Starting a Nebraska Land Trust: A History of Prairie Plains Resouce Institute

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By Bill Whitney I can remember as a youngster growing up in Aurora, Neb., in the 1960s trying to imagine what Hamilton County looked like to native Americans or early settlers. I could not imagine well, because key elements about eastern Nebraska natural history were missing in my education. There were few tallgrass prairies to look at - even if I knew what I was looking for - and there were few people around who knew enough about such things to help me understand. I was not informed by the prevailing culture that the Plains region was unique, beautiful or interesting in its own right. It was basically just farmland, which was in many respects a great thing, but not seen as that special - just normal. In fact, many of us in the central states have inherited an inferiority complex about the region, particularly about its flatness, lack of trees and monotony. I had the impression that there were much better places to live, and that I would want to escape. Formal schooling provided few clues about biological and physical aspects of native prairie until I entered Nebraska Wesleyan. Majoring in biology, I learned about famous University of Nebraska scientists such as J. E. Weaver, the author of such classics as North American Prairie and Grasslands of the Great Plains, and Frederick Clements, who was widely recognized in scientific circles for his pioneering ecological theories about plants. Later, as a University of Nebraska graduate student at the Cedar Point Biology Field Station near Ogallala, my scientific interest in prairie grew. The exposure to the western Nebraska landscape gave me an appreciation for the beauty of the Great Plains and a deeper interest in its history and culture. After receiving my master’s degree at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, my wife, Jan, and I moved back to Aurora. In 1978 we worked for a year at the Stuhr Museum of the Prairie Pioneer in Grand Island on a project intended to integrate Great Plains natural history into the museum’s theme, the European settlement era (late 1800s). I learned more about prairie and soon discovered to my amazement that there were actually people recreating diverse prairies - including even rare plant species - from seed. (Ecological restoration, I soon discovered, was not only about prairie - there were people around the world restoring forests, wetlands, reefs, channelized river systems, and other ecosystems through various approaches customized to each setting). I tapped into a growing network of people pursuing similar aims - mostly in the Midwestern states of Illinois, Iowa and Wisconsin - and visited three of the sites described in various journals of the time: Schulenberg Prairie at the Morton Arboretum in Lisle, Ill., and the Curtis and Greene prairies at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum in Madison. The trip to Illinois and Wisconsin in the fall of 1978 was a personal turning point. A more interesting and expansive view of prairie, including restoration and management concepts - and ideas about nature education - began to emerge. Whereas it was almost impossible to even find tall grasses near home, the big bluestem there was well over six feet high - up to 10 feet in places - and the color of the grasses was stunning! These arboretum prairies were also a busy tapestry of other plants, some exotic looking, with odd names like rattlesnake master and compass plant. I had seen nothing like this before from either an aesthetic or scientific view. Not only were the prairies fascinating, the people I met and their stories intrigued me as well. I discovered a way of thinking that blended the processes of ecological restoration, education and land management. Prairie could be a vehicle to promote an interesting and multi-beneficial form of land renovation, and be a vehicle for establishing a broad-based land education process. It appealed to me because it involved people doing positive things instead of complaining and advocating against some dire environmental evil. Why not attempt to transfer some of these ideas to the rural agricultural setting of east-central Nebraska?

