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Easthampton: Land Stewardship Volunteers-in-Training

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by Chris Volonte

Chris Volonte is the MassLIFT-AmeriCorps Land Steward at the Kestrel Trust for 2012-2013.

The conference room at Mass Audubon’s Arcadia Wildlife Sanctuary is filled with outdoorsy looking people, some of whom are gazing intently at compasses in their hands, lifting their heads, the compass---holders fasten their eyes on an object across the room. Slowly, they step forward, moving in synch as if choreographed by a dance master. Keeping their eyes on their targets, they walk across the room as one…reach their goal…and turn back to the group, beaming. They have successfully followed a compass bearing!

This scene took place during Kestrel Land Trust’s April 6 workshop on monitoring conserved lands. This was the first large-scale, formal training of its kind Kestrel had offered the community, and I had created it from scratch. As I planned and prepared, I was nervous. How would this go? Could I really teach beginners the process of monitoring AND introduce them to map, compass, and GPS, all in one session? Would people be confused? Would they be bored? Would we have enough time in the field?

Volunteers with maps

Volunteers at Arcadia

Volunteer w/GPS

I even made last-minute cuts to my material, paring things down to the basics. I condensed an entire section of my PowerPoint to one sentence. For map, compass, and GPS, I tied the lesson to maps we would use on our field walk and narrowed the focus to fundamental skills that could be applied right away.

Miraculously, the event came off beautifully. So many good things happened that morning. Folks snacked on a cornucopia of food arranged by Kestrel board members and immediately fell into chatting and getting to know each other. They didn’t seem to find the 9:00 a.m. PowerPoint sleep inducing. They had lots of good questions. They chatted again during break, and I was happy to overhear some of them arranging to become hiking buddies and go on monitoring visits together. I was amazed at the connections that were happening simply because we had brought a bunch of like-minded people into the same room together. During the navigation session, folks gobbled up the information on GPS, which focused on the simple skills needed to turn on the unit and view a shapefile of a parcel boundary. For many, compass use was mystifying at first, but as the lesson progressed, I could see understanding dawning in people’s eyes.

Then we headed out into the field, and it all came together. We located a parcel corner and followed the boundary using compass bearings, checking our accuracy with the GPS units loaded with parcel data. I was amazed when I looked around and saw that people were truly “getting” it! I could tell they felt empowered and excited by their ability to find their way along an unmarked boundary. Who could ask for more?

Then, the finale: the group stumbled upon a “violation” – a modest pile of trash we had stealthily put in place that morning for workshop attendees to find. I’ve never seen bigger grins brighten people’s faces at the sight of garbage. They loved it. And of course, that little pile of trash gave us the opportunity to review the steps for documenting a violation. I was a proud teacher when folks quickly recalled the three methods for documentation: take notes…take pictures…mark it on the map!

For everyone, it was a satisfying conclusion to the learning experience, and the smiles on people’s faces as they departed said it all.