DANIEL CLIFTON • PICAYUNE EDITOR
MARBLE FALLS — Volunteerism pays. And for organizations tapping into the expertise of the Highland Lakes Master Naturalists, it pays big time.
Last year, Master Naturalists tackled several area projects, including helping build a bird blind at Inks Lake State Park, assisting with outdoor education programs at a local federal fish hatchery and supporting trail construction efforts at area parks. When the group tallied up the number of hours volunteers put in during 2014, it came out to 16,756.
With 140 members in the Highland Lakes chapter, that averages out to a little more than 119 hours each.
“That’s a lot of hours,” chapter president Cris Faught said.
Based on federal grant reimbursement numbers, those volunteer hours translate into more than $368,000 for in-kind work.
“We’re really proud of that,” Faught said. “Of all the chapters in the state — and there are many — we’re up near the top.”
The Master Naturalists program started in 1997 as an effort between the Texas AgriLife Extension Service and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department to develop a corps of trained volunteers who could enhance natural areas, teach educational programs and act as advocates for the natural world.
To earn a Master Naturalist title, individuals must complete a 13-week training class. To keep that certification, they then must complete eight hours of additional training and volunteer 40 hours a year.
But for the Highland Lakes Master Naturalists, 40 hours is just a warm-up.
“One of our members has more than 4,000 hours (overall),” Faught said. “Volunteering — it’s a mind set.”
While some of the chapter’s members are retired, many aren’t. And Highland Lakes Master Naturalists aren’t just from one demographic.
“We’re Democrats. We’re Republicans. We come from every phase of life,” chapter vice president Melissa Duckworth said. “But we all want to give back. We all want to make this area, which we call home — the Hill Country — into a better place.”
A major focus of the group is on youth education and getting children interested in nature. The chapter holds programs at the Inks Dam National Fish Hatchery, where kids tour the hatchery and visit booths and exhibits manned by Master Naturalist volunteers.
“Specifically, the target is young children. Get them outside,” Duckworth said. “There are ‘x’ number of acres of land left. They aren’t making any more.”
So Duckworth and other Master Naturalists want youth to develop a love for nature and work to conserve it.
But it’s not all about teaching. Faught said chapter members are also builders, constructing a unique educational playscape at Blanco River State Park and nature trails, among other things. Sometimes, volunteers clear invasive plants out of areas, including along roadsides, where the non-native plants choke out native species such as bluebonnets.
“We’re always looking for other projects,” he added.
While everyone is welcome to become a Master Naturalist, the program only offers training once a year, and the current session has already started. But people interested in the program may email Duckworth at email@example.com.
It doesn’t matter if you know the difference between a water cycle and a carbon cycle. The training program and subsequent educational hours will provide plenty of information. And once you get started, the more you’ll want to know and the more you’ll want to help.
“It’s not just something you do; it’s a way of life,” Duckworth added.
Staff writer Connie Swinney contributed to this article.