A new idea and rediscovery

Over the next year as our museum project wound down, Jan and I began to wonder if we could create a new conservation organization to restore prairies and watersheds, preserve remnant prairies, and involve people in educational programs on the land. In other words, could we integrate prairie conservation work into our own community? There certainly was opportunity in collecting seeds and planting prairies for wildlife, beautification, historic appreciation and outdoor science education in our area. I continued to locate a variety of central Nebraska prairie plants, gradually developing a comprehensive knowledge of local flora, soils and moisture conditions. To my delight I rediscovered my home country, finding that scenic bluff pastures and hay meadows that I had always known along the Platte River were actually prairies; there were also a few remnant hay meadows sprinkled amongst the county’s cornfields. I collected native prairie seeds from more than 100 species found on these sites and along roadsides, and found that most native plants are quite easily grown in a greenhouse or when sown into a seedbed. In 1980, my first “large” prairie planting (a quarter acre along Lincoln Creek in Aurora) germinated and readily grew into healthy seedlings - ultimately a beautiful little restoration. We could best envision a localized conservation organization by looking to our own Hamilton County. Perhaps it would be possible to acquire a prairie preserve in each section of the county, near a few of the smaller towns like Giltner, Marquette or Hordville. Adjacent to Aurora at the center of the county we envisioned a prairie restoration project along Lincoln Creek. Eventually we might even be able to make a modest outdoor learning center along the creek. County prairie preserves, including the restored creek land, would be accessible to schools, and we could help them develop educational uses. In addition, the management of these preserves might encourage some landowners to use fire and other ecological management techniques that would benefit their native rangeland. We envisioned a new organization that would promote a social vision that capitalizes on the beauty of the prairie, fosters the preservation of natural diversity, and illustrates the value of restored stream-corridor areas (greenways with trails and other attractions), and a diverse and economically healthy agriculture - each working in concert with the other instead of in conflict. If this approach worked here, perhaps it could be applied to other areas. In 1980, on the heels of 1960s and ’70s idealism, starting an organization seemed like an exciting adventure, though perhaps one not well grounded in economic reality. We knew little about the business of running an organization. Nevertheless, with youthful idealism mixed with naivete we set out to form one.

An institute

In April 1980, with the help of my attorney father, Charles Whitney, we incorporated an organization called Prairie Plains Resource Institute. Friends and cohorts Dr. Hal Nagel of Kearney State College and Curt Twedt from the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission signed the legal papers as cofounders. The “Prairie” and “Plains” in the rather long name was due to our location near the western border of the tallgrass prairie and just east of the mixed-grass prairie and high plains. We included “Resource” in the name in an attempt to expand the meaning of the word beyond its traditional usage. Ordinarily it refers to economically exploitable natural resources; we wanted to show that it could also refer to native biodiversity and cultural resources pertaining to the land. Finally, we selected “Institute” to imply an educational process. Prairie Plains Resource Institute thus began as a nonprofit conservation organization with nothing more than some grandiose ideas about nature conservation and community, in a town of under 4,000 residents, in a region with little “pristine” nature and dominated by irrigated agriculture - run by a couple without steady employment. We clung to the idea that Prairie Plains might eventually provide at least Jan or myself with a job. We also thought we might, in time, attract some large donations and grants, along with membership donations, income from the land we hoped to acquire, and program fees. In the meantime we were willing to support both the institute and ourselves through other work. Over the years for myself that included construction, house painting, custodial work, letterpress printing (Norris Alfred was an inspiration!) and graphic design, and occasional summer stints as a biological field technician along the Platte River. For Jan it included employment in the city and school libraries and at the (then) Soil Conservation Service Prairie Plains was initially funded by a family loan of $1,000, which we used to print our first issue of the Prairie Plains Journal. I still remember founding board member Curt Twedt saying “We publish, therefore we are!” as we picked up the boxes of Journal #1 from the printer. We mailed the first issue to a small mailing list that we had compiled during our year at the Stuhr Museum. Following this initial mailing, over 100 members contributed over $2,000 per year for a few years to keep things going. This income paid for mailings, printing of early Prairie Plains Journal issues and helped cover basic management costs. Through the early 1980s activity progressed slowly and more Journals were sporadically published, but by the mid-1980s Jan and I had started a family, and work was on a very minimal maintenance level through 1991.

