It's easier to call yourself a master if someone else gives you that title.

More than a dozen students will be able to call themselves "master naturalists" once they complete a course this fall with the University of Illinois Extension Service-La Salle County.

The Extension first offered the course last year. Sign-up was strong again this year, said Steve Malinsky, county extension director.

Steve Dullard of Mendota said he was prompted to sign up when he read a story about the course in the NewsTribune.

"Wow, I'd really like to do that," Dullard said.

Coursework tied several disciplines in the natural sciences with human land uses, instilling a conservation ethic, Dullard said. It taught students "to be better stewards of our environment," he said.

The 40-hour course included classroom sessions and field trips. It also required 30 hours of volunteer work. To log volunteer hours, Dullard joined fellow Master Naturalist student Tim Goodrum of Princeton planting trees this month on an Illinois River island.

"If you like drinking water, this class is for you because everything ties in together," Goodrum said.

The course is for everybody, he said.

"There isn't anybody, from a grandma to a young student, who wouldn't be interested," Goodrum said. "From a city soccer mom to a backwoods jack, it's for everybody."

Dullard is a scoutmaster with a Boy Scout troop in Mendota.

"I just wanted to be better educated so I could pass that information on to scouts," Dullard said. "I have made so many good contacts that I can take our Boy Scouts to."

Ruth and Jim Ballowe of Ottawa already had strong ties to the natural world. Ruth Ballowe, 73, has worked for The Nature Conservancy and Morton Arboretum.

"We were interested in discovering areas that maybe we hadn't seen before and meeting people who were interested in bird watching and outdoor activities," Ruth Ballowe said.

Jim Ballowe, 75, professor emeritus at Bradley University, Peoria, wrote a biography that's out this year on the life of Joy Morton, founder of Morton Arboretum. Ballowe has taught at The Field Museum in Chicago.

"It's just a brush up course," he said. "I wanted to get into some of the basic stuff."

Dullard, 48, is a veterinarian and already had some knowledge of mammals. The course filled him with new knowledge about trees and wetlands, he said.

"It's been extremely valuable as far as appreciation of nature," Dullard said. "We have learned so many things in this course."

Dullard said schools teach kids about animals and the natural world, but it sometimes has no connection to their local, present-day environment.

"Our children know more about dinosaurs than they do about the animals in the current environment," Dullard said.

Goodrum, 37, is a contractor. In 2005 he started a habitat restoration business that helps private landowners. The Master Naturalist course helped him understand the necessary components of a healthy landscape.

"If I make these specific habitats over here, the wildlife will come around," Goodrum said. "The hunting community has an awful lot of land and these areas can be appreciated with some habitat re-establishment."

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