Noted Louisiana natural history experts gathered at scenic Barataria Preserve in Jean Lafitte National Park in Marrero on Saturday to begin the process of certifying an inaugural class of more than 20 would-be “master naturalists.”

The workshop conducted by Louisiana Master Naturalists of Greater New Orleans Inc. was just the first in a series of nine sessions comprising the Louisiana Master Naturalist Program, also known by the acronym LMNP, sponsored by the LSU AgCenter and the Louisiana Sea Grant program.

One program goal is to teach individuals about Louisiana’s unique ecosystems.

Robert A. “Bob” Thomas, director of the Loyola University Center for Environmental Communication and president of the LMNP’s Greater New Orleans chapter, said the workshop series can accomplish even more.

“One of the biggest things in Louisiana is how to deal with coastal loss, and the average person has no concept of what that means,” Thomas said. “But people who come to a program like this — or people who have degrees in this field — have an understanding of how everything in nature is interconnected.”

The series, he said, can also help attendees learn how to make decisions that are more mindful of ecosystems.

Joe Baucum, LMNP’s Greater New Orleans chapter treasurer, said he hopes class attendees will achieve “a better understanding of the natural world and the problems that are associated with it — either natural or man-made problems — and how we can address those and make for a better natural world.”

Bob Thomas’ daughter, fellow naturalist and Loyola biologist Aimée Thomas, is a seminar leader for the LMNP. As for the program’s purpose, Aimée Thomas said, “It was based on a need for educating people who are interested in the natural history of Louisiana.”

“My goal is to help better inform the general public,” Aimée Thomas said. “By doing so, and by creating this program, we’re hoping to educate the naturalists that can then spread the message even further.”

Michael Massimi, invasive species coordinator with the Barataria-Terrebonne National Estuary Program, is also a seminar leader for the workshop series.

“I’m thrilled that we are starting up a master naturalist program in the state. I think it can only be great for fostering good environmental stewardship,” Massimi said. “I think it’s probably one of the best tools we have for environmental outreach for the general public.”

In order to achieve certification, students must attend a total of 54 hours of class, participate in a nighttime hike, and pledge to volunteer a minimum of 20 hours of service throughout the year.

“Our purpose here is education,” Bob Thomas emphasized.

“We’re not an activist group,” he said. “We’re a group of people who are expanding their knowledge of natural history and how it functions.”

“I’m learning more every class,” Bob Thomas noted. “I’ve been doing this for 50 years, but every class I learn more and more and more.”

Individuals wishing to expand their own horizons will have to wait a few months, however; the next series of master naturalist classes isn’t scheduled to begin until this fall.