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By Steven Ward
May 2023

Spreading the gospel of nature.

There are approximately 250 trained volunteers around the state spreading the gospel of conservation, natural resources, and environmental awareness.

How these volunteers came to provide that education to their communities is the story of Mississippi State University’s Extension Service’s Master Naturalist program.

Conservationist man explaining fish parts.The program gives adults an opportunity to learn more about Mississippi fish, wildlife, and ecosystems. In return, the volunteers provide outreach and service education to their communities. The course costs $300.  

“There was an identified need to expand the educational capabilities of MSU Extension by the dissemination of natural resource management information to people in our communities,” said Adam T. Rohnke, state program co-leader and Central Mississippi program coordinator of the master naturalist program.   

Rohnke said the program formally began in 2008 and was mostly focused then on the Gulf Coast. Today, the program is active in the Jackson area and the on the coast. 

Conservationist woman pointing to something for another group to view.“On average, we graduate 35 to 50 participants combined annually from both locations. We intentionally keep the class size to 20 or less most years to improve the overall experience,” Rohnke said.

The primary program provides training and field experiences across various topics including ecology, natural resource management, paleontology, soils, water, wetlands, as well as the study of wildlife — birds, mammals, reptiles and amphibians, insects, and more. 

Master naturalists also learn how to conduct basic research on a conservation issue and present a group project at the end of the program, Rohnke said.

Some examples of events the trained volunteers have produced include the Pearl River Clean Sweep that involves more than a 1,000 people across the Pearl River watershed in Mississippi and Louisiana removing thousands of pounds of trash from the waterway. That event was founded by Abby Braman, a graduate of the program. The Snappy Sync Firefly Soiree and Tours hosted by the Craftsman Guild of Mississippi in Ridgeland every spring involves master naturalists giving tours to hundreds of visitors to view and learn about synchronous fireflies. This program was founded by master naturalist Claire Graves. 

I’ll never forget that moment and I can honestly say those 15 people from all walks of life, professions, races, generations, political affiliations, and beliefs became one after that day in the rain.

Many other volunteers contribute to established programs such as Mississippi Museum of Natural Science educational events and participate in citizen science projects such as the Jackson Metro Urban Wildlife Project and the Mississippi Coastal Cleanup Program, where master naturalists actively participate in the collection of and help analyze data which directly contributes to peer-reviewed science.

When asked about one of his favorite parts of the program, Rohnke said he loves the “ah ha” moments that occur.

Two men in a river fishing with a large net.“We spend a day in the upper Pearl River learning about water and fisheries by being in the river for multiple hours. One year it began to pour — I mean Forrest Gump, Vietnam scene kind of rain — and all the participants started off hunching over to stay dry,” he said.

“But when we all finally realized it wasn’t going to stop, they embraced it and I got to watch adults ranging from age 18 to folks in their mid-70s completely soaked and loving every minute of it. I’ll never forget one older participant who said ‘I haven’t played in the rain since I was 11. What a refreshing and life changing moment this is. Thank you for doing this and making us brave the weather!’ I’ll never forget that moment and I can honestly say those 15 people from all walks of life, professions, races, generations, political affiliations, and beliefs became one after that day in the rain.” 

Mississippi State University Extension Service’s Master Naturalist Program.
Register for a basic course on the Gulf Coast or in central Mississippi. Complete a 40-hour course that includes class and field instruction. Complete eight hours of advanced training annually. Complete 40 hours of volunteer service annually.
For more information, visit 

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