Monday, June 11, 2012

In Support of Nature Education...Naturally

I have the good fortune in my position to oversee a grant program that helps support the state park naturalist positions in our ODNR-Division of Parks and Recreation.  In exchange for this funding, the naturalists have to devote half of their programming to wildlife and wildlife-related topics.  Seems like a no-brainer, right?

I attended the All-State Naturalist meeting last week and was very glad to see a lot of folks I hadn't seen in several years, and a lot of new faces.  Due to budget constraints, this all-naturalist meeting had been reduced in size and scope the last couple of years.  I was very glad to see it brought back.  I think these folks need some dedicated time to network and interact with each other.  They were able to bounce ideas off of each other on topics like starting up a geocaching program, dealing with various ages of kids at their programs, drumming up attendance, and interactions with their local community.  I can say, without reservation, that this is a dedicated, passionate and fairly under appreciated group of people.  They are often the face of that park, the go-to person for issues, complaints, suggestions and more from the park patrons and the surrounding community. 

So, why would the ODNR-Division of Wildlife support naturalist in their sister agency?  Because it's a good investment for the Division of Wildlife.  These naturalists probably number around 50 across the state, but compared to the 8 full time education staff in our agency, they reach thousands more people per year than we ever could.  Many years, they reach well over 200,000 park attendees with wildlife-related programs each year.

Why is this a good investment?  With today's public spending less and less time outdoors and growing more and more disconnected to wildlife, park naturalists have a natural opportunity to help their patrons learn more about the nature around them.  A camper, while likely an outdoor enthusiast already, may not have a good base of knowledge about the wildlife and the quality habitat that is around their campgrounds, homes, and parks.  And, whether it's the roaming naturalist with an owl or snake that talks to the campers, or the naturalist that conducts the regular Saturday evening night hike, or the naturalist that helps the community do an annual creek clean-up, these small, intimate contacts with nature are often the ones that spark the enthusiasm, interest and desire in children and adults to participate in nature even more.  Whether it's simply wanting to learn more about what they are seeing on the trails, or wanting to learn how to take a fish off of a hook, park naturalists are in a unique position to have a real impact on creating a positive experience in nature.

So, the next time you visit an Ohio State Park, seek out the naturalist and thank them for their passion, time and effort.  And tell them I said hi and thanks too!