two people bend down to look at a stream in the forest

Field Naturalists aren't really generalists — they're specialists in integration. Our curriculum, while it covers the fundamentals of natural history such as geology and botany, emphasizes the complex ways that these landscape "layers," including human history, interact to create ecosystems. We train naturalists who, dropped into an unfamiliar patch of land, could tell its story stretching back thousands of years.

Simply understanding the landscape is not enough, however. Students craft their writing and public speaking skills throughout the program, practicing many different styles to reach many different audiences. Field Naturalists strive to forge the link between scientists and the public. And we don't do all the talking; we listen to and learn from people in communities where we work. We bring open minds and objective analysis to develop solutions that work for people and places.

Using these skills, students develop a master's project in consultation with a partnering conservation organization such as a land trust, federal or state agency, or municipal parks department. Each project meets a demonstrated need of the organization, ensuring that the work will be used. Field research spans the summer of the first academic year. By the end of the two-year program, each student will have produced a professional report for the sponsoring partner and a popular article or journal publication.

Partner with a Field Naturalist

A Sample of Recent Sponsored Projects

hills in the Oregon desert with red lichen-covered rocks in the foreground

Grassland Restoration Models for the High Desert

Invasive cheatgrass is spreading across the intermountain west, disrupting ecosystems by outcompeting native grasses and providing a fine continuous fuel for larger, hotter, and more frequent fires. In 2022, Dylan O’Leary traveled to the sage steppe of southeastern Oregon where he worked with The Nature Conservancy and Oregon Desert Land Trust to develop a restoration plan for 500,000 acres of public and privately owned land heavily impacted by this exotic annual. He developed methodologies for interpreting satellite-derived cover maps of perennial and annual grasses in ways that lead to conservation action. Dylan surveyed hundreds of vegetation plots to determine the accuracy of the cover maps, then produced four mixed-model geospatial layers to address the likelihood of restoration success. Dylan is a Rangeland Science and Technology Transfer Specialist at Oregon State University.

chestnut flowers on a tree against a blue sky

Restoring Chestnut Trees to Tribal Reserve

The Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians (EBCI) is mounting an effort to restore the American chestnut to their forests—a once-common eastern tree decimated by the chestnut blight of the early 1900s. Jaime Van Leuven spent the summer of 2021 trekking through Tribal Reserve in southwest North Carolina, looking for mature chestnuts. Jaime's report for the Tribe’s Natural Resources Department documents the history of the project, community outreach efforts, the layout and composition of their new American chestnut orchard, and the locations of the flowering trees she found. These trees may be used for cross-pollination to help breed offspring with blight resistance or to indicate places within Tribal Reserve where American chestnut seedlings may thrive as part of restoration efforts. Jaime is continuing her work with EBCI on American chestnut through an ORISE Fellowship with the U.S. Forest Service.

a huge, magnificent, lime-green luna moth

Moth and Butterfly Conservation in the Pine Barrens

The Ossipee Pine Barrens in New Hampshire is an ecosystem uniquely adapted to fire, characterized by pitch pine, scrub oak, poor soils, and throngs of rare moths and butterflies. To maintain this globally rare ecosystem type, The Nature Conservancy uses prescribed burns. Sarah Lindsay spent the summer of 2021 surveying for Lepidopteran species, designing a protocol to explore possible correlations between species richness and burn history. She set traps to capture night-flying Leps and collected 15,101 individuals representing 513 species. With this data, she provided presence/absence information for 19 state-listed Lepidopteran species and investigated patterns associated with land management within the preserve. Her research builds on half a dozen past FN projects at the Ossipee Pine Barrens, on topics ranging from endangered birds to invasive beetles. Sarah is an Environmental Protection Specialist at Zion National Park.

a green salt marsh stretching to the horizon

Understanding Shrinking Salt Marshes

Maine’s salt marshes have been marching inland for thousands of years, their platforms of peat growing taller to keep pace with slowly rising seas. But with seas rising faster under climate change, salt marshes are now in danger of drowning. Sponsored by the Maine Natural Areas Program, Grace Glynn developed a rapid assessment methodology in 2019 to measure the integrity of these imperiled coastal wetlands, with the goal of creating a statewide reference catalogue of salt marsh condition as a conservation tool. She put her new assessment method into practice at two dozen sites along the Maine coast, piloting new soils-based metrics in order to quantify physical degradation of peat. These metrics will continue to be used to identify marsh-restoration and management needs into the future, as coastal ecologists work to help salt marshes keep their peat platforms above the rising waters. Grace is Vermont's State Botanist.

railroad bridge running over a river

Community-Based Conservation in the Northeast Kingdom

The intersection of a river and a retired railroad in Greensboro Bend, VT, represents an ideal of conservation, where people and ecology are equally considered. Underserved populations are not uncommon in Vermont. Statewide, 44 percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunch. How can we integrate marginalized populations into Vermont's progressive conservation agenda? In 2018, Lauren Sopher did so by applying the pillars of just conservation: work that is ethical and effective. Working with the Greensboro Conservation Commission, she paired community meetings, one-on-one interviews, and town-wide events with a landscape analysis. As a result, conservation recommendations were published in the Greensboro Town Plan. The best practice for conservation work is a partnership that includes a community. Lauren is the Lake Champlain Basin Program Grants Manager for the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources.

a corky-barked black ash tree rising into the canopy

Monitoring Imperiled Black Ash

The emerald ash borer is an invasive beetle that kills ash trees, first detected in Vermont in 2018. Black ash is a cultural and ecological keystone species of deep importance to many Indigenous peoples of northeastern North America, including the Abenaki. The tree also regulates hydrological regimes and nutrient cycling in forested wetlands. To better understand the community connections, distribution, and current condition of black ash in Vermont, Charlotte Cadow worked with the Vermont Urban and Community Forestry Program on research and outreach. In the summer of 2022, she established long-term plots in forested wetlands on state lands, generating baseline data to monitor changing forest dynamics and inform future management of black ash. Charlotte works in native plant restoration for The Nature Conservancy and the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative in Jackson Hole.

