By Alicia Squillante

Have you ever found yourself wanting to learn more about the plants and animals that call our state home, but just don’t have the time or money to dedicate to traditional college courses? The Florida Master Naturalist Program (FMNP), created by the University of Florida, might be the perfect option for you.

The program started more thanĀ  ten years ago and has blossomed in to a very rich and rewarding program. Initially the program was thought up during the 1998 Florida Eco-Heritage and national Watchable Wildlife Conferences held in Fort Myers, Florida. Many involved with the conference noted the lack of well-trained and knowledgeable people who were in positions of educating others about the plants, animals and habitats of the state of Florida. A survey of almost 200 environmental educators was given, and the results were favorable for a program to properly educate people on the flora and fauna of our state. Today there are three core modules that you can take in the FMNP. The Freshwater Wetlands module was released in 2001, the Coastal Systems module in 2003 and the Upland Habitats module in 2005.

Recently I was able to take and successfully complete the Coastal Systems module of the FMNP, which was held at Camp Bayou in Ruskin.

The instructor, Dolly Cummings, has been facilitating the FMNP class since 2002 and has been with Camp Bayou since 1999. During the class, which was held from 8a.m.-4p.m. for five consecutive Saturdays, we had open-book class time with lecture slides and videos, but we also had field trips and end-of-class presentations. The field trips were by far the best part of the class for everyone. Each class we visited a different area and learned about the habitats that thrived there. The Cockroach Bay canoeing trip was the crowd favorite. “Cockroach Bay is, by far, my favorite field trip,” said Cummings. ” We have taken that trip in every module because there is coastal, wetlands and uplands areas all within this local, very inspiring, preserve.” The group was also treated to Emerson Point Preserve in Palmetto. The next module to be offered at Camp Bayou will be the Freshwater Wetlands module, slated to be held in early 2013. VisitĀ or E-mail Cummings at


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