New state naturalist program teaches volunteers

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Anna Marie Lux
March 10, 2014

ROCK COUNTY—Lena Verkuilen helps people see the wonder in their own backyards.

Take those downy woodpeckers, for example.

They have cushioning inside their brains so they don't give themselves concussions while drilling in trees. Their tongues are so long that they curl around the backs of their skulls. And their leg veins and arteries wrap around each other so cold blood returning to the heart can be warmed by blood coming from the heart.

“That keeps their legs from freezing in winter,” said Verkuilen, director of the Welty Environmental Center, west of Beloit.

Verkuilen and Dan Bartlett of Beloit College are preparing to share many other marvels of the natural world with a small group of adults. Beginning Tuesday, April 8, they will teach a course to promote awareness, understanding and stewardship of the state's natural resources. The class of no more than 25 will be part of a statewide Wisconsin Master Naturalist program.

With material developed by the University of Wisconsin Extension, the 40-hour program is offered to develop a corps of informed volunteers. Students will get training in natural history, interpretation and stewardship.

Once they complete the class, the new master naturalists may volunteer with a number of organizations, including nature centers, parks and museums.

“I would recommend the class to anyone who wants to know more about the outdoors,” Verkuilen said. “It could be a teacher who wants to get kids outdoors, a Scout leader who wants more basic knowledge or a landowner who wants to do some restoration work.”

Patterned after the Master Gardener program, several courses will be taught in different locations around Wisconsin for the first time. Three pilot courses were held in the state last year.

The six-week Welty class will meet twice a week in early evening through May 15. Most classes will be held at the environmental center and will involve as much outdoor time as possible. Two all-day mandatory field trips are planned on Saturday, April 19, and Saturday, May 10. One will be to the Kettle Moraine State Forest and another will be a tour of Rock County's parks, including Magnolia and Carver-Roehl parks.

Bartlett said the program will include an emphasis on local natural history, including a session about the earthen mounds on the grounds of Beloit College.

“We are encouraged to bring in guest speakers,” said Bartlett, who is curator of exhibits and education at the Logan Museum of Anthropology.

He and Verkuilen are among the first trained instructors for the course.

Scott Steurer, an enthusiastic Welty volunteer, graduated from a master naturalist program in Illinois.

“You leave the course with greater understanding and knowledge,” he said.

Steurer was so inspired by what he learned about the natural world that he wanted to learn more. So, he enrolled in conservation-related college classes.

“My children are grown,” Steurer said. “I want to continue my nurturing by introducing people to nature, especially kids. I can't think of anything better that I want to be doing.”

Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Janesville Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at (608) 755-8264, or e-mail amarielux@gazettextra.com

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