Life

Protecting Iowa's natural heritage: Iowa Master Naturalists program trains volunteers in conservation

An older birdhouse is in the foreground as Jason Rogers (left) and his brother Todd Rogers stand with one of the bluebird houses they built to install around FW Kent State Park in Oxford, Iowa, on Tuesday, June 20, 2017. The brothers are making the bird houses as part of the Iowa Master Naturalists program. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
An older birdhouse is in the foreground as Jason Rogers (left) and his brother Todd Rogers stand with one of the bluebird houses they built to install around FW Kent State Park in Oxford, Iowa, on Tuesday, June 20, 2017. The brothers are making the bird houses as part of the Iowa Master Naturalists program. (Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)
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Though Maya Ogren died in 2016 at the age of 60, her legacy lives on in the students and volunteers who have taken up her cause of caring for Iowa’s natural resources — resources like birds, parks, waterways and prairies.

The Cedar Rapids woman, who worked for the National Park Service for years, founded the Iowa Master Naturalists training program in 2015, a year before cancer took her life. Now, her friends and family have worked to ensure her efforts continue.

The Master Naturalists program, similar in structure to the Master Gardener program, trains volunteer naturalists, who then lend their knowledge and time to Iowa’s nature centers and county and state parks. So far this year alone, Master Naturalists volunteers have reported 1,200 hours of volunteer work.

“She was a very visionary woman,” said Elisabeth Swain, the program’s executive director. “Her board of directors and her daughters felt her legacy was this program, and they were committed to getting this program up and running.”

Swain taught biochemistry for more than 20 years at the University of Iowa. After she retired, she wanted to find a way to stay active in the community, and she fell in love with the Master Naturalists program. All of the people who keep the program running are volunteers, including Swain.

“Our mission is to educate adult volunteers about Iowa’s natural history,” Swain said. “They then commit to doing at least 40 hours of volunteer work a year.”

To become a Master Naturalist, students take 40 hours of instruction in everything from Iowa’s insects, mammals and birds to wetlands, prairies and woodlands.

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They also are required to explore the natural world each week and report back to the class what they’ve observed and learned, as well as complete a capstone volunteer project. They have done everything from restoring picnic tables in Hickory Hill Park to doing property maintenance work for the Bur Oak Land Trust to completing a financial analysis of the benefits of F.W. Kent Park in Johnson County.

Brothers Todd and Jason Rogers of Cedar Rapids completed the spring course this year and built birdhouses for Eastern bluebirds, which are native to Iowa, as their capstone project. Fashioned of reclaimed barn wood, the houses will replace older bird houses in need of repair at F.W. Kent Park.

Jason Rogers said he signed up for the Master Naturalists course in part to relieve stress from his office job as a commercial real estate broker and, in part, to honor his father, Mike Rogers, who was on the board of Jones County Central Park.

“I wanted to be more in touch with nature,” he said. “This program offers people the ability to be aware, to see what’s out there — whether it’s identifying a tree in our neighbor’s backyard or a bird or insect.”

The course didn’t include memorizing all of Iowa’s wildlife for instant identification, he said, but it did give him the tools to make an identification — what to look for and where to learn more. It also gave him the tools to take action to protect that natural world around him — knowing how to spot invasive species like garlic mustard, for example, or how to look for signs of emerald ash borer.

Todd Rogers said now that he is a certified Master Naturalists, he wants to lead outdoor field trips for kids and adults alike and plans to train as a teacher naturalist at Indian Creek Nature Center.

“I want to follow in our dad’s footsteps,” he said. “He always took us out fishing, identifying trees, birds and animals.”

For Swain, part of the mission of Master Naturalists is making sure future generations can have those same experiences.

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“I think if we don’t do something to conserve Iowa’s natural heritage, it’s not going to be here in 20 years,” she said.

Get involved

The next Iowa Master Naturalists course will start in early fall, with applications beginning later this summer. Classes are $250 for the 40-hour course. Visit iowamasternaturalists.org for more information.

l Comments: (319) 398-8434; alison.gowans@thegazette.com

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