When Sir Francis Bacon declared over 400 years ago that "knowledge is power," he could never have envisioned the era of specialization we live in today.

Knowledge is more powerful than ever, but fewer people seem to have the intimate knowledge of plants, animals and ecosystems than in generations past. Not only do we not stop to smell the roses, we might not be able to identify even the most common wildflowers!

But one of the strengths of the environmental movement has always been a commitment to sharing the scientific and technical knowledge that helps us understand the natural world around us. Richard Stockton College of New Jersey, and other educational institutions around the state, are empowering residents to gain in-depth knowledge about nature in the Garden State so they can share it with others.

Stockton has launched a Volunteer Master Naturalist program in partnership with the Edwin B. Forsythe National Wildlife Refuge in Atlantic County. It's a 40-hour certificate program that combines science-based conservation education, hands-on field work and service programs to produce "citizen stewards of natural resources." Graduates will be well prepared to volunteer at nature centers, wildlife sanctuaries or for environmental education groups.

The Volunteer Master Naturalist spring 2010 courses and fieldwork will cover a wide spectrum of topics, including coastal ecology; environmental management, ethics, and marine and estuarine habitats. Classes meet on Wednesday nights and Saturdays beginning April 14.

Within a year of finishing the course, participants must complete an additional eight hours of advanced environmental training and 40 hours of volunteer environmental service - putting the knowledge gained in the classroom and the field to immediate work!

Find out more about becoming a Volunteer Master Naturalist or register under "Certificate Programs" at: www.stockton.edu/hshs or by calling 609-652-4227.

The Volunteer Master Naturalist program is similar to the Environmental Stewards program offered by Rutgers University at several sites around the state. Environmental Stewards receive over 60 hours of training in basic environmental and biological processes, techniques and tools. They learn about our state's environmental research and regulatory infrastructure.

The program grew out of Rutgers' popular Master Gardener program. While Master Gardeners are limited to interning at the New Jersey Agricultural Experiment Station in New Brunswick, Environmental Stewards can intern for a broad range of environmental non-profit and governmental organizations.

Full information is available at http://envirostewards.rutgers.edu/index.htm, or by calling 973.285.8308 ext. 227. Current training sites include the Essex County Environmental Center in Roseland, Duke Farms in Hillborough, Rutgers' EcoComplex in Columbus, Atlantic County Utility Authority in Egg Harbor Township and Rutgers Cooperative Extension of Cape May in Cape May Court House.

If you don't have 40 or 60 free hours to become a volunteer master naturalist or environmental steward, look around your town for one of the many environmental programs offered by local parks departments, wildlife refuges and school systems. Get out and get involved!

And I hope you will consult NJCF's website at www.njconservation.org or contact me at info@njconservation.org, if you would like more information about conserving New Jersey's precious land and natural resources.