The conference was held at the ocean's edge, with frolicking dolphins well within view.

The conference was held at the ocean’s edge, with frolicking dolphins well within view.
Image Credit: Clemson University

SEABROOK ISLAND – Leave it to Master Naturalists to refuse to take a rain check.

Despite being held just four days after a historic storm dumped about 25 inches of rain on Seabrook Island, the South Carolina Master Naturalist Program’s fourth state conference refused to succumb to the elements. Saturated conditions forced organizers to alter programs and participants to hunt for spots in flooded parking lots. But rather than put a damper on the experience, everyone in attendance seemed to relish the adversity.

“Master Naturalists are adventurous folks, so rather than stay home and skip the conference, they showed up in droves, with positive attitudes and loads of energy,” said James Blake, state coordinator for the S.C. Master Naturalist Program, which is run by Clemson Cooperative Extension.

The conference, titled “Our Living Coast: A Dynamic and Fragile World,” was held Oct. 8-11 at the St. Christopher Conference Center. There were 125 participants, 30 educational sessions and 32 presenters.

“Not a single presenter we invited to speak at the conference turned us down,” chairwoman Judith Kramer said. “This showed us how much they value the Master Naturalist program and the people in it. They were more than happy to contribute to the further education of these folks, because they’ve seen the difference they make throughout the state of South Carolina.”

To become a certified Master Naturalist, volunteers undergo a field-based training class that typically lasts 12 weeks, meeting one full day per week. They also must complete 22 hours of volunteer service and an additional eight hours of advanced training per year. The classes include extensive sessions on geology, ecology, human impacts on the landscape, and methods to conserve and enhance the natural environment.

S.C. Master Naturalist state coordinator James Blake (left) and conference chairperson Judith Kramer were pleased that the weather didn't put a damper on the activities.

S.C. Master Naturalist Program state coordinator James Blake (left) and conference chairwoman Judith Kramer were pleased that the weather didn’t put a damper on the activities.
Image Credit: Clemson University

At the recent state conference, one of the first educational sessions was an exploration of the ACE Basin, a 350,000-acre wilderness area that is one of the largest undeveloped estuaries on the East Coast.

“I got a personal high from seeing so many people from Clemson, Greenville and Columbia come to the conference to explore the ACE Basin,” trip leader Dr. Al Segars said. “The flood event actually became a teaching tool, because it showed – in great detail – the interconnection of our state’s waterways.”

Segars, who is the S.C. Department of Natural Resources stewardship coordinator for ACE Basin National Estuarine Research Reserve, said that stormwater surges from other parts of the state, including as far away as the Upstate, can have negative effects on coastal estuaries more than 200 miles away.

“Even clean fresh water can harm saltwater species such as shrimp, flounder and small crabs, which is bad news when you consider that most of our recreational and commercial value starts in the estuaries where so many creatures grow up,” said Segars, who is a doctor of veterinary medicine.

Patrick McMillan’s scheduled session to the Nemours Plantation, a 10,000-acre property in northern Beaufort County, was canceled because of the flooding. But it didn’t stop the S.C. Botanical Garden’s dynamic director from entertaining his audience with an impromptu hike and follow-up lecture at Seabrook.

“Master naturalists won’t let anything stop them,” McMillan said. “And at the conference, they were willing to sort of step back and punt and do other things. And I think everybody came away having had a really good time. They learned a lot and really showed their resiliency. Given how difficult the conditions still were in many places on the coast, it was pretty cool to see people reacting with enthusiasm and good humor instead of disappointment.”

Merle Shepard, emeritus professor of entomology at Clemson University’s Coastal Research and Education Center in Charleston, hosted a session on Lowcountry insects that focused on their richness and diversity in the coastal region.

“I particularly liked that most of the lectures had companion field trips where people learned up close how to identify ecosystems and how they are linked together to sustain life in its myriad of forms,” Shepard said. “The conference had just the right mix of people to make it a really fascinating experience.”

Conference participants refused to succumb to the elements.

Conference participants refused to succumb to the elements.
Image Credit: Clemson University

The South Carolina Master Naturalist Program began in 2000 and went statewide in 2007. There are now more than 1,500 certified graduates in South Carolina. The monetary value of their work was estimated at almost $400,000 in 2014 alone. Master Naturalists do everything from trail maintenance to assisting in nature outreach programs at parks to helping scientists collect data on animals, plants and water quality.

“Master Naturalists volunteer to educate the citizens of our state and to help manage and maintain our natural areas,” said Blake, who has been state coordinator for two years. “Our mission is to create a core of volunteers who are well trained in the fundamentals of natural history and interpretation. And they do all this out of their love of nature and also to play a role in the preservation of the natural world.”

For those who might be interested in becoming a Master Naturalist, there are six training sites throughout the state:

“The program has become so popular, some of our classes have waiting lists through 2018,” Blake said. “But when it comes to preserving nature, that’s a good problem to have.”