Starting a Nebraska Land Trust: The Academy for Great Plains Restoration and the Prairie School

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In the January issue of Prairie Fire, Bill Whitney explored the history of Prairie Plains Resource Institute. In this issue, he continues the discussion with a focus on the new programs the institute offers, the Academy for Great Plains Restoration and the Prairie School.

By Bill Whitney

Prairie Plains Resource Institute has something positive to offer for the future of Nebraska and the Great Plains. The Academy for Great Plains Restoration and The Prairie School are new programs of the Charles L. Whitney Education Center, presently under construction and located on the scenic Platte River bluffs in Hamilton County, Nebraska (see “Education in a Barn,” Prairie Fire, October 2007). Our aim is to connect people with a regional vision for renewal. This connection will be forged by building on the foundation of Prairie Plains Resource Institute’s time-tested strengths: ecological restoration and land education conducted within a social and cultural framework.

The Great Plains and its human inhabitants, perhaps more than most regions in America, have always been strongly affected by the forces of nature as well as socioeconomic influences from outside the region. The wildly fluctuating climate has prompted numerous human migrations for as long as people have lived in North America. Global commodity markets and federal policies, such the Farm Bill and recent biofuel programs, continue to have enormous impact on social and economic conditions because the rural economies are not diversified. Presently, there are pockets of optimism on the Great Plains, mostly in locales where larger communities are thriving. However, across a wide geography there is concern over an aging population, loss of small towns and their youth, and the sustainability and quality of once-abundant natural resources such as groundwater and surface water. Considering current demographic and economic projections, it is easy to see why many people in the rural Great Plains are pessimistic about the future of the region - socially, economically and environmentally. Yet, there are many people unwilling to yield to this view.

Prairie Plains Resource Institute is an educational land trust, a conservation organization with a 28-year history of environmental accomplishment in native prairie preservation, ecological restoration, nature education programs such as SOAR (Summer Orientation About Rivers, a nationally recognized day-camp for elementary school children) and watershed public participation. We plan to continue these works, but we recognize that in their current form they attract a limited audience. It is imperative that we enlarge our scope and geography of action. It is also critical to the future of the Great Plains region (and to the world) that land conservation, environmental restoration and education activities integrate more thoroughly with prevailing social and economic concerns. Expanding a popular vision along these lines will require renewed commitment to educating people about our region, encouraging critical analysis of information, investigating new options and opportunities, and charting pragmatic actions toward a preferred future. Furthermore, it will require discussion about the common good and promotion of excitement about new opportunities. These are all things that Prairie Plains Resource Institute will do at the Charles L. Whitney Education Center.

The Academy for Great Plains Restoration

Ecological Restoration

The concept of ecological restoration is very inclusive and can be viewed from many perspectives. Since 1979 Prairie Plains has practiced a form of ecological restoration on more than 5,000 acres of land in eastern Nebraska - planting high-diversity native prairies and wetlands from seed. In this sense, ecological restoration has consisted of species-rich reconstruction, on various sizes of acreages, of a historic ecosystem. However, on a much larger landscape scale, the idea of restoring the ecosystem of a watershed, for example, can be something altogether different. The former example may involve only a few people with a specific interest in nature preservation or habitat, while the latter example may involve many people with varied interests, set in a larger context of towns, factories, natural areas and farms. In a regional planning sense, these watershed residents are probably not planning to restore an 1850 landscape, complete with a bison herd! They may be looking for ways to apply restorative land processes that add biodiversity or wildlife to the land, fix eyesores, provide quality of life amenities or improve and maintain clean water supplies. In each of these examples, the meaning of the terms ecosystem and restoration, as well as project goals, are slightly different and context-specific. In addition, each example involves different social and economic considerations.