a Clark's nutcracker perched on a branch

Citizen Science in the Wind River Range

The raucous squawks of the Clark's nutcracker may not be musical, but they can call adventurers to action. In 2016, Anya Tyson launched a citizen-science partnership with the National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) to investigate the habitat preferences of this seed-dispersing bird in Wyoming's western mountains. With user-friendly materials, face-to-face trainings, and accordion performances, she taught wilderness instructors about the crucial link between Clark's nutcrackers and the imperiled whitebark pine. The lesson came with a mission: each of us can contribute to conservation through our observations. Using the summer's successes and pitfalls as landmarks, Anya crafted a series of best practices to guide the field of citizen science deeper into the backcountry. Her article appeared in the journal Citizen Science: Theory and Practice. Anya is a Sage-steppe Conservation Specialist with The Nature Conservancy in Oregon.

a tree in a meadow

Landscape Restoration in the Champlain Valley

Long ago the Champlain Valley was blanketed by trees — vast, dynamic jungles of southern hardwoods and hemlocks, rooted in thick lakebottom clay. From this rich clay, Vermont's agricultural tradition also flourished, but the Valley Clayplain Forest today covers less than 10 percent of its pre-settlement range. In 2018, Chris Schorn, working with The Nature Conservancy, analyzed the success of Vermont's first clayplain forest restoration project at the Hubbardton River Clayplain Forest Preserve in West Haven, VT. In a landscape with a 350-year heritage of agricultural use, planted seedlings struggle with depleted soils, competitive non-native haygrasses, and root-girdling rodents. Overcoming these barriers means redoubling efforts, recrafting strategies, and redefining restoration. Chris is the Director of Land Conservation and Ecology at the Midcoast Conservancy in Maine.

ginseng plants

Stopping Poachers in the Blue Ridge Mountains

Most police departments don't have a resident botanist. But at Virginia's Shenandoah National Park, where poaching threatens populations of American ginseng, plant protection is a top law-enforcement priority. Prized in traditional Asian medicine, ginseng is now globally endangered due to centuries of habitat loss and overharvest. In 2017, Maria Dunlavey helped prevent Shenandoah's ginseng from going the same route. She resurveyed ginseng populations, mapped the history of ginseng poaching in the park, and prepared a comprehensive ginseng field guide as a resource for rangers. Through it all, she enjoyed grappling with the practicalities of backcountry law enforcement, along with the cultural and ecological history of a plant that's been knitting hemispheres together for more than three centuries. Maria is a botanist with the U.S. Forest Service at Nantahala National Forest.

a remote camera photo of a coyote about to pass thru a culvert

Wildlife Road Crossings in the Pioneer Valley

In western Massachusetts, three road crossings and one cramped culvert might stand between a bobcat and its next meal. Working with The Nature Conservancy and MassDOT in 2017, Andy Wood collected data to pinpoint places for wildlife-friendly road upgrades. He camera-trapped mammals, measured culverts, and scoured the asphalt for roadkill — all the while tweaking survey methods for future citizen scientists. The upshot: smart infrastructure linking the Green Mountains of Vermont to the Hudson Highlands of New York. Andy is a Habitat Protection Scientist at the Vermont Department of Fish and Wildlife.

a river running through a marsh

Protecting Forest in the Atlas Timberlands

In 2016, Vermont's second largest timber holding went up for sale. The Atlas Timberlands comprise nearly 26,000 acres of forest which had been owned for 25 years by The Nature Conservancy and the Vermont Land Trust. But although the land change hands, the ecologically uncommon sites remained protected by conservation easements. Hannah Phillips spent her summer traversing the Atlas lands in search of these sites — recording bear-marked beech and bog orchids, creeping Chrysosplenium, and forest seeps. She emerged with an appreciation for the role our "common" hardwood forest plays in sustaining Vermont's tradition of working lands and with a fondness for black ash. Hannah is the State Lands Administration Program Manager at the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation.

close-up of Florida Torreya needles

Saving the Endangered Florida Torreya

Only a handful of Florida Torreya — a spiky Christmas-tree-like cousin to the yews — have reproduced successfully in the wild since the 1960s, and their extinction is likely without human intervention. A new conservation seed orchard, managed by the Sarah P. Duke Gardens in central North Carolina, aims to help. Katherine Hale traveled to wild and cultivated Torreya populations in Florida, Georgia and North Carolina to learn what the trees would need to be fruitful and multiply in a landscape a thousand miles north of their historical range. Armed with field observations and GIS data, she found the best possible location for the orchard and designed a plan for its construction and upkeep. Although it will take at least a decade for the orchard to mature, the next generation of Florida Torreya was planted out in 2017. Katherine works in the communications department at the Duke Gardens.

For more master's project reports, check out back issues of Field Notes.

Field Naturalist Program logo - graphic of layered landscape


First Fall Semester

Fundamentals of Field Science (PBIO 6230)
Field Botany (PBIO 6690)
Field Naturalist Practicum (PBIO 6110)
Professional Writing (PBIO 6330)

January Term (optional)

Winter Ecology (PBIO 5990)
Tropical Botany

First Spring Semester

Landscape Invntry. & Assmnt. (PBIO 6240)
Professional Writing (PBIO 6340)


Master's Project field season 

Second Year

Master's Project - report for sponsor
    and other deliverables (PBIO 6392)
Professional Writing (PBIO 6350 & 6360)

More information about degree requirements can be found in the University Catalogue.