Austin College's Sneed Prairie Restoration has two goals: restoration of 100 acres of former Blackland Prairie, and provision of educational opportunities for college and elementary school students. Austin College students restore the prairie, monitor the progress of the restoration, and lead schoolchildren on field trips. To date around 1,100 college students, faculty, and staff have contributed to the restoration effort and more than 11,600 schoolchildren and their teachers have visited the site for field trips. The schoolchildren have come from more than 20 school districts.
The 100-acre prairie restoration uses three different combinations of prescribed fire, grazing, and mowing in a formal experimental design across nine fields of a former farm. Restoration progress is compared to two reference prairies that also belong to the college. One of those reference sites is nearly pristine. The progress of the restoration is tracked with a peer reviewed monitoring protocol that we developed (Schulze et al. 2009. Ecological Indicators, 9:445-454). Both the management and monitoring methods are designed to be usable by interested landowners.
We monitor restoration progress by measuring presence/absence of various native and nonnative grass species, trees, and soil cover at dozens of sampling locations in each field. Each measured variable passed a test for correspondence with expert assessment of prairie condition across six sites rank ordered in terms of biological integrity by Blackland Prairie expert Dr. George Diggs. Also, each measurement can be reproducibly made by careful novices, and none of the measurements require expensive equipment or subtle professional judgments. Collectively, the measurements provide information on species composition and indicators of ecosystem functioning.
Students in the fall course Conservation and Restoration Ecology perform the routine monitoring. Students in the January term course Prairie Restoration do the work of prairie restoration, including setting prescribed fires. Other volunteers also contribute to the restoration. To date over one thousand college students have participated by collecting data, doing restoration work, or both. Since the initiation of the restoration experiment at least seven Austin College faculty and their research students have begun research projects based at the site.
In the summer of 2002, after realizing that local elementary teachers from Grayson, Fannin, and Cooke counties lacked sufficient opportunities to immerse their students in any sort of “wild” or outdoor classroom, Austin College created the Sneed Prairie Field Trip Program. In October of 2016, we welcomed the 10,000th elementary school visitor. Advanced undergraduates lead 10-20 field trips annually. The field trips are aligned with TEKS (Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills) objectives, and school districts' transportation costs are reimbursed from grant funds the college seeks for this purpose.