By Samuel Gonzalez ’24
Fall 2023 marks just one year since the Center for Environmental Studies resumed field trips to the Clinton and Edith Sneed Environmental Research Area and Prairie Restoration Site for 4th and 5th grade students across Texoma. These field trips have been led by Austin College students for more than 20 years. To date, the program has provided hands-on educational experiences relating to the natural history and restoration of the Blackland Prairie for over 12,000 students from area schools.
Two hundred years ago, the tall grass prairies of North Central Texas were nothing like the forests and pastures of today. Back then, the area was characterized by perennial grasses and forbs, which were grazed by large migratory herds of bison. Semi-frequent fires, some natural and some set by humans, played the role of preventing forest growth in the prairie. It was only when bison were hunted into endangerment and replaced with cattle for farms — which helped to suppress fire and introduce non-native grasses — that the prairie began to transform into what we see today.
In addition to prairie function and composition, visiting classes also learn about Austin College’s effort to restore the property to its original ecological state through experimental treatments. Many of the field trip leaders have participated in such efforts, which occasionally involve the use of controlled fires. Some fields are also mowed or grazed by cattle, which are used to simulate bison herds, on a rotational basis.
Guides often use local features like creeks and wooded areas to illustrate the consequences of the prairie’s transformation: species and habitat loss; flooding and erosion; aquifer depletion and more. Other times, schoolchildren asked to rely on their imagination: Field trip leaders regularly invite classes to spread native grass and wildflower seeds and then form a great bison herd to stomp them into the ground. While not required, most schoolchildren enjoy doing this activity with their fingers at their temples to feign horns, accompanied by plenty of moo-ing (their best guess at the sounds bison make).
“It’s wonderful to see the kids having fun in nature and connecting what they learn about the prairie to appreciate it,” says senior Olivia Berggren, who is starting her second year as a guide. For students like her, the field trip program offers an opportunity to interact with younger generations and preview working in environmental education.
For more information or to schedule a field trip at Sneed Prairie, visit our website or contact Rebecca Jones.