Volunteers do water quality monitoring training at Wingfield Pines Conservation Area. Image courtesy of Allegheny Land Trust.

This may be your chance to become the coolest person on your hikes.

When the environmental nonprofit Allegheny Land Trust hosts the PA Master Naturalist training program, you’ll learn to identify plants, animal tracks, geological formations and more, and get certified as a local nature expert.

The Allegheny Land Trust is now calling for applications to PA Master Naturalist, a statewide initiative meant to provide volunteers with the in-depth training and skills necessary to perform high-level environmental stewardship in their communities.

“This is a really great opportunity for volunteers to widen and deepen their knowledge of our specific region,” says Lindsay Dill, marketing communications director for Allegheny Land Trust.

The intensive, months-long program has operated since 2010 throughout the eastern part of the state in several counties, including Philadelphia County, Lancaster County and Adams County. This is the first time it has traveled west.

“I’ve had my eye on it as something I’d like to do, but driving over to Philly was not applicable,” says Jessica Kester, vice president of education at Allegheny Land Trust. “Finally, PA Master Naturalist was able to find funding to bring it to this side of Harrisburg.”

She adds that the program’s focus on creating strong environmental stewards made it “a great fit” for her organization, which relies on volunteers to carry out its mission of conserving and preserving wildlands throughout Allegheny County.

PA Master Naturalist trainees are chosen through a rigorous interview process that includes background and reference checks. Applicants must also be able to pay the $400 tuition fee, which includes training, a full year of program engagement and services, and $25 for the volunteer screening.

Once accepted, participants are required to complete 55 hours of training encompassing an introductory course, volunteer service and advanced classes. The program would cover subjects such as general botany, geology and natural history. It would also focus on leadership skills and show trainees how to educate others by enabling them to better interpret what they’re doing out in the field.

A morel mushroom found at an undisclosed Allegheny Land Trust conservation area. Image courtesy of Allegheny Land Trust.

Kester says their PA Master Naturalist curriculum — which runs this spring from late March to late June — would culminate in a field trip to Sycamore Island. Located on the Allegheny River between Blawnox and Verona, the 14-acre former marina is now a thriving forest thanks to the efforts of Allegheny Land Trust, which acquired it as a conservation area in 2008.

Kester plans to work with the program’s expert educators to organize field trips to other sites around the region.

“We’re going to move the class from location to location,” she says, adding that classes could take place in a Pittsburgh park or at one of Allegheny Land Trust’s other properties.

Once trainees graduate from the program, they can volunteer with Allegheny Land Trust or with other local environmental organizations.

“Though it would be beneficial for us to have the volunteers stay with us, it’s really meant to benefit the entire region by giving the nonprofits this strong volunteer base,” says Kester. “If the volunteers find an organization that’s closer to home or closer to their hearts, they can go ahead and use the skills they learned in the training and take it to that organization.”

Want to apply to become a PA Master Naturalist? Submit your application by the early deadline of January 15, 2018 and receive a $75 tuition discount.

Amanda Waltz

Amanda Waltz is a freelance journalist and film critic whose work has appeared locally in numerous publications. She writes for The Film Stage and is the founder and editor of Steel Cinema, a blog dedicated to covering Pittsburgh film culture. She currently lives in Pittsburgh with her husband and oversized house cat.