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Program led by Loyola professor brings people up close to nature

Loyola press release - February 23, 2015

Searching for a deeper connection with the community and natural world around you? Then look no further than the Louisiana Master Naturalists of Greater New Orleans Chapter (LMN-GNO), initiated by Bob Thomas, Ph.D., Loyola University New Orleans' professor and director of the Center for Environmental Communication. Loyola and its Center for Environmental Communication are the host organization for LMN-GNO, along with support from the LSU AgCenter Extension Program, Louisiana Sea Grant, and the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries.

Thomas is the founder and past-president of the Louisiana Master Naturalists of Greater New Orleans chapter, which provides certification for people who are interested in natural history and don't mind getting their hands dirty.

After filling out an application and being accepted, there is a training course program consisting of 10 workshops. Most of the workshops include field trips that allow participants to observe nature. Field trips include places such as Bayou Sauvage National Wildlife Refuge, Jean Lafitte National Historic Park and Preserve, Elmers Island in Grand Isle, UNO's Shea Penland Coastal Education & Research Facility, Northlake Nature Center, Louisiana Nature Center, and many more. The program not only introduces people to basic concepts such as biology and geology, but myriad conservation concerns as well. Participants learn how to think like a naturalist, to quietly walk trails, and listen for and identify animal sounds.

The demand is high for the program, with the limited spots filling quickly. The program is already accepting applications for Fall 2015 and Spring 2016.

Thomas said he wanted to start the master naturalist program to take to the next level what he already teaches by giving individuals certification as master naturalists. The values that the program teaches go beyond nature by teaching ethics for more informed voting decisions.

"We're sensitizing them to conservation ethics and talking about coastal erosion so that they can be better or more educated voters. We are giving them a sensitivity to nature," Thomas said.

Julia Lightner, a Certified Louisiana Master Naturalist and current president of the Greater New Orleans chapter, echoes Thomas’ sentiments and thinks there are real opportunities for people to take away a sense of how important a healthy environment is to future generations.

“I hope people take away a curiosity of their surroundings, the ability to dig deeper into issues concerning our environment and the natural world, an introduction to the public resources of Southeast Louisiana, a sense that data collection and observing nature can be fun,” Lightner said.

Greater than gaining knowledge and being educated about nature, the program has begun to create a sense of community for its members.

Aimée K. Thomas, Ph.D., Loyola assistant professor and LMN-GNO board member added “one nice component of the program is that we teach people how to ‘look’ at nature instead of just memorizing scientific names. This way, we are teaching the naturalists life-long skills that can be applied to many different ecosystems. We also encourage volunteerism in the local community by requiring at least 20 hours per year to maintain an active status.”

"There is a lot of camaraderie for people who are like-minded. People are coming together who really have similar interests and are meeting new people with whom they have interests in common. They take one of these classes and the next thing you know they are going out to dinner and going on field trips together. It's really neat and inspiring," Thomas said.

Thomas does not know what the future holds for the program, but will be content as long as it continues to educate and get people into nature like it has been doing.

"If we just continue to do exactly what we do now for the next 20 years, it will be great. We don't have to do anything new because we're getting people into nature. And if we do that, it’s perfect - we don't have to do anything more. But who knows where it will go. People just come up with great ideas all the time and if it makes sense to us, then we do it," Thomas said.

For more information, contact Bob Thomas or visit http://www.louisianamasternaturalistgno.org/.