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Becoming a Certified California Naturalist and learning to read the landscape

Updated: May 11, 2023

Since last September, I’ve been serving with the Yolo County Resource Conservation District (Yolo RCD), which has a hand in a variety of conservation work, ranging from open space and farm edge restoration to grazing management and fire resilience outreach. I am focused primarily on the restoration side of things, and I’ve enjoyed getting to sample different projects. In the office, I am leading an effort to map the RCD’s 30 years of restoration work and assisting with outreach. In the field, I typically conduct site maintenance, map invasive species, and mentor high schoolers on hedgerow planting days.

A restoration site on Sherman Island in the Sacramento-San Joaquin Delta. Photo Credit: Zach Skalak

Coming into GrizzlyCorps, I knew I wanted to expand my knowledge of native plants and animals. As I began my service year, the RCD was finalizing plant orders to be ready for the planting season approaching later that fall. Slightly daunted by the long species lists, I started to familiarize myself with our nursery and visited several restoration sites, impressed by the RCD staff who were able to quickly identify nearly any plant present and assess their suitability for the site. I began to see how different native species could be used and combined to achieve certain restoration outcomes. At that point, learning the identification of local native plants and animals became a more concrete professional development goal, and one I could pursue by utilizing my GrizzlyCorps training hours.

Picking up a plant order from the USDA Plant Materials Center. Photo Credit: Grace Ferguson

This March, I completed the UC California Naturalist (CalNat) certification program, a 10-week course covering California hydrology, ecology, wildlife, and plant communities. Administered by the UC Cooperative Extension, this course is offered at many nonprofits, conservancies, nature centers, and similar organizations throughout the state. In my case, the program was instructed by staff from Tuleyome, a local nonprofit focused on land stewardship and environmental education. The course consisted of 10 lectures, 3 field trips, and a capstone community service project. In addition, CalNat students keep a field journal to practice species ID and make observations in nature each week.

For me, the best part of the course was the field trips, during which we logged all the species we observed and later depicted in our field journals. The first trip followed a lecture on birds, and we drove north to the Sacramento National Wildlife Refuge to put our newfound birding knowledge to the test. We took another field trip to Lake Solano County Park, focusing on plants, and rounded out the course with a hike in the Capay Valley, where we examined the gradient of habitat types from the valley floor up to the rocky hills at the brink of the Coast Range.

CalNat group photo from the final field trip, hiking into the hills above Guinda in the Capay Valley. Photo credit: Nate Lillge, Tuleyome

Looking back on the course, I realized that my experience with CalNat has been valuable in more ways than I expected. First and foremost, it helped me advance my professional development goals. In school, memorizing species lists often felt tedious and didn’t always translate well to practical field knowledge. For me, the CalNat format was more effective because it reinforced the words on a screen with guided experiential learning, and eventually my own observations. I could then take what I’d learned, apply it to my work, and be enabled to teach others as well. Now I'm a better resource for the students I mentor, and I’m better able to read the landscapes around me.

While it's true that I know more plants, birds, and other animals, I also feel a stronger connection to the lands I live and work on. Course instructor Nate did a good job of both situating the course content within the specific ecological context of the Sacramento Valley and inner Coast Range, and exposing us to the broader conservation community of the region. We heard from several guest speakers, including a land manager at a nearby UC Natural Reserve, a docent at Jepson Prairie, and a rare plant expert from the California Native Plant Society. We also discussed Tuleyome’s work with the establishment of Berryessa Snow Mountain National Monument (BSMNM), and the push for tribal co-management in key areas. This provided me with insight into an array of potential career paths and an intriguing look into the politics of local land management at a larger scale than the restoration projects I see day-to-day.

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