Canton Township resident Jean Bear has long been interested in the natural world around her – a fascination that dates back to the first Earth Day on April 22, 1970.

“It put me in the mindset to be aware of the natural environment and what is going on with it,” said Bear.

More than 50 years later, Bear remains a steward for the environment.

For the past 20 years, Bear has volunteered for the Upper Chartiers Creek Watershed Association, an organization whose members work to protect the portion of the creek that runs through Washington County.

And, Bear was a graduate of the inaugural class of the Pennsylvania Master Naturalist Program that was held in Washington County in 2019.

The Pennsylvania Master Naturalist Program is busy planning 2022’s spring training course in Washington County, and is looking for nature enthusiasts to join their ranks.

Anyone interested in becoming a master naturalist can sign up for the 11-week training course, the first step in becoming certified in the Master Naturalist program.

Sessions will be held Thursdays from April 7 to June 23. Additionally, four field sessions will be held Saturdays.

“It was nice to learn more about nature, and to have a chance to share what I already knew with other people. It was a great way to meet other people with similar interests,” said Bear.

To become certified as a master naturalist, trainees also must complete 30 hours of community service and eight hours of continuing education during their first year in the program.

To maintain their status each year, master naturalists complete 20 hours of volunteer service and 12 hours of continuing education.

“I think some people might be a little intimidated, or think that you have to learn all this stuff,” Bear said. “You don’t have to learn it as much as you become aware of it, and what resources are available if you want to know more about it. There aren’t any tests.”

Susie Moffett, program coordinator for the Southwest region of the PA Master Naturalist Program, said the program aims to develop volunteers who will offer education, outreach, and service that will benefit the natural areas in their communities.

“It’s a great opportunity for people to spend time with other nature enthusiasts, and to connect with people or organizations in their local community who are excited and motivated to make a difference in their community,” said Moffett. “There is a lot of interest from the community in doing projects, big or small, to improve their communities.”

Service projects have ranged from habitat restoration and native plantings, to organizing nature walks, producing interpretative displays and publications on natural history, to water quality monitoring and supporting the natural resource conservation efforts of partnering organizations.

Bear’s fledgling class included 11 people, and 10 people participated in the most recent training program.

Among them were Byron and Jean Black, who live on a 90-acre farm in Canton Township, and are neighbors with Bear.

“I started out helping Jean doing water quality testing, looking for the little critters we could find in the water, which are indicators about the health of the watershed. She told us about the Master Naturalist Program, and we’re hooked,” said Byron Black. “We had a chance to do this program and it’s been wonderful. We’ve learned so much, and I have had a chance to meet a lot of folks who are also working to try and help make things a little bit better.”

The Blacks are working to restore their farm, Chestnut Farm, to its natural state and to make it environmentally friendly – removing invasive species, planting nearly 500 trees to date, installing solar panels, documenting species (using an app called iNaturalist, the couple has recorded more than 530 items on their property), participating in the Appalachian Bat Count (which helps provide information on bat population trends), and hosting visiting groups to their property.

“We started to just really pay attention to what’s going on and learn more about what we can do to be better custodians to try to help things out,” said Black. “We’re not experts on anything, by a long shot, it’s just been a lot of fun, and we’re learning a lot.”

The Naturalist program, Bear pointed out, is for everyone.

“There are a lot of people in the cities who don’t get the chance to go out and enjoy nature. Anyone can get out to enjoy nature – it can do a lot, such as reduce stress,” said Bear. “Everyone can benefit from it.”

The Washington County classes, coordinated by Washington County Conservation District, will be held each Thursday from 6 p.m. to 8:30 p.m. from April 7 to June 23, with four field sessions held on Saturdays (April 23, May 7, May 21 and June 11). For more information, visit pamasternaturalist.org, and search for training courses in the “Become a Master Naturalist” section.

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