There is a place on the north side of Milwaukee, Wisconsin’s biggest city, that has transitioned from swampy forest to farmland to House of Corrections to military barracks to a missle base then a landfill and shelter for squatters. After the U.S. Army abandoned the land in 1974, local residents campaigned against commercial development and instead championed the urban greenspace and environmental education center you can find on the site today. Havenwoods State Forest is 237 acres of land with trails for hiking, biking and cross-country skiing as well as a nature center featuring family programming and even Shakespeare performances in the summer.
Here you will also find participants from the Wisconsin Master Naturalist Program’s Volunteer Training Course. These volunteers receive 40 hours of training in geology, ecology, plants, wildlife, water, aquatic life, and human influences on natural spaces. The curriculum developed at University of Wisconsin-Extension and delivered in partnership with more than 50 host organizations like local nature centers is customized to local natural history, flora and fauna. For example, courses in southern Wisconsin may focus on prairie habitats, while those in the northern part of the state may spend more time learning about different types of forests.
Pam Pomahac, a retired medical technologist in her early 70s, completed Master Naturalist training at the partner organization Wehr Nature Center in 2017. She was looking for more background to support her volunteer post on the Environmental Commission of the Milwaukee suburb of Franklin, population 35,500. The commission hears proposals for city development that often include building on or near wetlands.
“I’m thinking ‘Oh, my — habitats, wetlands. I have a medical background, not life sciences,” Pomahac says. During the eight-week course, land and water usage came into focus. In one hands-on exercise, the instructor employed a 6’-by-6’ plastic landscape model with streams, factories and agricultural land. To demonstrate nonpoint source pollution — like agricultural runoff — into water sources, water was sprayed over hot cocoa powder that flowed throughout the model. Participants could prevent the runoff with measures like adding plant buffers. Then, they could step outside of Wehr Nature Center and see the same conservation method in play, protecting the center’s pond runoff from the abutting golf course.
Participants who complete the course are then able to volunteer, often at the instructing institution, in a variety of areas including citizen science, interpretation and conservation stewardship. Some give tours at nature centers and assist with trail clearing and invasive plant species management. Others go on to train in Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources programs that use citizen scientists to, for example, take inventories of bats or monarch butterfly populations or measuring water quality in rivers and streams. Their work helps inform land and water management priorities.
The program is a boon for environmental education and stewardship in Wisconsin. Since 2013, Wisconsin Master Naturalist volunteers have provided $1.2 million worth of value to the state through more than 55,000 volunteer hours. This public service reached 163,993 individuals throughout 51 host organizations. Over 200 new volunteers will be trained in 2018, bringing the total to 863 volunteers statewide and 100 trained instructors. The program has representation in 66 of Wisconsin’s 72 counties.
Program Director Becky Sapper from UW-Extension looks forward to welcoming new host organizations and volunteers every day. “Volunteers are motivated by different reasons but one of the things they have in common is they like to make a difference. And, Wisconsin is lucky to have an abundance of people who care about the natural environment in the places where they live, work and play. Volunteers do make a difference.”
To learn more about the Wisconsin Master Naturalist program, to become a volunteer or host organization, please visit www.wimasternaturalist.org.