Responding to Misbehavior in Nature

Photo:  FMN Janet Quinn

Article by FMN Laura Handley

With all the time we Master Naturalists spend in nature, most of us have witnessed some sketchy behavior out there. Perhaps you’ve seen a lady digging trillium from the forest floor, or kids pulling the wings off insects, or young lovers carving their initials into the smooth bark of a beech tree. What are we to do in such a situation? Do we cringe and walk on, averting our eyes from the misbehavior? Are we obligated to jump in and put a stop to it?

Thankfully, not the latter. As Master Naturalists, we have no duty to act when we see someone messing with nature. We also have no enforcement authority, so we’d have no more standing than any other passersby to tell someone to stop what they’re doing. And unlike park rangers, we’re not trained to enforce park regulations. Our training includes many best practices for observing nature and moving through natural areas, but it doesn’t cover the rules that apply in any particular area. Rules can differ quite a bit from one park system to another: an activity that’s banned in one place might be perfectly fine elsewhere. (For instance, the Fairfax County Park Authority is adamantly against foraging for edible plants, but Sky Meadows State Park in Fauquier County allows visitors to gather small amounts to be consumed within the park, and some national forests even allow commercial harvesting with the right permit.)

What we are trained to do is understand nature and share our knowledge with others. And most misbehavior toward nature is rooted in a lack of either knowledge or empathy (which often arises from knowledge). It’s safe to assume that if someone makes the effort to visit a natural area, they value nature and wouldn’t want to ruin it; they often just don’t know that what they’re doing is bad, or bad enough to make a difference. And so our best response, when we see someone doing something that looks harmful, is to start a conversation and see if we can advise them better. (Of course, we should always be careful when approaching strangers; some people can get belligerent when questioned. Use your best judgment, and remember that it’s not worth risking your safety to intervene.)

A good way to start the conversation is with a friendly, open-ended question: “What are you doing there?” Give the person a chance to explain what they’re up to. It could be that you caught them at the worst-looking moment of something innocuous, such as trampling vegetation while trying to retrieve a lost ball. It could be that they don’t know they’re doing harm, such as by walking off-trail or collecting wild seeds indiscriminately without a plan to ensure those seeds germinate and thrive. It could even be that they think they’re helping when they’re actually doing harm, such as by killing bugs that pose no threat or cutting down native vines from trees. Or–ideally–it could be that they know exactly what they’re doing and are going about it in a legal and environmentally responsible way, such as foraging the berries of an invasive plant to keep that plant from spreading, or collecting a small sample of a local ecotype of a native plant to add to their garden in place of a nursery-grown strain from out of state. (I hope this last option becomes more common as people become more aware of ecological issues and the many productive interactions we can have with our local ecosystems!)

Once you’ve established a rapport with the person, and once you’ve learned what their goals are, you can help them find a more ecologically sound way to meet those goals. If those kids are feeling bored and destructive, you could steer them away from the poor innocent bugs and toward an invasive plant that needs removal. The trillium-gathering lady might not know that most woodland wildflowers require the soil chemistry and mycorrhizal symbionts of the forest floor; once she learns those plants will almost certainly die if transplanted elsewhere, she’d probably take your suggestion to leave them be and look instead for native plants that would thrive in a garden (especially if you point her toward resources and retailers like Plant NoVA Natives and Earth Sangha). And if the lovers want to memorialize their relationship, instead of scarring an older tree, why not plant a young one that can grow along with their love? In an ideal situation, everyone can leave satisfied; if not, at least the culprit will know better and you’ll have done all you can to share your knowledge and encourage better stewardship.

While you’re talking, I wouldn’t brandish the Master Naturalist credential to convey authority, but it’s not a bad idea to mention the program or the resources on our website, especially if the person seems interested in learning more. Who knows–maybe you’ve found a new applicant for the next Basic Training!

Roving Trail Naturalist opportunity at Huntley Meadows

Huntley Meadows Park
3701 Lockheed Blvd.
Alexandria , VA 22306
Eight hours per month for one year
Contact Halley Johnson (Outreach & Volunteer Coordinator)

Do you love nature and getting outside as much as possible? Do you want to share that excitement with others? Join the Huntley Meadows team as a Roving Trail Naturalist!

Volunteers will work independently on Huntley Meadows trails. They will have access to biofacts and educational supplies to help support their engagement with visitors. Roving Trail Naturalists will engage with visitors of all ages and background to increase awareness and appreciation of Huntley Meadows’ resources.

Volunteers should have a passion for nature and a desire to learn more. Strong communication and people skills are a must. Patience with all visitors and a willingness to coordinate with staff required. Experience in informal education a plus, but not required. Ability to stand/walk for up to 4 hours carrying a backpack. Volunteers must attend division orientation and complete required training. There will be on the job training as well. Applications due by January 1, 2020. This position will require a background check.

Using Service Learning and Citizen Science as a Meaningful Context to Teach Plant Science, a talk Nov. 17th

Green Springs Gardens
4603 Green Spring Road, Alexandria, VA
Sunday, 17 November 2019
1 – 4pm

Join the Potowmack Chapter of the Virginia Native Plant Society at their annual meeting with speaker Dr. Peter Mecca.

