Students of Master Naturalist program explore their love of prairie in western Minnesota

Jul. 24—WATSON — "Welcome to the most endangered ecosystem on the planet," shouted Amy Rager as she led 22 adult students down a steep hillside.

As they carefully advanced, the landscape transformed suddenly from prairie grasses swaying in the wind to the thick, waist-high foliage and squishy bottom of a fen. It's an ecosystem fed by underground water that is mineral rich and oxygen poor, making it home to some of the most hearty and rare plant species in Minnesota.

And just as they had done earlier that morning while trekking on native prairie, the students were capturing photographs and putting Rager to the test to identify the rare plants they discovered.

"Everything worth finding is worth spending the time to find," said Matthew Billings, one of the students, of this quest.

Billings is a wetlands scientist with Westwood Professional Services in Minneapolis. His job often brings him to wild locations to identify plant species in areas being eyed for development.

He signed up to follow Rager over this landscape as a student in Minnesota's Master Naturalist program for the sheer fun of it. He knows of Rager's passion and knowledge of the prairie. Being a student in this program puts him in the company of others who share his love for the outdoors, he explained.

Rager is the statewide program coordinator for the Minnesota Master Naturalist program. It was launched in 2005 by the University of Minnesota Extension and Minnesota Department of Natural Resources. It's the year Rager taught her first class. "I had a baby, did a class," she laughed. The "baby," her daughter Eliza Buchanan, was standing next to her.

The Minnesota Master Naturalist program has continued to grow ever since its start, adding instructors and classes. It offers 20 classes each year, said Rager. There are separate classes on each of the state's three different biomes under the names: The Big Woods Big Rivers, North Woods Great Lakes and Prairies and Potholes.

Some of the students who joined her last week are previous graduates of the Big Woods and North Woods classes. Greg Tuchel, of New Richmond, Wisconsin, is among them. He said he made his best friend for life, the woman who is now his fiancee, at an earlier class. "Caught her with bacon," he laughed. Fellow student Cyndi Elias happened to walk by his campsite and took him up on his offer of bacon while he made breakfast.

Each master naturalist class includes 40 hours of instruction. As a master naturalist, the graduates are expected to perform 40 hours of outdoor volunteer service and eight hours of advanced training each year.

Rager was joined by Peg Furshong in offering the Prairie and Potholes class last week at the Lac qui Parle State Park and Wildlife Area. While many Minnesotans are flocking to the northwoods to beat the heat, these students chose the open prairie. Some camped at the Lac qui Parle State Park for the week, and others booked rooms at locations ranging from the Viking Motel in Montevideo to the Prairie's Edge Casino Resort near Granite Falls. .

Enrollment in Master Naturalist classes is limited to 22 students. These students signed up for the class months ago for the chance to get in it. "This was my New Year's resolution for 2020," said Lindsey Fenner of Minneapolis.

The Prairies and Potholes class is one of the most popular, and fills fast, explained Rager.

"I'm a fanatic," said student Denise Cummings of her love for the prairie and why she enrolled. Cummings owns a small parcel of native prairie in Blue Earth County, but loves the opportunity to explore the open and treeless prairies that can still be found in western Minnesota, she said.

Minnesota has lost 99 percent of its original prairie.

"Areas like this are what are saving the prairie today," said Rager as she began her Tuesday morning class on land she described as her favorite "ditch."

It's a parcel of native prairie sandwiched between highway and railway, and as a result, was never disturbed by the plow. Rager led the students as they discovered a candy store-like list of native plants: Mountain mint, wild licorice and yellow sundrop among them.

Rager and her family live on the prairie in Chippewa County and her love for the prairie is well-known. She told her students about the time a law officer spotted her lying on the prairie and raced over to see if she was OK, not realizing she was just getting up close to identify a rare plant.

Her students were doing exactly the same, exploring the Lac qui Parle area. What matters most is what comes next. The Minnesota Master Naturalist program was launched with the goal of "developing a corps of well-informed citizens dedicated to conservation education and service."

Since its start, thousands of students have completed Master Naturalist training and are performing volunteer work on behalf of conservation.