BY REBECCA J. BARNABI

Across Virginia, volunteers are getting down and dirty with nature, building and maintaining park trails and collecting data about wildlife populations.

These volunteers are members of the Virginia Master Naturalist program, which has grown to 21 chapters since its inception in 2006.

The Central Rappahannock Chapter is based in Fredericksburg and has 39 members.

"We would like to have a group of trained volunteers to help in doing hands-on work of planting trees and upkeep of natural public areas," said Regina Prunty, an agent with Virginia Cooperative Extension, one of the sponsors of the program.

The Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries and the Virginia Museum of Natural History also are among its sponsors.

According to Prunty, 26 people completed the program in its first year and 13 will complete it this year to earn their state certification.

Students must complete 40 hours of basic training and 40 hours of volunteer service, and take an exam. The course takes place one night each week, with occasional Saturday field trips.

An interest in nature and natural resources is preferred. Members of the program are trained and recruited to be stewards of wildlife, plants, trees and other natural resources. Some participants gather data about birds, other wildlife and water quality in an area for scientific study.

Members must complete 40 hours of volunteer service and eight hours of training each year to maintain their certification.

Jack Green, 71, joined the Master Naturalist program in its inaugural year and volunteers at Gari Melchers Home and Studio at Belmont in Stafford County.

"We're kind of incorporating all of the aspects of Master Naturalist," said Green, of Essex County. He said he started a wildlife mapping program at the estate; it is contained in the database and tracks butterflies and birds.

Next month, Belmont hopes to open a tour of trails through the woods that Green helped to build. He said the trails will be divided into four segments, and visitors will be able to choose to tour all of the trails or certain ones during a visit.

The goal of the program is to make "something that will support the educational goals of Belmont," Green said. Belmont is owned and administered by the University of Mary Washington. Education is a big part of Belmont's mission.

Green, a Navy retiree, also retired from the Association of American Railroads as a chief communications engineer, and hopes to get more volunteers interested in helping to build new trails and give tours of the trails at Belmont. A volunteer does not have to be a member of the program.

Green is also a member of the Master Gardener program, which focuses on horticulture, landscaping and flowering plants.

Master Naturalist programs exist in more than 10 other states, including West Virginia, Georgia, Indiana and Texas.

For more information, visit the Web site virginia masternaturalist.org.

Rebecca J. Barnabi: 540/374-5426

Email: rbarnabi@freelancestar.com

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