Restoration, when viewed on its surface, is clearly about the thing being restored. However, anyone who has restored an antique or a historic home is quick to point out their satisfaction and passion for the process - from initial dreams and plans to the sweat equity and final enjoyment of the results. Similarly, ecological restoration is about much more than an end product - and that is a vital point. People in the plains states, as well as around the world, are discovering that it is through the human dimensions of the ecological restoration process that we realize its capacity to transform people and communities. The process is closely tied to biological and physical sciences, but it is best done in a cultural environment that fosters cooperation and learning. To anyone involved, it can encompass a fascinating learning process, meeting new people, the practical application of information, group problem-solving, a good feeling from making something better or more beautiful, and developing a greater appreciation and understanding of a place’s nature, culture and history. The experiences also become part of a story that can be shared with people. Restoration knowledge is exportable and enthusiasm for it often contagious - one more fact that is borne out by its worldwide growth.

The Academy for Great Plains Restoration is devoted to the further development of the art and science of ecological restoration on the Great Plains. It has always been a Prairie Plains goal to use the process of restoration as a way to educate and involve people, in addition to accomplishing significant restoration work on the land. Toward that end, we are determined to build a sustaining endowment to support the academy. With such support we will offer restoration services to willing landowner recipients, and develop the educational aspects of the process without concern for governmental or grant-based funding sources. Prairie Plains will be free to choose its restoration projects and its methods, and to research new approaches and applications for restoration. We will be able to afford time to organize and involve more people in the process.

Prairie Plains plans to connect the restoration process to the process of community social and economic development, and the maintenance of regional watershed and groundwater health and vitality. This approach may in some ways resemble the Habitat for Humanity model if applied to land. Imagine Prairie Plains over the next decade planting a free prairie on hundreds of landowners’ properties (any individual, corporate, government or organizational entity). Each planting would become part of a growing and widespread network of high-diversity restored prairies. Many participants would develop strong ownership in the entire network of restored prairies - not just their own site. At 300–500 acres planted per year, the total planted acreage in a decade will be 3,000–5,000 acres. These landowners would be linked together through academy print and Web media. Landowners would be encouraged to plan community events on their prairie to celebrate and educate. Friends and neighbors of all the landowners would become exposed to the projects, as would groups visiting the site on a field trip or picnic. Because of the social interactions created by this form of conservation work, each individual project would have the potential to generate new ideas and lead to very interesting spin-off projects.

Imagine also the dozens of interns and volunteers helping with all aspects of site planning, computer GIS work, seed harvesting, greenhouse work, planting and follow-up management, research, networking and outreach. In addition, the workweek of the interns will be punctuated with regularly scheduled academic study and discussion (a few half days a week at the Education Center) on the art and science of ecological restoration as practiced worldwide, including technical, economic, social and policy aspects. Exchanges will take place with students and conservation leaders working on restoration projects around the globe.

The desired outcomes of the Academy for Great Plains Restoration are: (1) Practical - to continue doing restoration work on the land that Prairie Plains has done successfully since 1980, i.e., high-diversity ecological prairie and wetland restoration; (2) Educational and intellectual - to involve more people in learning what restoration is, learning how to think about it, and learning how to actually do it; (3) Research - to encourage thinking in a broad sense about the concepts surrounding the term “restoration” as applied to the Great Plains region (i.e., where ecological concerns meet economic and social realities, as well as public policy at various governmental levels), and to explore new restoration methods and applications; and (4) Social - to connect the work to the body politic of the Great Plains. All participants - interns, private landowners, volunteers, etc. - will become part of a growing, interconnected social network of urban and rural people who will become more informed and involved with natural resources on every level, and who will spread good ideas into the regional development process.

Academy for Great Plains Restoration goals

1. Plant 300–700 acres of high-diversity prairie and wetland habitat per year.

*Build on PPRI’s 28 years of pioneering experience in high-diversity ecological restoration in Nebraska. (Prairie Plains has planted more than 5,000 restoration acres of prairie from 1979–2007).

*Attract outside funds to match endowment earnings in order to add high conservation value to land (biodiversity, wildlife, water resource protection, scenic enhancement). Land for restoration will belong to public benefit organizations, government agencies and private landowners. Prairie Plains will offer low-cost restoration in exchange for conservation set-aside across a wide geographic area. Educational and community uses of restored lands will be encouraged in order to spread awareness and enthusiasm.

