Mastering nature: Pennsylvania Master Naturalist programs comes to Westmoreland |
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Stephen Huba

Scott Jones spent a career exploring environmental issues from the regulatory side as a hydrogeologist with the state Department of Environmental Protection. Now that he’s retired, natural resources are more of an avocation than a vocation.

“I still have a really strong interest in the environment, but I was trying to find a way to channel that,” said Jones, 65, of Bear Rocks, Fayette County.

Jones found that way through the Pennsylvania Master Naturalist program, which has been active in the eastern part of the state since 2010 but only introduced to Western Pennsylvania in 2018.

The program’s 12-week training course was first held in Allegheny and Washington counties and is now being offered in Westmoreland County.

“It’s certainly an area we were very interested in … because it’s so rich in wildlife, flora and fauna. It’s an obvious place to do training,” said Maeve Rafferty, Pennsylvania Master Naturalist coordinator for the Southwest Region.

What the program needed was a partner organization in Westmoreland County that could assist with the training. What it found was Penguin Court in Laughlintown — the former family home of the late Tribune-Review publisher, Richard Mellon Scaife, and now a preserve of Brandywine Conservancy.

Classes are held Tuesday evenings in the Penguin Court Conservatory, a three-wing structure built in the 1980s of stone and glass. It’s one of the few buildings left on the scenic 1,089-acre property. Four Saturday field trips also are part of the fall schedule.

On a recent Tuesday, the 10 class members met in the sunlit conservatory to learn about watersheds and wetlands from presenter Melissa Reckner, Penguin Court program manager.

Surrounded by a variety of plants, they came from diverse backgrounds. In addition to Jones, who specialized in abandoned coal mine issues for 37 years, they included a retired pharmacist, a Realtor, a biology professor at the University of Pittsburgh-Greensburg and a staff member at the Westmoreland Conservation District.

But to be accepted into the Master Naturalist program does not require a specialized background, Rafferty said.

“We learn from each other,” she said. “They find out through this class what they’re really passionate about.”

Jessica Kadie-Barclay grew up in south Florida, went to college in Nebraska but “fell in love with the landscape of Western Pennsylvania” after moving here 12 years ago. She now is CEO of West Overton Village & Museum in Scottdale.

“To me, going through this program is a natural fit,” she said. “I’ve just come to find how all things are interrelated.”

Kadie-Barclay, 39, of Scottdale, also is on the board of the Jacobs Creek Watershed Association and can see using her Master Naturalist training to benefit the Jacobs Creek watershed or incorporating it into the museum’s programming.

The goal of the Master Naturalist program is to build up a cadre of trained volunteers that can assist local conservation organizations or serve as environmental educators, Rafferty said.

“The heart of the program is service, giving back to the community, protecting the natural resources of the local area,” she said.

In addition to completing the 12-week course, participants must do 30 hours of approved volunteer service and eight hours of approved advanced training/continuing education in order to graduate. In their second year, they must do 20 hours of approved volunteer service and 12 hours of advanced training/continuing education.

“We don’t expect our trainees to be master naturalists after a 12-week program, but maybe they can be somewhat masters in their field through years of working in the field and years of doing more study,” Rafferty said.

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