Master Naturalist program connects people to environment, community

The program, which enables community members to work with the parks department, started in 2009.

Bellevue’s Master Naturalist training program is offering an opportunity for residents to learn from park rangers.

For about a decade, the free program has sought to give residents of Bellevue and other cities a hands-on opportunity to be involved in how the area maintains, assists and works to restore the existing natural environment.

Park ranger Laura Harper, who co-runs the program with park ranger and environmental programs coordinator Curtis Kukal, said one of the reasons the master naturalist program began in 2009 had to do with a need to have highly-trained volunteers helping with parks work. It was also desirable to give community members “deeper” volunteer opportunities that weren’t being offered at the time.

“It provides an opportunity to give back to their communities and learn more about what’s around them,” Harper said.

Since its inception, which has entailed expected evolutionary changes, the program has usually been structured as a multi-step process. After a person’s application is accepted, they go through a weeks-long training course during the first quarter of the year. Once the course is completed, volunteers work with park rangers on ventures like nature hikes, canoe tours and wetland monitoring.

“It’s a conduit for especially Bellevue citizens to get involved in their park system in a very meaningful and on-the-ground way,” Kukal said. “You’re actually working with your hands in the soil with the parks department. It gives people a way to engage with their community.”

This year, the application packet, which must be completed and returned by mail postmarked by Nov. 30. Though it isn’t required that applicants hail from Bellevue, prospective naturalists from the city are given priority over someone who is not.

The first-quarter training sessions are slated to last from Jan. 23 to April 9. They will be hosted at the Mercer Slough Environmental Education Center on Tuesday and Thursday evenings, from 5:30 to 8 p.m. Holding training sessions at night is a fairly recent development for the program. According to Kukal, meeting times were changed to better accommodate folks with kids and day jobs.

“It’s kind of a sweet spot because you can come home in time to put the kids to sleep and have dinner with them and still be a working person,” Kukal said.

In 2020, Harper, who plans for and then puts into motion trainings (Kukal recruits and then manages volunteers), said training sessions will cover ecological concepts, geology, environmental education and interpretation training and a multi-layered wildlife series. Applicants also can expect to learn more about habitat restoration, climate science and the history of Bellevue’s ecology. Field trips are typical.

Once the sessions are finished, volunteers are expected to complete at least 100 hours of community service to Bellevue’s Natural Resource program within two years. Currently, one project the master naturalists have taken on in the city is tackling ecological restoration for a handful of sites. Other opportunities include helping lead Ecological Friday and Stewardship Saturday community events, assisting with environmental programming at the three visitor centers run by park rangers, embarking on smaller-scale restoration projects and, in the summers, working in the Canoe the Mercer Slough program, during which master naturalists guide tours.

Kukal joked that the parks department doesn’t act like a police force if the allotted amount of time isn’t finished — an applicant simply won’t receive a certificate.

“We totally understand that people’s lives are complicated and there are all sorts of change,” he said.

But those who complete the 100 hours at the end of the two-year period receive a certificate and in-person honor from the mayor and city staff on Earth Day. If someone goes beyond the 100 hours, they receive what’s referred to as a Heron Award.

Kukal said there are no required characteristics to find success as a master naturalist.

“People come with all amounts of knowledge in this program,” he said. “Even if folks are enthusiastic but don’t have a large knowledge base, this is a program for them.”

One of the things Kukal and Harper appreciate most about the program is how enriching it can be for participants.

“People have this big aha moment of both learning what’s there that they didn’t know about, and, two, the profound challenges that the environment faces,” Kukal said.

“You can see the pride as [trainees are] walking through the forest and able to identify the majority of the plants they’re passing, or listening to a bird call and knowing what that is,” Harper said. “Seeing that is really rewarding.”

For more information about the program, go online to the city’s website (