— Amy Rager knows some of the best spots in Minnesota.

She’ll even share global positioning system coordinates or lead a hike, if that’s what it takes to introduce someone to the state’s natural wonders. As director of the Minnesota Master Naturalist Program since its 2005 inception, Rager has had a hand in equipping thousands of volunteers to introduce others to the natural world.

Among volunteers’ more unusual projects: Exploring herpetology (study of amphibians), mapping railroad lines, and providing an interpretive trail through a tamarack swamp.

The University of Minnesota Extension-run program promotes understanding and stewardship of the natural environment through a corps of well-informed citizens dedicated to service and conservation education.

Volunteers logged more than 478,000 hours from 2005 through 2016.

In 2016 alone, 730 volunteers logged 82,775 hours.

The nerd herd, Rager’s two daughters affectionately call them.

The prairie woman, Rager’s colleagues call her.

On 25 acres near Montevideo, she raises chickens and a couple of calves and pigs, tends a garden, and cans her own food. She and her husband are converting a summer kitchen into an Airbnb. She forged ahead with work while her older daughter, now a college freshman, underwent leukemia treatment. She cares for her mother, who recently had a stroke.

“Work is a little bit of a refuge for me, because it’s the only place in my life where I can sort of be in charge,” Rager said.

Rager grew up in Hermantown, playing outside with the neighborhood kids from dawn to dusk. Her first job was at nearby Jay Cooke State Park. After a year as a long-term substitute teacher, she became a 4-H agent, and has worked with University of Minnesota Extension ever since.

She’s based at the University of Minnesota-Morris, but often makes the three-hour drive to the Twin Cities. Rager carries a camera wherever she goes, and stops whenever she sees something interesting.

Sometimes it’s a patch of tiny white orchids blooming in the ditch. Sometimes it’s a snowy owl perching on a pole.

Through iNaturalist, she shares those finds with an online social network. Rager is typically ranked among iNaturalist’s top 10 contributors. As of Dec. 22, she’d made 902 observations and tallied 329 species.

During a conversation at Lac qui Parle State Park, where she’s taught Master Naturalists about the prairie potholes biome, Rager, 49, discussed her love of the prairie, what it takes to get adults outside, and some of her favorite places.

Following are edited excerpts:

On appreciating the prairie

The prairie holds tons of secrets. And people don’t know. They all want to go to Duluth on vacation, but they’re missing the other part of the state. They should all be coming here and checking out what they think is grassland.

I do feel like it’s really overlooked. It has as many cool things as the North Shore. The plant diversity here is incredible.

Visually, I think August is the most appealing time on the prairie. The grass is just starting to bloom, and then it turns to that blue-green, and then it’s going to turn to orange quickly.

On the most underrated places in Minnesota

Scientific and natural areas. They’re there for a specific reason and they protect a specific resource. They really have a lot of the hidden gems in them. They’re unmanicured. They don’t have specific trails. Sometimes they don’t have parking. You’re going to be tromping through the grass, not on a trail, looking for a specific feature that may not be easy to find. So it’s a little bit of a challenge, like a treasure hunt.

On specific sites worth a visit

Locally, Swedes Forest SNA. It’s here in the prairie but it has the granite outcroppings. That’s really old rock. It has potholes worn into it by the glaciers. Skinks live there. The diversity is really, really incredible. It’s a well-kept secret. There’s cactus. It’s lovely.

The Big Stone National Wildlife Refuge outside of Ortonville. The wildlife loop, if you get out of your car, there’s ball cactus that’s extremely rare. It has a beautiful bloom in the spring.

On barriers for adults

When you’re raising children, your children are the focus of your life. I think that’s what’s actually happening, not that people don’t care. I think we have to make it easy for them to access things. I think sometimes we have to have some technology that they can use, because people are so attached to their device.

On using iNaturalist

Some people keep life lists of birds. I can have a life list of everything I’ve ever seen because it’s on iNaturalist. It’s geo-tagged so it’s got (latitude and longitude). It’s time-stamped so I can always go back and check the weather. All that stuff feeds into a database that scientists have access to. Real people are contributing to meaningful science through iNaturalist.

On the naturalist program’s next 12 years

We want people to continue to want to take our classes. We want to be able to feed the people we’ve already started here, continue offering advanced trainings and opportunities for them to learn and grow, and connections with the university. Volunteers like to be connected to researchers. They want to feel like they’re making a difference in Minnesota. And I feel like that’s something our program really, honestly gives them.


Ann Wessel is a St. Cloud-based freelance writer and photographer, on Twitter at @AnnWessel.