An Urbanist’s Affair with Nature: Meet the Master Naturalists

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A daily hike can be a great way to get in some activity, relieve some stress, and connect with nature.

iPhone upload May 23 2013 083San 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.

Visitors and guides mingle on the steps of Phil Hardberger Park's Urban Ecology Center. Photo Courtesy of Lake/Flato Architects.

Visitors and guides mingle on the steps of Phil Hardberger Park’s Urban Ecology Center. Photo Courtesy of Lewis McNeel, Lake/Flato Architects.

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.

Texas Parks and Wildlife bird guru Craig Hensley teaches kids about butterflies at the Kreutzberg Canyon Natural Area May Day Celebration. Photo by Bekah McNeel.

Texas Parks and Wildlife bird guru Craig Hensley teaches kids about butterflies at the Kreutzberg Canyon Natural Area May Day Celebration. Photo by Bekah McNeel.

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 climb through Honey Creek State Natural Area in search of golden cheeked warblers. Photo by Bekah McNeel

Master Naturalists climb through Honey Creek State Natural Area in search of golden cheeked warblers. Photo by Bekah McNeel

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.


Related Stories:

Nature Meets City as Hardberger Park’s Urban Ecology Center Opens

Monarch Expert to Address Butterfly Breeders in San Antonio

Something Monday: How to Tag a Monarch Butterfly

As SAWS Pushes Native Plants, Texas Legislature Considers Native Plant Bills

Rain Barrels: Living with Drought, Rain or Shine

 Confluence Park: Nature’s Learning Laboratory Atop the Mission Reach


6 thoughts on “An Urbanist’s Affair with Nature: Meet the Master Naturalists

  1. Bekah. Great story. Since we shared some activities, I second everything you said about the course. Deciding which of the many volunteer opportunities given us remains a challenge. Counting birds, watering roses, cutting brush and invasive species: there’s something for every “taste” or interest. A friend got me into AAMN, and I am loving it.

  2. Thanks, Bekah, for the excellent essay on Texas Master Naturalists. Little by little we are changing for the better peoples’ thinking about the natural world.

    Wilt Shaw
    AAMN Class 13

  3. This is a great introduction to the Alamo Area Master Naturalist program. I love being a Master Naturalist. After retiring from a very stressful job working with people, I wanted to do something in nature. A friend recommended the AAMN program. That was in 2007. I have learned so much and have done a lot of different kinds volunteering. I have found that Native Plants is my passion, and teaching kids about nature. San Antonio needs all the volunteers they can get, so if you want to give back to our community, hang out in nature, becoming an Alamo Area Master Naturalist is one of the best ways to do it.

  4. Well said, Bekah. I have come to refer to my Texas Master Naturalist training as giving me the “owner’s manual” for central Texas. Even though all this nature was here all along, I didn’t really appreciate it until I took the training. I prefer to volunteer in town, rather than in the pristine natural areas, because nature is right here.

    Regular school classes never taught me about HERE. Here is where I am and here is where I need to understand.

    Forty hours of volunteering is hardly a problem, as you point out, since I’m learning something new all the time.

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