Before graduating as Master Naturalist interns, we had one last subject to ponder: what’s the best way to promote environmental stewardship and influence conservation ethics in the world and society we live in? Eric Freyfogle is a law professor, author, and expert in environmental land use and conservation economics; he shared ideas with our class about the challenges we all face together.

A major cause of ethical gridlock in America is the misunderstanding that all problems can be solved though innovation or that social decisions can be made using scientific data alone. Science can only determine the way things are but it has no tools for choosing what changes should occur, what the best results are, or what direction we should go in. Being a Naturalist is about becoming an observer, admirer, and participant in the natural world, but it takes an active citizen with ideas for promoting a healthier world, participating in an ethical social debate, so we can decide together what should be done, what standards to set, and where to focus our efforts.

As an individual you may choose to be vegetarian or I may have a favorite bird or flower I’d like to see more of, but since we are interacting regularly with each other and are in constant contact with our environment, conservation ethics needs to be about how to solve problems as a society, both globally and locally. We do this by setting standards, crafting effective laws and regulation, limiting the destruction of valuable natural resources, and promoting healthy diversity in our world. Through policy, we decide together how to interact with all the factors, whether they are: wolves, wild turkeys, homes, pipelines, air pollution, fragile wetlands, capitalist corporations, or creeping spiders … they are all important parts of the whole and should be considered in how we choose to care for our world and each other.

Dr. Freyfogle leads a yearly lecture series, with the Institute for Sustainability, Energy, and Environment, at the U of I. Since we had so much fun learning together at the weekly Master Naturalist classes, we may pick a year to learn more about environmental ethics and how to convince our representatives and the businesses we frequent to help us keep our planet and community healthy.

After that last classroom lecture, we donned our bug-adorned mortar board caps and lined up for the graduation precession ceremony. It was entirely adorable, there were bubbles and noise makers and people with funny nature hats. We were handed our certificates and I was really proud of what we had undertaken all of these weeks.

I had gone into the course thinking it would answer so many questions about what we had experienced out on the trail, but it really just opened up an entire world of more questions and areas to learn about in depth. That’s pretty great, and I am so looking forward to all the new things on our horizon.

As a group we then enjoyed a bountiful potluck with amazing treats and sat around to socialize while we still had the opportunity. We were seated with our friend Anne who had been hearing about our hikes and wanted to join us on our local outings. We arranged a time, and she popped up and announced to the room that if anyone wanted to join us to just email me! And that is officially how the Master Naturalist Hiking Club began. A small group of us hike together every Wednesday morning and it has been magnificent. If you follow Arbor’s and my Instagram accounts, you’ve probably seen photos from those excursions already.

Between our volunteering, our hiking club and Master Naturalist continuing education, we won’t be deprived of any new friends or learning opportunities! ~Tau