*Emphasize training in the restoration process as important as restoring the land. Keep participants connected to each other, Prairie Plains and the academy program (see number 3 below).

2. Create innovative landscape/watershed context-specific restoration approaches.

*Involve watershed people in a public participation process aimed at creating working groups to solve resource issues of their definition, with the goal of mutual participant satisfaction.

*Explore ecological restoration methods and applications in the context of rural community development goals, fully integrating social, economic and environmental concerns.

3. Train people in the art and science of ecological restoration. Develop high school, college and graduate level internships, seminars, workshops, field trips and volunteer work days. These will include the entire process of numbers 1 and 2 above, creating leaders who will carry their experiences to other places.

4. Build social capital through involvement, communication and knowledge. Unite all participants into a social network (funders, landowners, interns, volunteers, etc.) that share interests, projects and information, and who support environmental restoration and education as a necessary part of future community development.

5. Develop volunteer capacity to systematically monitor and manage all project areas over time. 6. Develop and widely disseminate restoration information and all program activities through public education programs.

*Involve all ages in science, art and humanities programming related to restoration, e.g. writing, photography and visual arts.

The Prairie School

Land Education

Land education - variously called “environmental education,” “place-based education,” “natural-resource education” or “outdoor education” - encompasses earth and the natural sciences, often integrated with disciplines such as land management, public policy, art, literature and history. In this country, formal land education, where available, is done primarily for young people as an add-on to their regular schooling. Some public schools are involved in this endeavor, but most providers of land education (outside of the home) are nonprofit organizations, such as nature centers and museums, or government conservation agencies. Land education usually includes a large component of hands-on activity. Prairie Plains has operated its Summer Orientation About Rivers (SOAR) program this way. It is about getting kids immersed in the Platte River - not just talking about it. It is the experience of such immersion which leaves an indelible impression. Politically, land education has been criticized by some as a biased way to preach environmentalism and nature preservation in opposition to economic growth and industrialization, i.e., against people. Prairie Plains takes a nonpolitical stance and advocates a broad view of land education. Simply, people need to be exposed to and understand the world around them in order to make informed resource decisions.

Education is essentially a restorative and transformative process. Prairie Plains views land education for all ages as a fundamental part of a restorative, forward-looking regional vision. When education is tied to the land and geared toward intimate knowledge about the physical and cultural world around us (i.e., both “natural” and human), it has a powerful, enlightening effect. Much of this is due to the physical hands-on nature of the experience as well as community aspects of enjoyable learning in a group. It exposes people to beauty they may not have noticed before. Nonscientists can understand important scientific principles, such as connections between groundwater quality (water they drink) and land management (where their food comes from and how it is grown), or the importance of global biodiversity for agricultural productivity. They can see connections between nature and their own history, literature and art. Also, as stated conclusively in Richard Louv’s recent bestseller, “Last Child in the Woods,” education that gets young people outside and involved with their surroundings is beneficial to overall physical and psychological well being.

The Prairie School is devoted to land-education programs that will be developed and conducted at the Charles L. Whitney Education Center. Whereas the Academy for Great Plains Restoration is both learning-by-doing and application-oriented (affecting land in many areas), the Prairie School will be more academically structured while remaining very much hands-on. Its programs will strive to educate in an interdisciplinary manner many biological, physical and cultural realities that are often lacking in modern education. For example, society cannot continue to graduate young people from high schools and universities without their understanding a number of basic ecological realities pertaining to water, nature, energy, agriculture or global development. The fundamentals taught at the Whitney Center will provide a foundation for people of all ages to understand these things in the Great Plains - or elsewhere - as experiences and knowledge will be exportable everywhere.

The Charles L. Whitney Education Center is located on a 390-acre property that includes native prairie, the Platte River, farmland and farmstead outbuildings. In addition, there are other unique farmlands, natural lands and communities in the vicinity that are accessible for education and research. This diverse setting lends itself to unlimited opportunities for educational program development that is broad based - not strictly about nature, environment or science - and includes an enjoyable mix of intellectual and hands-on activity. Its interdisciplinary programming involves the wider community. Desired outcomes of the Prairie School are (1) an appreciation for sense of place, particularly among the youth; (2) improved public understanding of the connections between the land, nature, culture and economic and social realities; (3) improved awareness of natural resources and their relationship to current issues; and (4) improved understanding of Great Plains ecology (including human ecology).