Dr. Mecca will describe some of the science-learning opportunities available to students at George Mason High School in Falls Church, Virginia. For example, every fall and spring, Mason students assist National Park Service Staff at Shenandoah National Park to remove invasive plants along the Appalachian Trail. In addition, Mason students are leaders in urban agriculture through traditional gardening (raised beds) and alternative gardening (hydroponics, FarmBot) methods. The presenter will share information about a potential new learning opportunity for students – a citizen science experience in Puerto Rico.

Dr. Peter Mecca has a Ph.D. in Curriculum and Instruction and Ecology from Pennsylvania State University, an M.A. degree in Environmental Biology from Hood College, and a B.S. degree in Secondary Education – Biology from Penn State. He has served as a public school teacher, science education consultant, administrator, and a university faculty member. Prior to his current position, Dr. Mecca was the Instructional Systems Specialist for Science with the U.S. Department of Defense Schools. He is a member of the National Association of Biology Teachers, the Virginia Association of Science Teachers, the International Technology and Engineering Educators Association, and the Council of State Science Supervisors and was awarded the Conservation Education Teacher of the Year by the VA Association of Soil and Water Conservation Districts.

Volunteer opportunity: Wildlife program for children at Lorton Church

Photo by Barbara J. Saffir (c)

Victory Temple
7218 Lockport Place, Lorton, VA
Tuesday, 16 July 2019
6-6:45 pm OR 7-7:45 pm

If you love sharing nature with kids, this is for you!

This is a nature program for kids with the theme “In the Wild.”  Your choice – just insects or native insects, reptiles and amphibians.  Hidden Oaks Nature Center (7701 Royce St., Annandale, VA) provides materials, animals and (if desired) script. Project includes transport and set up of materials. Audience will be 30-40 children, grades K-6.

How to lead a bird and nature walk, Apr. 6th

Location TBD
Saturday, 6 April 2019
9 am – 12 pm

Do you love birds? Wildflowers? Frogs? Fungi? Some other aspect of nature? Do you ever think you might like to share that love with others in an organized way, but are not sure how to do it? If so, this workshop will answer a lot of questions and give you good tips on how to be a successful leader. Some time in a classroom setting and will be followed up with a walk to practice what you’ve learned. Register here. Limited to 15 students. $10 Audubon Society of Northern Virginia members/$15 non-members.

Instructor: Dixie Sommers has been an Audubon member since 1986 and became a serious birder after moving back to the Washington area from Ohio in 2006, adding to her long interest in nature photography and travel. She is an avid e-bird user and enjoys using photography to help learn the birds, and sharing her photos. In addition to favorite places in Virginia, her recent birding travels include Alaska, Cuba, Ecuador, Ohio, South Florida, Antarctica, and Argentina. Dixie lives in Alexandria, Virginia, and retired from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics after a long career of counting jobs and workers. Now she counts birds!

2018 Annual Report from Fairfax Chapter of Virginia Master Naturalists

Each year, our chapter submits a record of what our members have accomplished to the Virginia Master Naturalists home office in Charlottesville, VA. This year, we recorded 12,569 hours across 137  citizen science, education, and stewardship service projects, in addition to chapter administration.

As Past President Michael Reinemer recounts, numbers alone convey neither the dedication of our volunteers nor the outcomes of their work. Those results of these hours, so generously given, include bird counts and surveys, maintenance of bluebird houses and trails; installation and monitoring of nest structures for Purple Martins; stream monitoring; outreach to school children; education on native plants; citizen science efforts to collect data on wildlife populations, native plants, pollinators, and other natural resources; work with partners such as Earth Sangha, Northern Virginia Soil and Water, Fairfax County Parks; and many more.

The report itself is available in its entirety.

Fall/winter service opportunities at Hidden Oaks Nature Center

Photo by Barbara J. Saffir (c)

Hidden Oaks Nature Center

7701 Royce Street, Annandale VA

Flying Squirrels Gliding in Tonight

Saturday, 8 December 2018

6:30-8:30 pm

Assist a naturalist in calling in these amazing night gliders and looking for flying squirrels at roosting boxes near the nature center. Teach families how to encourage flying squirrels to visit their yards. Contact Fiona Davies, [email protected]. Record hours as E110: FCPA Nature Programs. In the contacts field, record the number of people attending the program.

Office for Children Outdoor Play in Fall/Winter

Saturday, 15 December 2018


Assist naturalists in educating up to 50 child care professionals in sharing nature with preschoolers and outdoor play during fall and winter. Contact Suzanne Holland, [email protected]. Record hours as E110: FCPA Nature Programs. In the contacts field, record the number of people attending the program.

Visitor Information Desk

First and third Saturdays of the month, 12-5 pm

Greet visitors and orient them to the exhibits, park and programs. Answer natural history questions for the public.  Contact Fiona Davies, [email protected].  Record hours as E111: FCPA Nature Center Visitor Information Desk. In the contacts field, record the number of people you talk to.

Ongoing Needs
Assist naturalists in leading scout merit badge classes.  Scout programs are typically held on weekends.  Programs are generally held inside the nature center and frequently include a trail walk.  Sample topics include Environmental Science, Mammal Study, Reptile & Amphibian, Sustainability.