Naturalist Certification Program

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If you are passionate about the natural world in Arizona and want to learn more about it, the Highlands Center’s Naturalist Certification Program offers a chance to learn the natural history of the Central Arizona Highlands. The program is run by Highlands Center education staff and supplemented by local professors and field experts. Classes and trips focus on the natural history of the Central Arizona Highlands and showcase local plants, reptiles, amphibians, geology, weather, ornithology, and entomology. Tom Benson, naturalist and the Highlands Center for Natural History Board President, will tell us more about the Naturalist Certification Program.

Ted Simons: The Highlands center for natural history is offering a certification program for those looking to learn more about the natural wonders of the central Arizona Highlands. Here with more is Tom Benson, naturalist and board president.

Tom Benson: I'm glad to be here. I certainly enjoyed your previous session. Very interesting.

Ted Simons: That's good to hear. Let's talk to you, though, about the Highlands center for natural history. What is that?

Tom Benson: Okay. Let me first talk about Arizona in general. When you think of Arizona we have three major regions, the Colorado plateau, we have the Sonoran desert and what geologists call transition zone, that area between the Colorado plateau and the desert, which we call the central Arizona Highlands. Hence our name, the Highlands center. You have northern Arizona museum, you have the Sonoran desert museum, now the Highlands center.

Ted Simons: As far as the certification program, before we get there, what is a naturalist?

Tom Benson: That's a very good question. That's not somebody that runs around in the morning DEW.

Ted Simons: No?

Tom Benson: No. I describe a natural as doing three things. First of all, they love the outdoors. They love to study the outdoors and how it's connected, all of the biology and the geology of the outdoors. But secondly, because they love it so much they like to share it with other people. We like to pass it on, what we know, get them inspired to do the same thing. Then finally, we encourage people to protect the natural environment as well.

Ted Simons: The certification program basically focuses I guess on the history of the central Highlands.

Tom Benson: Exactly.

Ted Simons: For those -- would you chase critters around?

Tom Benson: Yes. [laughter] First let me explain it. When you think about the central Arizona region, you got species that live up in the plateau that will come down into our area but they won't go down into the desert. You have species that live in the desert that will come up into our area but won't go up in the plateau. So we have this tremendous diversity of plants and animals and so it's exciting to be able to study and become part of that. What a naturalist does is simply hopes to when we lead walks to get people to discover what some of these wonderful diversity plants and animal species are. We're not a zoo. We don't have any cages. What you see is what lives there. That's their habitat. If you see something it's because you have stumbled upon their habitat.

Ted Simons: We're talking classes, field trips. Those sorts of things?

Tom Benson: Exactly. We have a certification program that starts in February which happens to be fully subscribed to for this year. But there's a series of eight sessions. You can still people can still sign up for those. There are eight very interesting sessions on life zones, ethnobotany, one by Linda Vogel talking about what the tribe used for food and how they survived. I have heard her talk before. She's absolutely fascinating. So it's all of the OLOGIES. Biology, entomology, that sort of thing. Anybody can sign up for that. There's -- the whole series is $145. If you want to just take one session it's $22.

Ted Simons: Again, more information at a Highlandscenter.org?

Tom Benson: Exactly.

Ted Simons: The certification program is pretty much locked up for this year. You could probably take some of these things at Highlandscenter.org and maybe you do want to sign up.

Tom Benson: Exactly. What we do as part of the certification is beyond in addition to the science series that goes then we start teaching our naturalists how to the specifics about these areas, specifics about the trail, specifics about the geology for that particular area. We try to teach more by discovery than by talking heads.

Ted Simons: I'll bet. When you have students in the certification program or any of the things you offer, what surprises them most? What do you hear from them?

Tom Benson: Well, one of the things that surprises them, doesn't surprise me because I have done it enough, but I lead walks for people that are blind, I lead walks for people that are recovering addicts. One this morning was wonderful to watch. Old people. Veterans, for example, in wheelchairs. Everybody when you get them out in the outdoor world they come away feeling a little better about things, about themselves. As well. That's something that makes it gratifying for me as well as for the person. Take a group of second graders. Out in the outdoors. Then just let them find those little Sou bugs or tarantulas. It's fun and gratifying to do.

Ted Simons: The Highland center does a lot of work with schools.

Tom Benson: Yes, we do.

Ted Simons: For the certification program specifically, when they are done what kind of reaction do you get? Did they say I didn't expect this, that or the other?

Tom Benson: First of all, you can imagine what it's like when you get people that have the same interests, you get this group together, we build on each other and we're never done. We're constantly learning from each other as well as outside sources. It's just fun.

Ted Simons: And there are guides again as far as the teaching is concerned, these are folks that will wind up guiding and leading.

Tom Benson: Yes.

Ted Simons: As far as the classes are concerned, you can do some self-guided tours and those sorts of things?

Tom Benson: We have self-guided tours. By the way, I should have mentioned this, the Highland center is a nonprofit organization. We get no government support. All of the funds that we get for running Highlands center are through private donations and memberships which is refreshing because a lot of people coming on your show are always trying how to figure out how to get some money. I'm sure you appreciate that. But we are not. We're also nonpolitical. We don't -- we'll have forums and so forth on key issues, making sure everyone gets heard. Our basic thinking is if we can get people to understand the issues, then they will make the right decisions.

Ted Simons: Well good luck on the program. Congratulations on the success of the Highlands center and thank you so much for joining us.

Tom Benson: Just a pleasure to be here.

Ted Simons: Thank you

Tom Benson:Naturalist and Board President, Highlands Center for Natural History;

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