Clemson Extension honors naturalists with statewide recognition

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Aug. 9—PICKENS COUNTY — Three naturalists have been honored by Clemson Cooperative Extension for their impact, both locally and across South Carolina, in educating others about the natural world around them.

Kristen Marshall Mattson, Tony Mills and Jennifer Plunket comprise the 2022 Class of Honorary South Carolina Statewide Master Naturalists. The trio was recognized at a meeting of the South Carolina Master Naturalist State Advisory Board in June and presented with specially designed plates made by Pendleton claysmith Rob Gentry.

"Kristen, Tony and Jennifer are some of the host site coordinators for our S.C. Master Naturalist Program, so they've played a significant role in helping our program serve its mission to provide nature-based education that inspires citizen volunteers to promote environmental stewardship within their communities," said S.C. Master Naturalist Program State Director James Blake.

The three naturalists represent the second class of Honorary South Carolina Statewide Master Naturalists, joining five previous naturalists — Chris Marsh, Rudy Mancke, Patrick McMillan, Austin Jenkins and Tim Lee — who were honored as the inaugural class in 2015.

Mattson was an environmental educator for The LowCountry Institute on Spring Island from 2008 until July 2022 who started her career as a biology instructor at Coastal Carolina Community College in North Carolina before relocating to Beaufort in 2008. In July, Mattson accepted the position of Director of the Gillespie Museum at Stetson University in DeLand, Florida.

"Kristen co-taught the Lowcountry Master Naturalist Class, presented educational programs to the public, local students and teachers, coordinated citizen science research projects and acted as the staff fundraising coordinator," Blake said.

Mattson holds bachelor's degrees in environmental science and Spanish from Stetson University and a master's in ecology specializing in botany from the University of Florida. Her expertise is in plant ecology of the southeastern coastal plain.

Mills is the education director at The LowCountry Institute on Spring Island and began working with the S.C. Master Naturalist Program in 2007. His duties as education director include co-teaching the Lowcountry Master Naturalist Class, developing and conducting educational programs for local schools, field trips and teacher workshops.

Mills has been working in environmental education for over three decades with an emphasis on southeastern animals and plants. During his college years and after graduating from Georgia Southern University in 1985, he worked in various positions as a naturalist in state parks, national parks and nature centers, and also worked for 20 years as the outreach program coordinator for the University of Georgia's Savannah River Ecology Laboratory.

He has written numerous newspaper columns and articles on coastal plants and animals for the popular media and co-wrote the book "Lizards and Crocodilians of the Southeast." Mills writes and hosts the award-winning TV nature program "Coastal Kingdom," seen on SCETV, The South Carolina Channel and The County Channel.

"Although Tony spends a significant portion of his time teaching and writing, he continues his extensive field study of plants and animals with research trips into the jungles of Mexico and Costa Rica to study snakes and lizards and into the Everglades of South Florida to collect introduced pythons and endangered crocodiles," Blake said.

Plunket is the stewardship coordinator at the North Inlet-Winyah Bay National Estuarine Research Reserve, where she's been for over 15 years.

As a graduate student at LSU, Plunket studied Mexico Pacific Coast ecology and developed the Guide to the Ecology of Melaque, Mexico. She earned her B.S. in Marine Sciences from Coastal Carolina University in 1998. In 2007, she earned her Ph.D. in Oceanography and Wetlands Management. Her dissertation research combined landscape ecology analysis, GIS techniques, LiDAR data, field collections and modeling to examine how dredged canals have modified the ecosystem functioning of Louisiana's coastal marshes.

"Besides facilitating the Winyah Master Naturalist Class, she leads a team that is developing and pilot testing a decision support tool designed to be used by land managers to identify habitats that may be vulnerable to climate change impacts," Blake said.