In our nature

Volunteer naturalists spread enthusiasm, knowledge and love for Boulder County’s wild, open spaces

Courtesy of Sue Cass

Sue Cass is a Boulder birder with a keen interest in raptors, a master gardener with an encyclopedic knowledge of the area’s wildflowers, trees and foliage, and the matriarch of a sixth-generation Boulder Valley family. 

So, when she enrolled in the 10-week Boulder County Parks and Open Space (BCPOS) volunteer naturalist training, she remembers thinking (perhaps a little smugly, she admits) that she wasn’t going to learn much that she didn’t already know from her nearly 40 years in Boulder County.

“Boy was I wrong!” she says — it was one of the best learning experiences of her life. That was in 2001, and the learning has continued ever since. 

“Never in my wildest dreams had I imagined it would consume my life the way it has,” Cass says. “It’s been an extraordinary experience with extraordinary people.”

Volunteer naturalists, like Cass, provide hands-on environmental field experiences, leading hikes in County parks and presenting natural history slide shows for both students from Boulder County schools and the public. Volunteers pick and choose which programs they want to host, selecting from myriad different opportunities: from leading insects and tracking courses at Walden Ponds, to foothills ecology hikes at Heil Valley Ranch, the “Story in the Rocks” hike near Lyons and wetland wildlife courses. 

One of Cass’ most memorable experiences happened early in her time as a volunteer naturalist, while she was leading a group of English as a Second Language (ESL) students at Heil Valley Ranch. At the end of a wildlife presentation and hike, a student told Cass that her birthday was coming up. 

“Her grandmother was taking her to Chuck E. Cheese to celebrate,” Cass says. “But she said she didn’t want to go to Chuck E. Cheese, instead she wanted to come to Heil Valley Ranch Open Space to spend time in nature. 

“The seed we hope to plant every time we introduce young children to the wonders of the natural world had taken root.”

Cass was elated, and she was hooked on volunteerism. She’s been running naturalist programs ever since, volunteering up to five times a month. 

Besides leading hikes for school kids, Cass also enjoys using “the amazing BCPOS ‘Living Map’ in the classroom,” she says. 

She’s referring to a big visual resource for the naturalist programs that allows volunteers to illustrate the different geographic features of the County — the drainages, the mountains, valleys and foothills of the area. It’s a 3D tool to show students where different life zones are located and help hone their map-reading skills.

Naturally, as a lifelong birder, some of Cass’ favorite programs to lead are the raptor tours. When she first became a volunteer, Cass says that longtime volunteer and naturalist Jim McKee took her under his wing and got her deeply interested in Boulder’s birds of prey. He shared with her everything he knew, and today her passion for these birds is inextinguishable. 

“It was one of the greatest gifts I ever received,” she says. Now, she trains new volunteers on raptor identification and ecology. “Our birds of prey are extraordinary creatures.”

Sharing knowledge and passion is common among BCPOS volunteer naturalists, according to Cass. Most of the people who sign up have a deep interest in some aspect of nature, and have a huge base of knowledge to tap into. 

“We all share freely and openly what we know with other volunteer naturalists,” Cass says. “Extraordinary friendships are developed… I call it my second family.”

The call for BCPOS volunteer naturalists is currently open. Anyone interested in following in the footsteps of other naturalists like Cass, and sharing their enthusiasm and passion for nature with others, can now apply for 2020 on the BCPOS website. 

Prospective volunteer naturalists must complete a 10-week training course, which meets once a week, for a full day, to learn about BCPOS’ “history, mission and resource management; geology; plants and ecosystems; forestry; wildlife and birds; agricultural lands and weed management; water resources; and interpretive programming and resources.”

It’s kind of an intense training, Cass admits. But it’s well worth the time and effort, she says. 

“If you want to learn more about this Valley and Boulder County, it’s absolutely one of the best things you can do.”