Corps of Discovery

Mastering the natural history of Oregon's storied lands and waters - and passing it on

Mary Crow leads a hike at Rimrock Ranch for the Deschutes Land Trust. (Photo: Lynn Ketchum)

When Mary Crow paddles her kayak on Sparks Lake near Sisters, she can hear the water draining into the lava tubes below. Listening to the water gurgle, thinking about the ancient eruptions that formed Central Oregon’s porous landscape, makes her shiver with wonder and delight.

Dave Bone can’t stop talking about the wild wolves he spotted in Yellowstone Park last summer. If he tells you the story more than once — about how the pack jostled and tumbled playfully on a meadow where bison grazed, unperturbed — he should be forgiven. His awe is boundless and unabashed.

Crow and Bone are lifelong naturalists. Only on the land do they feel whole. Harvard’s Howard Gardner, author of the theory of multiple intelligences, believes this bone-deep connection to the earth is innate. He calls it “naturalist intelligence” or “nature smart.” Just as some babies are born with special gifts for music or math, Gardner argues, others come into the world with an exceptional sensitivity to nature.

It is this gift, this abiding passion, that Oregon State University’s Oregon Master Naturalist program (OMN) was designed to embrace and extend. “We are building support for wise stewardship of the environment and deeper understanding of natural resource management,” says Jason O’Brien who coordinates the program for the Oregon State Extension Service. It is one of nearly 40 similar programs around the nation.

Crow and Bone are two of the first 46 participants to complete all 80-plus hours of training for OMN, which began as a pilot effort on the Oregon coast in 2010. An online curriculum gave them an overview of Oregon’s biology, geology and ecology as well as natural resources stewardship and management.  They then met face-to-face with university scientists and other experts for classroom instruction and fieldwork in one of three ecoregions: East Cascades, Oregon coast and Willamette Valley. (Additional ecoregions will be brought into the program pending demand.)

Instruction spanned every perspective: macro to micro, flora and fauna, volcanic and tectonic forces shaping the landscape. One Saturday, the coastal participants met on the headlands at Cape Perpetua. There, Bob Lillie, an emeritus professor in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences, told them about geological phenomena like tsunamis and plate tectonics. Another time, the class convened at the Tillamook State Forest, where Frank Burris, an Extension watershed educator, and Glenn Ahrens, an Extension forester, delved into watersheds and riparian zones. Jamie Doyle, an educator with Sea Grant Extension, taught a class on Pacific Ocean fisheries and marine protected areas.

What the graduates do with their expertise looks different from place to place, person to person. One person might collect data as a citizen scientist, counting dead seabirds for COASST (Coastal Observation and Seabird Survey Team), for instance, or monitoring water quality for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife. Another person might be a guide, leading interpretive hikes for the Deschutes Land Trust. A third might opt for hands-on stewardship, planting aspen seedlings or building beaver barriers for a local watershed council. People who are less physically active might greet visitors at an interpretive center or use their skills behind the scenes designing brochures, editing newsletters or updating websites.

Hooking into an existing organization — either a natural resources agency or an environmental nonprofit — is the common denominator for all Master Naturalists, who must volunteer at least 40 hours yearly to keep their certification.

“The program leverages the time and talents of highly capable volunteers,” notes O’Brien, whose degrees are in wildlife biology and natural resources interpretation, and who is himself a fervent naturalist. “It can be a huge help to private and public organizations, especially in times of tight budgets or when professional staff can’t accomplish all the services they’re mandated to provide. It’s an embodiment of the land grant mission — serving the needs of the public.”

Rimrock Ranch

Rimrock Ranch

Guiding tours for the Deschutes Land Trust has been, for years, an outgrowth of Mary Crow’s passion for the land.
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South Slough

South Slough

Anne and Philip Matthews have explored every twist and tangle of the South Slough, which became the nation’s first national estuarine research reserve in the 1970s.
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Concord School

With a bucketful of tools and a pocketful of seed packets, Thornton attracts clusters of kids like crape myrtle attracts honeybees.
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Lake of the Woods

An Eagle Scout’s recent segue into Oregon Master Naturalists was just a logical extension of what he’s been doing for a half-century.
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