Publication:West Central Tribune (Willmar); Date:Nov 4, 2006; Section:Outdoors; Page Number:D1

Master Naturalists explore Upper Sioux Agency State Park

By Tom Cherveny

    UPPER SIOUX AGENCY STATE PARK — Just 20 miles down the road from her home, an ancient river once flowed with so much force that it cut like a knife into the granite bones of the earth itself.

    Megan Ulrich of Renville said the opportunity to explore the geology of the Glacial River Warren first hand left her “just in awe’’ of its power. It was particularly stunning to discover this incredible geology so close to her home, she added.

    These are sentiments that Ulrich and others are experiencing every week. They are discovering the prairies and potholes ecosystem of western Minnesota as participants in the Minnesota Master Naturalist program. It is sponsored by the University of Minnesota Extension with support of the Department of Natural Resources.

    The 15 participants are devoting 11 weeks this autumn to learning all about the geology, plants and animals that comprise the prairie and pothole ecological region.

    Participants said the class has opened their eyes to natural wonders that have always been close at hand, but never really given the attention they deserve. Subjects like the glacial river that created the over-sized valley for today’s Minnesota River got little more than a mention in her sixth grade Minnesota history class, Ulrich noted.

    “It’s just helped me discover new things,’’ said Steven Moe when asked what he likes most about the program. Moe appreciates the program well enough to commute 90 miles from North Mankato to the Upper Sioux Agency State Park each week for the three hour evening class. Two participants make the weekly trip from Minneapolis. Four ride together from the Sunburg area. Others come from communities such as Clara City, Stewart and Cottonwood.

    The participants range in age from the early-20s to 70, and their occupations run the gamut from attorney to technical writer.

    No one is having more fun introducing this mix of students to the wonders of the prairie and pothole region than Amy Rager, an environmental educator with the U of M extension service. She and Rob Blair, an associate professor with the University of Minnesota, team up to offer the program. Blair helped bring the program to Minnesota, modeling it on programs in other states.

    There are 150 graduates of previous Minnesota Master Naturalist programs. They focused separately on the state’s other two eco-regions: The Big Woods, Big Rivers and the Northwoods, Great Lakes.

    This is the first to focus on the Prairies and Potholes region, and is serving as the pilot.

    The master naturalist program is similar to the master gardener program, according to Rager.

    Along with the weekly evening classes, the students read a variety of works, including John T. Tester’s widely acclaimed “Minnesota Natural Heritage: An Ecological Perspective.’’

    They must complete a capstone or volunteer project to benefit or protect our natural resources. To remain an active master naturalist, they must volunteer for 40 hours of environmental service each year.

    As it is, Rager said the program is probably about two hours shy of being the equivalent of a four-credit college course. Participants must demonstrate proficiency in everything from water-testing techniques to being able to identify 100 different prairie plants and animals. They are also encouraged to take field trips of their own to a variety of suggested destinations, such as the Red River Recreational Area or the prairie of Blue Mounds State Park.

    Some of the participants come to the program with a history of volunteering or working on behalf of our natural resources. Ulrich is an environmental educator at the Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center, for example.

    Once they become master naturalists, Rager said participants usually volunteer for a wide range of projects. Some take on water quality monitoring or join the nationwide effort to track the fate of monarch butterflies. They pitch in to help projects that benefit state parks, local parks and trails.

    “It’s fun, really fun,’’ said participant Steve Harms, who lives north of Sunburg. He and his wife, Robin Freese, enrolled in the program in part because they wanted to restore some prairie on their farm place. They felt that they could acquire some helpful information. They haven’t been disappointed.

    Freese said she enjoys the hands-on education. She also pointed out that she has learned a great deal from the other participants.

    Each week, the participants arrive to class with the excitement of people who have just learned a secret too big to keep. They exchange information about literature and web sites they’ve discovered on their subjects of interest. Some, like Virginia Homme of rural Granite Falls, takes advantage of her life-long appreciation for native prairie plants by bringing specimens she collects to class.

    At every session, there’s lots of banter and laughter as the like-minded participants discover their common interest and appreciation for the outdoor world.

    Rager said her favorite part has been the opportunity to introduce the students to sites she enjoys but are new to the participants, and to watch the excitement that follows.

    The program has featured two Saturday tours. Both have covered lots of ground. Last weekend, the participants toured a private site near Granite Falls where people 6,000 years ago hunted and butchered a now extinct species of bison.

    On an earlier tour, the participants followed a path that climbs the bluff along Lac qui Parle Lake and linked arms at what is believed to be one of the state’s largest cottonwood trees. They also hiked over the native prairie of the Chippewa prairie near Appleton, where a prairie chicken restoration project is seeing success.

    “It’s fascinating,’’ said Ulrich, who added that the experience has made her all the more eager to introduce others to the natural world.

    Repeating what might be the mantra of the program, Freese said that the more she discovers, the more she wants to learn.

Submitted photos Amy Rager, left, of the University of Minnesota extension leads Minnesota Master Naturalist participants Dan Heine and Ginger Homme of Granite Falls on a tour of the Chippewa Prairie.

Rod Blair, associate professor with the University of Minnesota, and Amy Rager, environmental educator with the University of Minnesota extension service, lead participants in the Minnesota Master Naturalist program on a hike through the Chippewa Prairie near Appleton. From left to right are Blair, Rager, and Don Landsverk of Murdock, Rod Gronseth of Sunburg, Joe Hauger of Granite Falls, Robin Freese of Sunburg and Pat Lubeck of Belview.

Minnesota Master Naturalists identify prairie plants on a recent tour. From left are Glen Jacobsen, Bird Island, Robin Freese, Sunburg, and Rod Gronseth, Sunburg.