Defenders of the Wild
Arkansas Master Naturalists keep The Natural State Pristine
By Kendrell D. Collins
Arkansas is a “nature lover’s playground” according to naturalist Dave Leisure, president of the Northwest chapter of Arkansas Master Naturalists.
Leisure said he and his team of volunteers want to inform Arkansans about native plants and the beneficial impact they have on the environment. That’s part of what Arkansas Master Naturalists do.
The Arkansas organization, founded 13 years ago, now boasts nearly 700 members divided among its seven chapters throughout the state. Its mission is to assemble a strong core of volunteers who are educated about the environment and ecosystems of Arkansas.
Arkansas Master Naturalists can ascend through three levels of mastery: Naturalist in Training, Master Naturalist and Certified Master Naturalist. Master Naturalists complete 40 hours of training during springtime in a range of areas, including how to identify trees, plants, mammals and reptiles. They also learn about various Arkansas ecosystems as well as the state’s geology.
“[Volunteers] do anything from building hiking trails for the state parks to working with organizations that provide educational programs for people of all ages,” said Ken Leonard, immediate past president for AMN’s board of directors. “Each chapter is doing different things, depending on where they are and what’s going on in that area of the state where they’re located.”
Chapters partner with organizations to preserve and conserve the state’s fish and wildlife. Volunteers clean up, monitor and adopt portions of streams as part of AGFC’s Stream Team program. Leonard said the state agencies that do environmental work need volunteers because of the enormity of the tasks they undertake compared to their budget.
Dave Leisure’s chapter has nearly 300 members, 91 of whom completed AMN’s educational program last year. Members also maintain a greenhouse and host native plant sales from season to season.
Most members are 60 and older, so the group is focusing on making itself more visible to a younger generation.
“We do have younger folks in the chapter, but I can tell you that our demographic is largely an older population,” Leisure said. “We have a huge interest by younger people [but] there are so many things to attract their attention.”
That said, Leisure voiced concerns over getting more Arkansans involved in conservation work because of the difficulty in recovering a damaged or disappearing ecosystem. Ultimately, the Arkansas Master Naturalist tagline of “keeping The Natural State in a natural state” is a nod toward sustaining the environment for posterity’s sake.
“It’s better to conserve what we have than to try to rebuild something after it’s gone,” Leisure said. “We want to work on the front end in the area of conservation and preservation so that we maintain not only for our generation and for this moment, but The Natural State for generations to come.”
For more information or to join your local chapter, visit arkansasmasternaturalists.org.