Oregon State University Extension Service’s Oregon Master Naturalist Program received the 2022 Program of the Year award from the Alliance of Natural Resources Outreach and Service Programs, an international professional development organization.

The award recognizes an especially innovative ANROSP member program for its unique, cutting edge, risk-taking educational programming, according to Jason O’Brien, statewide coordinator of the OSU Master Naturalist Program.

“I’m proud that the Oregon Master Naturalist Program was recognized by professional peers. This award reflects the dedication and hard work of many people,” said O’Brien, who is chair of the organization’s membership committee. “It takes countless partners and the amazing OSU Extension colleagues I work with to make the program what it is today.”

O’Brien, who earned a master’s degree in human dimensions of wildlife biology from Iowa State University, said the mission of the Oregon Master Naturalist Program is to enhance a sense of place and increase knowledge about and connection to the natural environment for all Oregonians. The program provides transformative, science-based, experiential learning in outdoor settings, and encourages service that protects and supports ecosystems and community wellbeing in Oregon.

When O’Brien launched the OSU Master Naturalist Program in 2009, it was the first in the country to develop and utilize an online course, which has been completed by 770 people since 2011. Certified Master Naturalists must also complete a 40-hour field course focused on one of Oregon’s ecoregions and provide 40 hours of volunteer service. To date, 251 individuals are certified and have collectively reported over 77,000 volunteer hours.

The program relies on a small group of OSU Extension faculty to build local relationships that are crucial to create and offer the program to Oregonians.

“Combined, our efforts tell the story of place in Oregon,” O’Brien said. “Every region in Oregon has a distinct natural resource story to tell.”

O’Brien points to Ann Harris, Open Campus Education Coordinator, for starting a Master Naturalist Program in the Columbia River Gorge.

“She convened conservation groups, educators, partners in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, which has a unique ecology, to create a field course with these collaborators.,” he said. “They developed a program called A Sense of Place where people live, work and play. It’s been a well-received and successful program in the Gorge.”

The team also includes Jamie Doyle, assistant professor of practice in marine resources; Rachel Werling, program coordinator of the Land Stewards program in Jackson County; and Alice Phillips, program coordinator in 4-H Youth Development in Washington County. Each has developed innovative and locally relevant programming to serve their audiences.

The Master Naturalist program is a model for programs in other states. For example, Utah State University adopted a similar online course. Since 2012, the program has used Ideal-Logic to track participants progress and volunteer service. The University of Wisconsin, The Ohio State University and the University of California Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources each now use the same system.

O’Brien is no stranger to awards. In 2014 he received the OSU Division of Outreach & Engagement Vice Provost Award for Excellence and has been chosen for the OSU College of Forestry Dean’s Award, among others.

~ Kym Pokorny