Land, prairie restoration and SOAR

Prairie Plains’ initial program work was built on two projects in the Aurora area. One was a prairie restoration project (mentioned above) on about 16 acres of land along Lincoln Creek, located conveniently at the edge of Aurora only six blocks from our home. A landowner granted us permission to work on this acreage in 1980. Because it was used only occasionally as a pasture, we thought it might be possible to acquire the land and to restore prairie, manage and use it for educational programs. It became our first gift acquisition in 1983 when Wilma Aalborg donated six acres and we obtained a lease from the City of Aurora on the remaining 10 acres. At that moment Prairie Plains became a land trust, an organization holding land in perpetuity for the future, and using the land to further a conservation mission. This Lincoln Creek land became the site of Prairie Plains’ first prairie restoration in 1980 and its first prescribed burn in 1981. The project led to the creation of a bigger plan for the creek, a three-mile greenway from Aurora’s Streeter Park, through Leadership Center (Nebraska Vocational Agricultural Foundation’s conference center) and Prairie Plains lands, and joining through private lands to the Pioneer Trails Recreational Area east of Aurora (a Natural Resource District reservoir). This plan included extensive trails, wildlife areas, and education and recreation areas. The greenway concept was important to me because it was a way to envision conservation work as a form of community development, offering amenities for people in addition to positive environmental effects. The other seminal Prairie Plains project began in 1982. Gerald and Robert Gerloff, two Hamilton County natives (both biologists living out of state at the time) were directing their late aunt’s bequest to the Hamilton Community Foundation in support of a variety of community projects. At the time there was no interpretive nature education happening anywhere along the Central Platte River, and there were few outdoor areas with self-guided trails. With their aunt’s bequest, the Gerloffs decided to establish a designated natural area at Bader Memorial Park, on the Platte River 15 miles northwest of Aurora, and to start an interpretive education program there. At the Gerloff’s and Foundation’s request, the Bader Park Board agreed to designate a sizable acreage of park land as a natural area. Jan and I met with Gerald Gerloff and his wife Mary Ellen (both were very involved with the UW Arboretum at home in Madison, Wis.) during one of their annual trips to Aurora to attend to their family farm north of town. We filled them in on our plans for the fledgling institute, and told them we knew of no other teachers or naturalists in the area who could carry out the task. They liked what they heard and chose Prairie Plains to do the project. A small fund was available for developing a trail, starting an interpretive tour program and publishing a guidebook. This tour program is still in place after 26 years. The guide booklet idea expanded considerably to become a book, Microcosm of the Platte, a Guide to Bader Memorial Park Natural Area, finally completed in 1988 (on my Miehle cylinder letterpress) and now out of print. Prairie Plains has remained an active partner with Bader Park to the present day. Five gifts of land came after the Lincoln Creek Prairie donation - far beyond what we had envisioned. In 1983 we received title to 320 acres in Buffalo County near Riverdale and Amherst, dedicated by the donor as the Pearl Harbor Survivors Prairie. Since then we have received 30 acres of virgin prairie, the Marie Ratzlaff Prairie Preserve, in Hamilton County near Henderson in 1989; a 4,344-acre property dedicated as the Guadalcanal Memorial Prairie Ranch on the upper Niobrara River in Sioux County in northwestern Nebraska in 1993 (an additional acreage was purchased with an Environmental Trust grant in 2004); a 77-acre tract, the Olson Nature Preserve, along Beaver Creek on the eastern tip of the Sand Hills in Boone County, between Albion and Petersburg in 1995; and the 40-acre Frank L. and Lillian Pokorny Memorial Prairie in Colfax County north of Schuyler in 2001. Finally, in 2002, the 390-acre Griffith Prairie and Farm located in Hamilton County along the Platte River west of Marquette was acquired by purchase with a grant from the Nebraska Environmental Trust (see Prairie Fire Vol. 1, No. 4, www.prairiefire newspaper.com, “Education in a Barn”). Acquisition of seven exquisitely diverse and scenic Nebraska prairies (5,800 acres of land) was unimaginable when we started in 1980. So was what happened in the early 1990s with regard to our prairie restoration and education activities. Prairie Plains was able to expand its prairie restoration activities in 1991 as a result of federal biodiversity research funding for the Central Platte River directed by former U.S. Senator Bob Kerrey. We also received a pilot grant for a new elementary-level summer enrichment program named SOAR (Summer Orientation About Rivers) from that same source. Finally, I was able to be paid to work after 11 years of volunteering. Restoration scaled up from less than an acre per year to well over 100 acres per year on Platte River Trust and Nature Conservancy land, and I harvested seeds from more than 150 species of plants. Platte River sites also presented perfect opportunities to re-create valley wetlands using land excavation machinery. Fortunately, the basic methods tested on a relative “postage-stamp” scale along Lincoln Creek proved highly successful on a large scale. Concurrently in 1991 we stepped up our prescribed burning program. This included large fires aimed at removal of invasive red cedars on the Platte bluff pastures. The fire program worked hand in hand with the seed harvesting, since fire stimulates seed production of most native species. It also helped us build strong friendships with landowners. From 1991 to the present day, with assistance along the way from the Nebraska Environmental Trust and many other supporters, Prairie Plains has planted more than 5,000 acres of high-diversity native prairie in eastern Nebraska - about 500 acres per year since 2001. Prescribed burns occur on a few hundred acres a year as well. Through the years we have also interested many other organizations, agencies and individuals in the restoration process. SOAR planning by a handful of Aurora teachers, Jan and myself began in 1991 with the goal of creating a summer enrichment program. Planning discussions leaned toward a field day camp exposing youth to various sites around the county, and studying nature, science and history. With the windfall of the pilot grant (we could not interest local foundations in the first year; SOAR probably would never have happened without the grant), we organized and conducted the two-week day camp starting in 1992 for a handful of Aurora elementary students. Within a year, the popularity of the program increased participation to 96, and later expanded to 120 students. Local businesses and foundations began to support SOAR. Next year, 2008, will be the 17th program in Aurora, and the 12th year for a second SOAR begun in 1997 with Audubon’s Rowe Sanctuary. SOAR kids learn about the land by getting out in it - in the rivers, prairies, farms, wetlands and woods. The program is creative and fun - an interdisciplinary extravaganza of nature and science, art, writing and history.

