South Burlington’s Red Rocks Park; PHOTO: Sophie Mazowita

Mazowita Brings the Vermont Master Naturalist Program to South Burlington

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Thursday July 26, 2018

The list is impressive. Red Rocks, Wheeler Park, Underwood, Potash Brook, Muddy Brook, East Woods, the UVM Horticultural Farm, and the Great Swamp. These are just a few examples of the natural areas of beauty in South Burlington. Resident Sophie Mazowita is passionate about these wild spaces and the wild species that inhabit them. She notes an especially remarkable recent arrival, “A pair of peregrine falcons - once endangered, now a recovering species - just fledged five young at Red Rocks Park, a record for the state!”

Mazowita is sharing her passion with the arrival of the Vermont Master Naturalist Program (VMNP) starting in the city this September. The program, which enjoyed a successful two year pilot in Burlington, will offer professional training to a team of nature enthusiasts looking to enhance their understanding of the city’s rich natural heritage. Mazowita is the coordinator.

Mazowita knows what she’s talking about. Not only is she a professional naturalist and program director at Crow’s Path in Burlington, she lives near Red Rocks Park and knows it intimately, describing her backyard as a connection to habitat that’s home to foxes, coyotes, deer, fishers, otters, and more. While in grad school, Mazowita studied the park as part of her master’s project in the University of Vermont’s (UVM) Field Naturalist Program in 2012-13. Working with the South Burlington Recreation and Parks Department, she wrote a natural resource inventory and management study of Red Rocks Park. In addition, she drafted interpretive panels for the new City Center Park and in 2014 wrote the management plan for Red Rocks. This knowledge base, combined with her enthusiasm and passion for all the outdoors has to offer, will be part of the upcoming VMNP, as Mazowita will be one of the teachers on hand.

The program, which is accepting applications through August 15, features a series of five field trips to key natural areas. VMNP candidates will explore the processes that shape a landscape and learn a timescale for the major events that have created the landscapes seen in South Burlington today. Spending time on each site, reviewing the geology, soils, plants and animals, and human land use history, participants will also discuss the conservation history and management issues relevant for each site.

“We have some natural [animal] communities and particular species in South Burlington that are significant on a state-wide level, plus there’s a lot that we still have to discover,” says Mazowita. “At a time when we are losing open space rather quickly to housing development, it seems critical that we better understand our city’s natural heritage, so that we can make more informed decisions about how to balance natural resource conservation and development.”

The naturalist program is seeking six to ten participants, but possibly could take up to 12. Those interested apply to the program by completing an online application. Upon acceptance to the program, candidates pay a one-time enrollment fee of $395, which covers the cost of materials, instructors and a support team. Significant scholarships are available to offset the registration fees.

The program is looking for candidates that represent a diversity of experience and knowledge base, so that the group members can learn from one another. In regard to the past two years in the Burlington pilot program, Mazowita says, “We’ve seen applicants in their twenties through their seventies. There are students recently out of college, retirees, and people of every age in between. Some come with a particular interest and background in some aspect of natural history, like birding or surveying for rare plants, while others have a more broad, general interest. We’ve seen public school teachers, parks and rec staff, outdoor educators, environmental nonprofit staff, as well as people in completely different lines of work who are passionate about nature and conservation. Curiosity is the most important thing, and a desire to learn the many parts of the landscape and how they integrate.”

The Burlington program was founded and led by naturalist Alicia Daniel, who has taught UVM’s graduate-level Field Naturalist Program for 30 years. Mazowita explains that Daniel wanted to apply the same framework and approaches to reading the landscape at a municipal level, essentially bringing graduate-level natural history training to the public in each of Vermont’s cities and towns. Mazowita became involved by supporting the program from the beginning, serving as a resource for Burlington Master Naturalist students, particularly around large mammal habitat and wildlife tracking. “Alicia approached me in fall 2017 about the possibility of expanding the program to South Burlington. I’ve known her since my time in the UVM Field Naturalist Program in 2011 to 2013, and she continues to be a friend and mentor. I was excited about the possibility of expanding the Master Naturalist Program to my home city and across the state.” Plans are in the works for further program expansion in Bristol, Richmond, and South Hero with the goal of eventually reaching all municipalities state-wide.

Indeed, Burlington’s naturalist program has been an accomplishment that has sowed seeds for the future. Mazowita shares, “To me, the big success has been the community built amongst the Master Naturalist candidates. Even after completing the program, they continue to spend time together and collaborate on field walks and natural resource planning initiatives. The community volunteer projects have also been a highlight. One group of Master Naturalist candidates hosted a storytelling event and art show as their volunteer project for the program, which really helped to build connections to Burlington’s natural areas beyond the scientific lens. Another group investigated the overharvest of ostrich fern fiddleheads in the Burlington Intervale and educated stakeholders about sustainable harvest practices.”

Mazowita says the goal of the South Burlington program is “to cultivate a corps of city residents who are ‘literate’ in the natural history and conservation values of their local landscape and, through them, to connect even more people to what’s special about our environment. There are many people in our city who appreciate forest lands and open space, but a Master Naturalist will understand the difference between a red maple swamp and a limestone bluff cedar-pine forest, and what that signifies.”

South Burlington has plenty of compelling and varied landscapes to offer a budding naturalist. From the quartzite cliffs of Red Rocks Park to the Great Swamp, a large forested wetland that lies across several private land parcels, between Spear and Dorset Streets south of Nowland Farm Drive in the southeast quadrant, VMNP says the diversity underfoot gives rise to over a dozen natural communities, resulting in an abundance of rare plant species. In addition, Potash Brook and Muddy Brook serve as wildlife corridors for bobcats, coyotes, otters, beavers, deer and foxes that either pass through the city or live here year-round. Mazowita reports, “There was a recent black bear sighting in the southeast quadrant, so one thing we will examine is how to maintain connected open spaces for large animals like bears who may not live in South Burlington but may pass through when dispersing to a new habitat.”

In addition, the program’s master naturalists will learn to “read” the landscapes of South Burlington and gain a city-wide understanding of the conservation values of these wild lands. In the winter and spring, they will apply their knowledge to volunteer projects addressing local land stewardship and conservation education needs. According to VMNP, this could include connecting local school kids to natural areas through field trips or curriculum, hosting public field walks or events, mapping natural communities or wildlife corridors, or highlighting areas of greatest conservation need.

Mazowita, currently in her second year on the South Burlington Land Trust Board, says, “I spend a lot of time thinking about nonhuman creatures and how they don’t have a voice when it comes to city planning decisions.” In this vein, she began and continues to work on the South Burlington Mammal Tracking Project, which aims to identify wildlife habitat and corridors, most recently working with a group of UVM senior interns.

Meanwhile, Mazowita’s focus is on the VMNP, cultivating budding naturalists right here in her own city. She says, “I’m really looking forward to building community around nature connection and discovering more of South Burlington. I still have so much to discover.”

For more information about the Vermont Master Naturalist Program in South Burlington, visit or contact Sophie Mazowita, 802-825-8280, Deadline for applications is August 15.


SOURCE: Carole Vasta Folley, The Other Paper