Naturalist Spotlight: Dick Clayton

What do you do? 

My main responsibility as a park naturalist is to develop educational programs for families, schools and other organizations. I also design and create signs and “non-personal” exhibits. Non-personal exhibits range from brochures, displays and outdoor exhibits that are self-explanatory, meaning they don’t require a guide to explain them. These are usually found on interpretive trails. I also do a lot of public relations with area media including providing articles for newspapers and magazines as well as interviews on the radio. 

Another aspect of my job is resource management. I do what I can to improve the wildlife habitat. One way we do that is through plant surveys.

How did you become a Park Naturalist?

I’ve always had an interest in the outdoors, so when I went to college at Mankato State University, I majored in Biology and Park Recreation. While I was in college, one of my professors asked me if I wanted to intern as a park naturalist. I said, “Sure!” 

I was very lucky to get that position, and I’ve been a park naturalist now for 30 years. 

What projects over the years have been the most rewarding to you?

Well, there are actually two. We created a Veterans Conservation kiosk by Lake Andrew. The exhibit helps tell the story of a group of unemployed World War I vets. During the Depression years of 1935-38, these men spent their time constructing the park buildings and trails, as well as installed the water and sewer systems to create Sibley State Park. The kiosk can be found by Lakeview Campground. For me it was really interesting learning about this history of this park and creating something for the public to see and learn from as well.

The other project that I am proud of is the series of exhibits on the wetlands which is found on the main level of our interpretive center. It was a fun project to develop and create, and I think it really benefits the interpretive center.

What are you working on today?

Today is a fun one. I got to work with kids on animal track making. It’s rewarding to teach the kids about the different animals, their tracks and their pelts. We discuss how to tell the difference between the tracks based on number of toes and path. We also talk about the unique traits and characteristics of the different animals that can be found in the park. Of course, the highlight of the event is creating plaster of paris molds of the different animal tracks. Each child chooses and animal, creates the cast, and then gets to keep it. 

What advice would you give to someone interested in becoming a Park Naturalist?

The first thing you need to become a park naturalist is a college degree. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be in biology. Interpretive degrees include history and archaeology – either of which is very beneficial to the state parks. 

Then, if you know of an interpretive or naturalist center, or a historical site, I suggest you volunteer there or find out if there is an internship program. It’s very important to get experience. Not only will it benefit you in your future employment, but it will also allow you to see if this is something you really enjoy doing.

What is the best aspect of your job?

The best thing about being a park naturalist is the fact that I get to help people who already care and want to learn more about the outdoors. I help them learn a little more – it’s like a continuing education program. People keep coming back for years to keep learning about the park, nature and various other related subjects. And I’m lucky enough to be able to help them.

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