Prairie School goals

1. Continue the SOAR Program (Summer Orientation About Rivers) for local youth, a successful community-supported field day-camp in Hamilton County, Neb. It will continue to run from the Whitney Center.

2. Expand SOAR at the Whitney Center, offering it to youth from anywhere.

3. Create SOAR-like multi-day programs for adults and families.

4. Create an educator training program for land education.

5. Create high school–, college- and graduate-level internships to expose serious students to interdisciplinary land education processes.

6. Develop curricula for use of the Griffith Prairie and Farm, and the Platte River.

7. Export curricula from the center to adapt to other sites, including Web-based curricula.

8. Program extensive area school use (K-12, college, graduate and postgraduate).

9. Create public education programs to involve all ages in science and arts-and-humanities program activities related to the land, e.g., writing, photography, biology, history, visual arts, sculpture, etc.

10. Host a public lecture series with diverse topics, including public policy.

11. Develop volunteer capacity in service to land education.

12. Create Web and print publications related to activities.

Funding the Academy and Prairie School and other considerations

Prairie Plains has set a goal of raising an endowment fund totaling $6 million by 2013 to provide core support for the Academy for Great Plains Restoration and the Prairie School. To give this goal a measure of comparison with a more traditional conservation approach, consider that if Prairie Plains were interested in buying land in eastern Nebraska for purposes of nature preservation and associated public uses, this amount of money could buy perhaps 1,500–2,000 acres of land, depending on location. Farmland, as well as almost any land along a river where natural areas of any quality can be found, would presently cost more than $3,000 per acre. Such a property would require annual management requiring staff time and equipment. It would yield very little direct monetary return, although it might cater to an important public need and accomplish a conservation mission. The point is, by all accounts land is expensive to buy and maintain.

Put this into perspective with a social approach, one which also has a strong land component and builds social capital through education and a high level of public participation (the term “social capital” essentially refers to the benefits that accrue to a society when there is an investment in increasing human capacity to learn, communicate, work together, generate new ideas, create new businesses, etc). For the price of buying a piece of land, Prairie Plains will be able to create a permanently restricted fund, the earnings of which will support the Whitney Center programs as well as attract matching funds to accomplish the listed goals for many years to come. Over decades it will affect many thousands of acres of land, and it will impact dozens of communities in both urban and rural areas. It will involve numerous willing and enthusiastic project participants spread across the Great Plains, all engaged and in contact through networked communication. Over decades, internships will train hundreds of resource and restoration practitioners, educators, community leaders and volunteers from around the world. Innovative educational programming will create future community leaders knowledgeable about critical natural resources. In time, Prairie Plains will be able to claim thousands of participants who are strongly satisfied with their involvement and had fun in the process! A possible future spin-off from this trajectory might even be a charitable foundation funding new community-based projects in restoration.

In its land-trust role since 1980, Prairie Plains Resource Institute has received six gift properties. If it accepts more gifts of land in the future, these areas will become assets to the overall Academy for Great Plains Restoration and Prairie School programs. We won’t have to buy land unless we have very strong reasons to do so.

Land for the Academy’s ecological restoration projects will be provided by any interested government agencies, organizations and private landowners. It will necessitate long-term commitments to the project from all landowners, yet we anticipate that the interest is there, especially if we can provide restoration services at a nominal cost (or even free). Prairie School students will include people of all ages and interests from all over the world. Program costs will be funded by program fees, matching contributions and grants. Internships for both will be developed through partnerships with public secondary schools, small colleges and uni­ver­sities, and funders.

With the endowment earnings and leveraged matching project funds, Prairie Plains will fund core positions and stipends for internships for both the Prairie School and Academy for Great Plains Restoration. Some funds will be available to seed new ideas as well. Progress will coincide with increased membership and fund development, marketing, and Prairie Plains events on all of its preserves.

 

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