Thirty-eight young, budding naturalists sit in a meadow while journaling and sketching their observations of the wildflowers and birds around them. They have come from various educational backgrounds to gather at the University of California Agriculture and Natural Resources' Hopland Research and Extension Center (REC) to learn about local natural ecosystems through a California Naturalist course.
Although they vary in expertise, these students share a common motivation: immerse themselves in the natural world and eventually teach others about its importance.
“The class really changed the way I view the world around me,” said Will Zuniga, a recent class participant at Hopland REC. “Now that I've taken it, I don't just see plants around me – I see stories. I understand more about the relationship that all of nature's moving parts have with each other. The class has given me more drive to learn about the world around me and to teach others as well.”
Under the UC ANR umbrella, the California Naturalist Program certifies participants through an immersive 40+ hour class delivered by one of its partner organizations, in this case, the California Conservation Corps (CCC). Aged 18 to 25 (and U.S. military veterans up to age 29) and from diverse educational backgrounds across the state, these California Naturalist students worked hard to fulfill the mission of the CCC – to protect and enhance California's natural resources and communities through education and service.
The California Naturalist Program promotes environmental literacy and stewardship through discovery and action. The program is designed to introduce Californians to the wonders of our unique ecology, engage the public in the study and stewardship of California's natural communities, and increase community and ecosystem resilience. Many other states have similar naturalist programs, but this is the first statewide program in California.
“California Naturalist training allows people of different backgrounds to come together to set what is the standard for how we talk about the sky, the ground below us, and the water that's flowing around us,” reflected Jacob Croasdale, a former class participant. “[They teach us] how to engage respectfully in a way that allows us to both receive and give back to nature.”
Although students graduate with broad knowledge of California's natural wonders, prior knowledge of the course's subject matter is unnecessary. “At first, I thought…I don't belong here. I'm just this artist - what do I have to offer?” shared Monique Wales, another former class participant. “There were Master Gardeners, geologists, biologists and people with crazy amounts of knowledge. But we all came together with such enthusiasm, and we wanted to learn from each other. It was such a fun group.”
“People who are thinking about the California Naturalist program but aren't sure that they know enough to step into something where the language is maybe more technical than they're familiar with should not be intimidated,” added Pete Devine, resident naturalist at Yosemite Conservancy. “A lot of participants are beginners and just generally interested folks. These people belong in the California Naturalist Program.”
A quick peek at the syllabus reveals many themes, field trips and interactions with local experts that culminate in the well-rounded knowledge necessary to help preserve our unique ecosystems. California has an incredibly diverse range of wildlife, habitats, rivers, lakes and coastal resources – wild and urban alike – and ecosystem and community resilience are essential.
After the course is completed, California Naturalists perform service through education and interpretation, stewardship, participatory science, environmental program support, community resilience and environmental justice. To date, certified California Naturalists, together with Climate Stewards (another component of the program), have volunteered more than 250,000 hours, worth over $7 million, in 52 of 58 counties in California.
The relationship between CCC and California Naturalist was piloted at the Hopland REC over the last two years and is now being rolled out across the state with support from the Prop 64 Youth Community Access fund. Overall, the project aims to offer three California Naturalist instructor trainings for 48 youth leaders, 24 California Naturalist certification courses for 480 Corps members, visits to or engagement with over 40 unique cultural and natural resources around the state each year, and 3,840 hours of service-learning outreach through youth-led video capstone projects promoting natural and cultural resources.
Overall (and most importantly), the California Naturalist Program allows corps members to have a solid connection to the “why” of their hard work.