Naturalist program grows to 5-town area

BRISTOL — The ecological brain trust in Bristol, Lincoln, Monkton, New Haven and Starksboro is about to get a little bigger and a little more knowledgeable.
The Vermont Master Naturalist (VMN) program, which has for two years offered in-depth training in local natural history to Burlington residents with a sustained interest and background in at least one natural history discipline, is expanding its offerings to the 5-Towns, as well as to Richmond, South Hero and Williston.
Once trained, the new master naturalists can help their local communities make the most of their natural resources, according to VMN officials. In Burlington they have organized an art-hop event, put up signs to help interpret resources and acted as conservation volunteers.
VMN Executive Director Alicia Daniel has taught for 30 years in the University of Vermont field naturalist program and is known as Burlington’s de facto naturalist.
In deciding where to expand the program, Daniel identified Bristol Cliffs, the gravel pits, the Waterworks Property and Monkton’s Raven Ridge as local sites with distinct natural histories worth exploring.
“Each location has its own stories of place,” she said.
Ten people have already been accepted into the 5-Town program, said VMN organizer and Starksboro resident Chris Muncie — including at least one person from each of the five towns.
“Our program will tell the unique story of our area, focusing on its rich geological and cultural history and its flora and fauna,” Muncie said. “We’ll have five day-long outings to different sites, led by experts in different fields, spread out over the year. Our goal is to create a group of naturalists with a deep understanding of the local natural history to act as a resource for our communities.”
There are Master Naturalist programs in nearly every state. Daniel formed and launched Vermont’s pilot program in Burlington in 2016.
VMN alumni have reported overwhelmingly positive experiences with the program.
“The wealth of knowledge in my group was incredible,” said Jacob Holzberg-Pill, a Burlington resident and self-identified naturalist who participated in Burlington’s pilot program two years ago. “I think connecting to the natural world and to each other is the most important work we can do. The more we can share our passion and curiosity about nature while learning in a supportive community, the better life will be.”
Those enrolled in the 5-Town program can expect “to spend a number of weekends out in the woods, learning from Alicia and community members about the place where you live,” said Katie Michels, who also completed the Burlington program.
Michels, who works for the Vermont Housing and Conservation Board in Montpelier, added that one of her favorite things about the program was learning a new vocabulary.
“I pay attention in a different way,” she said. “When I know the names of the different components that make up the landscape I am looking at I can appreciate them more.”
Upon completion of 30 hours of training, VMN students will design team projects in collaboration with local organizations with the goal of addressing specific needs in conservation education and stewardship.
Kate Kruesi, a Burlington retiree and “botanist with big-picture leanings,” hopes for her VMN project to work with the Burlington Wildways Coalition on interpretive signage for several Burlington Parks, an effort that would describe significant natural communities, including rare plants, fauna and wildlife corridors, and the human footprint, “which may not be immediately obvious.”
Expanding the VMN programs to additional towns is important, Kruesi said, because “we can start learning how interconnected our stories are and what piece our ‘place’ has in the bigger, longer, unstoppable story happening around us.”
Holzberg-Pill, Michels and Kruesi all have favorite “stories of place” from the program.
“I loved seeing images of the geology that underlies Burlington,” Michels said. “We looked at old maps that show there is a huge ravine under the downtown that we’ve filled in.”
Holzberg-Pill’s favorite story involved the one-time Champlain Sea.
“Lake Champlain often feels like an ocean, and it’s incredible to think that the lake used to be part of the Atlantic and that there are still plants and animals that remain as a legacy of that lake’s incredible history,” he said.
Kruesi, too, was fascinated by the Champlain Sea.
“My favorite was imagining how high the Champlain Sea or Lake Vermont or the glacier or the sediments would have been above my head,” she said.
Daniel said the trio provides an example of what can happen elsewhere.
“The Burlington projects are not the real story,” said Daniel. “The real story is: People are still engaged. People got new and better jobs. Three went and trained to become conservation volunteers. Once you link them together they ignite a fire.”
The application deadline for the 5-Town program has been extended to July 30. The fee for the yearlong training is $395, but there are scholarships available.
Field trips will take place in September and October 2018, and January, March and May 2019. Candidates will also attend three or more public walks and other natural-history events during the year.
Those interested in learning more or applying may contact Chris Runcie at [email protected] or Alicia Daniel at [email protected].
Reach Christopher Ross at [email protected].

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