California Naturalist
California Naturalist
California Naturalist
University of California
California Naturalist

The California Naturalist program hits its stride

California Naturalist Scott Van Tyle takes a close look at a sea kelp rootball on the beach at Asilomar.
Under sunny skies, a cool breeze blowing off the ocean at Asilomar State Beach, California Naturalist Scott Van Tyle pulls out a knife and begins dissecting a seaweed root ball that had washed up on the sand. A group of fellow naturalists quickly gather around to see what tiny sea creatures call the massive tangle home.

Similar scenes were repeated frequently during the three-day California Naturalist conference in October. The legless lizards and gopher snake brought in by a Fort Ord Dunes State Park ranger, a family of raccoons under the dining hall deck, deer browsing among the cottages and a beautiful sunset drew quick attention from participants. It is this enthusiasm that defines California Naturalists, a community with more than a love of nature, but a strong inclination toward gaining new knowledge, conserving the natural world and sharing their passion with others.

“We are in a room full of early adopters,” said Adina Merenlender to certified California Naturalists, instructors and aspiring naturalists at the conference. “It's amazing to see the seeds we planted growing into a real community. Everyone here has helped start this new community of practice.”

Naturalists Justine Faust, left, and Chris Lay with legless lizards at the California Naturalist statewide conference.
“Community of practice” is a relatively new concept that has been embraced by the California Naturalist program. Coined by Etienne Wenger, communities of practice are groups of people who share a concern or a passion for something they do and learn how to do it better as they interact regularly.

“This is exactly what we are doing,” said Merenlender, co-director of the California Naturalist statewide program and UC Cooperative Extension specialist in the Department of Environmental Science, Policy and Management at UC Berkeley.

At the conference, California Naturalists learned from world-class experts about engaging with nature and interpretation, coupling science and art, taking part in citizen science, preparing for global change, and protecting the state from invasive species. But perhaps the most important outcome was the opportunity for kindred spirits to share the weekend, forge lasting relationships and set future collaborations in motion.

“We're building a movement here,” said one of the conference speakers, nature writer and artist John Muir Laws. “We want to be strengthening ourselves. Our strength comes from the strands of the web between us.”

California Naturalists from around the state will reconvene in 2016. In the meantime, plans are being formulated to further develop the program, both in numbers and form, by reaching out to new audiences that will enhance the community of practice.

Naturalist Margaret Otto draped a gopher snake around her shoulders.
Since the program's inception, the majority of new California Naturalists have been volunteers who serve as stewards, data collectors, or as labor for restoration projects at land management, informal education, and conservation organizations in conservation organizations. The program aims to widen the scope in order to bring in naturalists with a range of skills, backgrounds and experiences.

Sabrina Drill, co-director of the California Naturalist program and UC Cooperative Extension advisor in LA County, is reaching out to the Los Angeles Conservation Corps to see if the California Naturalist curriculum can be used to enrich the training now offered to young people enrolled in the program.

“The LACC participants learn important practical skills, like how to fell a tree and how to use a chain saw,” Drill said. “They have told me they would like to provide environmental background to participants so they learn why they are thinning forests and why they are removing invasive plants. We would provide them with the environmental science context.”

Another area where the California Naturalist program is poised to grow is with organizations that connect with regional, state and national parks.

“We can work with these groups to increase capacity in resource management at parks,” Merenlender said. “Government agencies can accomplish the nuts and bolts of local operations, but they can rarely provide the scientific and environmental literacy training for staff and volunteers.”

A third initiative aims to reach out to teachers. Drill and Merenlender are exploring a host of potential partnerships that can connect the California Naturalist community of practice to children, including UC's Project Learning Tree, the long-running Forestry Institute for Teachers, the San Jose Children's Discovery Museum, and the UCCE 4-H Youth Development program.

“If teachers take part in the California Naturalist program, they will bring what they learned back to the classroom,” Merenlender said. “As a community of practice, we are committed to helping our teachers ensure youth the environmental literacy intended by the increasingly popular slogan, ‘No child left inside.'”

For more information, see the California Naturalist website.

Posted on Thursday, October 30, 2014 at 9:56 AM

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