A social approach - The Platte Corridor Initiative

The Platte River was an important part of my life as a kid; it had a lot to do with our moving back to Aurora after college. Out of concern for its future, in the 1980s I imagined for the Platte River something similar to the multiple-use greenway plan for tiny Lincoln Creek next to Aurora - something that protected the Platte’s unique wild qualities and made it possible for people to enjoy it. My thinking was influenced by the land and recreation philosophy of Emiel Christenson, an influential Nebraska architect and community planner from Columbus. At the time Prairie Plains lacked capacity to operate on such an overwhelming scale, and I really had no idea where to start. But I still traveled the valley roads and pored over maps, wondering if development pressures overtaking the rest of the country would soon change the Platte Valley. During the 1990s prairie restoration, prescribed burning and SOAR activities on Platte lands gave Prairie Plains a small stake in the action along the river. I still wanted to do more, so in 1999 I wrote a long article for Prairie Plains Journal entitled “The Grand Island to Columbus Platte River Corridor Initiative” (read the article at www.plattecorridor.org). It articulated a grassroots initiative that would harness the creativity and initiative of valley residents to protect and restore the Platte ecosystem and to meet their own needs. I was not quite sure how this could be done, but believed that such an ecologically based popular vision was needed. Without such a vision the land and water resources of the Platte would continue to deteriorate over time, despite whatever governmental and private conservation interests could do - and existing resource conflicts would intensify. I realized that abundant technical information cannot be effectively used unless complemented by an appropriate type of social organization. Somehow Platte River people must develop a common language, learn to listen to each other and begin working together. I thought it was possible to attain common environmental goals despite conflicting ideologies. About the same time Prairie Plains received an EPA Region 7 grant to develop a social approach to conservation for the Platte River - to turn hypotheticals into a working reality. The EPA project was a partnership with UNL Extension and The Platte Project Office of the Nature Conservancy. Employing public participation principles and methods, grant partners developed a sequential process to convene and facilitate small groups of Platte River people interested in working together on very specific issues. In short, it was determined that participants: (1) must decide if they wanted to work together in the first place; (2) must define their issue in detail, as a group, and with a common language; and (3) after serious fact finding - they must design effective strategies to fit their situation. It is largely a matter of aligning resources and information with a pragmatic and well-thought plan, however step number three cannot happen without steps numbers one and two. In this process the goals are less about creating massive change with big dollars on a large scale than working effectively at a human scale, and deriving personal satisfaction from all aspects of the work. Initial activity led to a variety of working groups; some are still-functioning works in progress, e.g., PACE (Planning, Aggregates, Community and Environment), the sand and gravel working group, and Platte PEER Group (People, Environment, Education and Recreation), managing Bader and Tooley Parks in Merrick and Ham­ilton Counties. Yet another group accom­p­lished a single local meeting (riparian landowner survey informational meeting), while another evolved from the ideas of a Hamilton County cedar burning and pasture management group, eventually transforming into a larger ongoing project with a paid staffer (the Platte Habitat Part­nership, a Na­ture Conservancy and Nebraska Game and Parks private grazing-land, tree-clearing and prairie- planting program). There is great need to expand on this social approach to conservation because it is genuinely grassroots and it works.

