What's it like to be a naturalist?

Naturalists often answer as many questions about their career as they do about wildlife. Here, Minnesota State Parks and Trails naturalist Retta James-Gasser sits down with a student to talk about her job. At the time, she was a park naturalist based at Gooseberry Falls State Park, in northern Minnesota.

Photo: Retta James-Gasser
Retta James-Gasser, Naturalist

Is it fun to be a naturalist?

Oh yes! It's the best job I've ever had. Sometimes I feel as though I'm just a big kid. Basically, the only things that I don't consider fun are doing the administrative functions, or having to be the "first response" to emergency situations.

What kinds of things do you do for your job?

As a year-round state parks and trails naturalist—sometimes also called an interpreter—I have the opportunity to meet and talk with a lot of people from all ages and backgrounds. Some of these people come alone or with their family or friends, while others come as part of a school, college, or community group.

My main duty is to help visitors learn about the area's natural, historical, and cultural resources through interpretation and appropriate recreational opportunities. I do this in two ways: by directly talking with the people (called personal interpretation), and by creating displays, exhibits, handouts, brochures, signs, or other forms of communication that do not involve me talking with the public (called non-personal interpretation).

At Gooseberry Falls State Park, we have just under one million visitors per year, and most of them come in contact with what I do one way or another, which also makes my job very rewarding!

I get to work both outside and inside while doing a wide variety of duties.

Being a naturalist isn't a good career for anyone looking for a nine-to-five job. The job description clearly states it is a seven-day operation, and involves some weekends, evenings, and holidays.

What is your typical day like?

Almost every day is different. As a naturalist, some days I am a teacher (conducting talks, walks, and demonstrations highlighting area resources), a writer, a researcher, a graphic artist (designing non-personal interpretation), a photographer, or a historian...just to name a few!

I am also involved in park and trail resource management, working with the local communities, and providing technical assistance to other agencies. I love the diversity of my job! Most tasks require creativity.

As an experienced naturalist, I have the freedom to plan my own day and make decisions about the types of programs and activities to offer the public. My supervisor, Paul (he's the park manager), offers guidance and sometimes must grant approval, but he generally trusts my judgment.

Do you like being a naturalist?

Yep-a-roo, I wouldn't trade being a naturalist for almost anything else in the world!

What training do you need?

Most naturalists have a college education in the natural sciences. To be a state parks and trails naturalist, you need a college degree and some experience.

In my case, I started out as a volunteer naturalist until I was hired as a part-time naturalist at a nature center, and then I worked my way up to being a program supervisor and director. Finally, I was hired as a seasonal state park naturalist and then eventually as a year-round state parks and trails naturalist.

I must mention that in addition to training, a person couldn't be a good naturalist without truly enjoying working with lots of different people all the time! This is a basic prerequisite—the love of working with people—since they are the ones with whom you will be sharing your knowledge.

Is it fun working with all those people?

Yes, this is one of the main reasons why I truly enjoy my job! Most people who visit the park are in a fairly happy state of mind, which makes working with the public fun for me.

Have you seen any wild animals?

Yes. I've seen animals that are fairly common like birds, deer, and rodents, but I've also seen less common critters like foxes, coyotes, fishers, martens, black bears, ring-neck snakes, and even wolves. Other times I just get to see their tracks or other signs of their presence

I have to admit that seeing even the "everyday" common animals still thrills me, and I am often surprised by some of their behaviors.

Some of the animals that visitors see at Gooseberry Falls State Park appear to be tame, but they are all truly wild animals.

Why did you decide to become a naturalist?

It kind of picked me. I always loved being outside, and I've loved animals since I was a little kid. When I grew up, it just became the natural thing for me to do. It's in my blood, so to say.

How much money did you make at first and how much do you make now?

Hmmmm....I didn't go into this field for the money. One of my naturalist friends put it this way: "Do you want to drive a Lamborghini or some other fancy, expensive car? If so, don't become a naturalist!"

Seriously, I started out as a volunteer making zip, zero, nada dollars. Then I was hired as a part-time naturalist and made around minimum wage until I gained more work experience.

The current salary range for a state naturalist with the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources is around $12 to $29 depending upon experience.