OAK HILL — In the spirit of environmental stewardship, members of the New River Gorge Master Naturalists teamed up earlier this fall with representatives of the West Virginia Chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation to plant 17 certified American chestnut trees on property at the Oak Hill schools complex.

The planting is the initial step in the formation of a demonstration arboretum for the local schools.

“The chestnut trees will be part of an ongoing effort to reestablish the tree that once stood tall among the West Virginia hills,” Keith Richardson, chapter coordinator of NRGMN, said. “These trees will be monitored and used as stock for future plantings.”

Among those who took part in the planting in addition to Richardson were Dr. Lewis Cook, a member of NRGMN and the ACF; Robert Sypolt, representative of the West Virginia ACF; Geoff Heeter, Fayette County Education Fund president and coordinator of the New River Bird and Nature Festival; and Rick Sypolt, retired forestry and surveying instructor at Glenville State College.

The local Master Naturalists chapter, which is about three years old, operates an official partnership with the state chapter of the American Chestnut Foundation.

“They come in for us and do classes about the chestnut blight and plight of the forests and we provide a volunteer force,” Richardson said.

“The American Chestnut Foundation will come and do education training for any Oak Hill High School class on request.

“This is a partnership coming to fruition.”

Richardson said he and the others who worked to plant the first trees in the developing arboretum hope they “will produce nuts that will withstand the blight.” (See related story.)

The Master Naturalists chapter operates partnerships with a number of other groups, including the Fayette County Schools system in conjunction with the arboretum, and is in the process of forming still more agreements to fulfill its mission.

According to the West Virginia Master Naturalist program’s website at www.mnofwv.org, “The mission of the West Virginia Master Naturalist Program is to train interested people in the fundamentals of natural history, nature interpretation, and teaching, and to instill in them an appreciation of the importance of responsible environmental stewardship. The program will also provide a corps of highly qualified volunteers to assist government agencies, schools, and non-government organizations with research, outdoor recreation development, and environmental education and protection.”

Richardson said his initial interest in the organization came because it focuses on the broad spectrum of environmental issues.

“One of the things I’m trying to do is pull groups together that are focused on the betterment of the environment,” he said earlier this week.

“There’s so many organizations that are concerned with and focus on the same type of things — environmental education, environmental awareness and stewardship.

“This is the perfect organization to pull all those together.”

Nine Master Naturalist groups are in operation in the state. Richardson believes the New River Gorge chapter is the youngest.

A prospective master naturalist must complete 64 hours of class work and field work as well as 30 hours of approved volunteer service.

To become a Master Naturalist, the state group offers an established curriculum of classes an individual must complete “but I like to offer other classes that are needed to address problems in our area and still get in the classes needed for certification,” Richardson said.

Among the classes offered this year by the NRG chapter were Microsoft Excel, Fireflies, Wildflowers, Birds, Trees, Mammals, Ecology, Urban Forests, Orienteering: How to Use a Map and a Compass, Habitat Improvement, Nature Photography and Wetlands.

The NRGMN has about 35 members, Richardson said, but added that more are always welcome.

To learn more about the local chapter, visit www.newrivergorgemasternaturalist.org or the group’s Facebook page.

Email ckeenan@register-herald.com; follow on Twitter @Fayette_Cheryl

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