Building on the foundation

Our present challenge is to develop more programs on all Prairie Plains lands. This is happening in our home county with our local properties and SOAR, and at the Olson Nature Preserve in Boone County, where local schools have developed numerous outstanding programs making use of the preserve throughout the year. These projects have strong bonds with communities. In the case of Lincoln Creek, the restored prairie is situated between residential, agricultural and recreational lands, and is part of the greenway corridor and recreational trail. SOAR is very strongly supported by local businesses and foundations. The Olson Nature Preserve in Boone County is both naturally and historically significant (Omaha Indian leader Logan Fontenelle was killed there by a band of Lakota in 1855), and has been recognized as a regional community educational asset for years by the people of the area. We call these places community preserves, and they will become increasingly important as focal points for community education and enjoyment. I believe the foundation of rural economic development has a lot to do with the positive experiences that young people have as they grow up. If land education includes understanding the ecology, economy and history of an area, plus an appreciation of its profound beauty, it provides a cultural basis for a progressive economy. The idea of creating community preserves and developing them as educational sites has the potential to promote a strong grassroots awareness of our grassland ecosystem - its groundwater, rivers, wetlands and regional history. This type of education is fundamental not only to restoring and protecting our natural heritage, but also to restoring and developing progressive agricultural thinking, and restoring self-actualized rural communities. If children learn to love and understand the place where they grow up, there may be a better chance that as adults they may remain in or return to the area, striving to create a future there. If there is a local resource issue that requires attention, the Platte Corridor Initiative work has illustrated that it is the people most closely associated with the resource who are often best able to identify a need, and who will also have strong personal reasons for addressing the problem. People in every watershed must determine for themselves how to integrate new conservation ideas into their own lives and communities. We believe we can assist people with helpful tools, such as technical information and assistance, connecting with resource people, teaching specific educational and restoration skills, and group facilitation and planning assistance. Prairie Plains Resource Institute has made significant contributions to the fields of ecological restoration, prairie fire management, land education, nature preserve establishment, and developing a social-cultural framework for conservation and land education in Nebraska. This was the result of passion for the work, which yielded great scientific, educational and social satisfaction to those of us closely involved with it. But we have as yet only created a foundation for the future. In order to bring maximum benefits to as many as possible, more extensive programming must be accomplished. Toward that goal the next Prairie Plains phase is to finish the Charles L. Whitney Education Center on the Griffith Prairie and to start down a new path. This will integrate Prairie Plains education, land, ecological restoration and public participation activities. The content of our mission will be expanded, as well as its geographic reach. It will become relevant in the social and economic context of the Great Plains, and help Prairie Plains become more productive and financially sustainable. Future issues of Prairie Fire will outline Prairie Plains Resource Institute’s new two-part plan to do this: The Academy for Great Plains Restoration and The Prairie School. All photos in this article are courtesy of the author.

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