30 years, but the AAMN program connected me to the native habitat in a whole new way — an informed, participatory way.
Perhaps it came from growing up as an aquifer kid among the springs lovers of Comal County, but I’ve always had an appreciation for water as a scarce resource, and how critical it is to our life, play, and work. Unfortunately, like many, I let the sprawl of San Antonio lull me into ignorance about the rest of my habitat. I assumed there was more to know, but never took the time to find out.
I have a sneaky suspicion that many of us in the urban core do not fully appreciate the ecological riches of living at the convergence of five separate ecosystems as we do.
The 10 weeks of training (and eight hours of advanced training every year after) were conducted by experts at the top of their fields. Sitting in the class gave me and others the essential facts and statistics, and a sense of the political and philosophical diversity of those who serve as stewards of our natural world.
Not all of the experts agreed on grassland management techniques, right of capture laws, or what sort of tree to plant in a given area. That was part of the beauty. We were not getting a curriculum; we were getting education from the perspective of deeply engaged experts.
In addition to the 40 hours of class time, there are four field trips during the semester. For me, the field trips were like a sneak peek of the access we would enjoy as certified Master Naturalists. Volunteering with the state and local parks systems always involves at least a little sweat and dirt, but there’s a huge payoff, not just in moral gratification, either.
Master Naturalists may be going in to a restricted area to clear invasive species, but the pleasure of their surrounds is not lost on them. One morning, while surveying in a restricted parcel of Honey Creek Natural Area for golden-cheeked warblers, a group of us simply stopped and marveled at the privilege of standing on the banks of the creek in total solitude with only the trills and whistles of birds in the air.
Cypress trees soared above our heads, and untrampled flora spilled over the miniature escarpment as we moved along its edge.
It can be addictive, this environmental volunteerism.
That’s good, because to acquire and maintain certification, AAMN requires 40 service hours per year, plus eight advanced training hours. It’s a lot of time in nature, but for most Master Naturalists, it feels more like recreation.
When I find myself guiding packs of 4th graders through Medina River Natural Area, I only wonder why I didn’t do this sooner.
Bekah is a native San Antonian. She went away to Los Angeles for undergrad before earning her MSc in Media and Communication from the London School of Economics. She made it back home and now works for Ker and Downey, and is a frequent contributor to the Rivard Report. You can also find her at her blog, Free Bekah.