By Mitch Paine
The booming voices of chorus frogs, the piercing melodies of redwing blackbirds, and soft colors of early spring hail the arrival of the new season. Walking the endless paths through the tallgrass, one can easily get lost in the expansive depths of the Spring Creek Prairie. Many photographers, such as Joel Sartore and Michael Forsberg, have made the Prairie the subject of unforgettable moments. These moments, etched in our minds, highlight the dedication of Spring Creek Prairie to education and conservation.
The Prairie began with the acquisition of land from former landowner Kathy O'Brian. It also began with a vision: a vision on the part of Audubon Nebraska. After O'Brian expressed interest in ensuring the land be preserved as a tallgrass prairie, Audubon Nebraska purchased the land with a promise conveyed in the mission statement of the newly formed Spring Creek Prairie: The mission of Spring Creek Prairie Audubon Center is to foster the understanding, appreciation, and conservation of Nebraska's tallgrass prairie ecosystems by engaging people in the site's natural and cultural resources.
Soon after its creation, the Prairie began to live up to its mission statement. School groups began to filter through the prairie land, taking in the sights, sounds and smells of the natural, Nebraska tallgrass prairie. Also, shortly after the Spring Creek Prairie inception, the Land Management Advisory Committee was created, dedicated to "the understanding and conservation of Nebraska's tallgrass prairie ecosystems," states Arnold Mendenhall, the habitat manager of the prairie. "The Land Management Advisory Committee is focused on managing the prairie by researching and improving diversity of the area."
The group implemented a two-year inventory study of the plant species that exist on the Spring Creek Prairie, calculating the number to over 350 species of grasses, wildflowers, shrubs, wetland plants and trees. The Land Management Advisory Committee took the lead in restoring 82 acres of previous cropland into wetlands to harbor an even larger diversity of animals and plants on the prairie.
In 2003, Audubon Nebraska began writing criteria for creating Important Bird Areas in Nebraska. The Important Bird Area program is an international program to highlight the conservation of birds. Kevin Poague, the project coordinator for the Important Bird Area Program, nominated the Spring Creek Prairie based on its ability to support the following:
*Species of high conservation concern in Nebraska br>
*Significant concentration of birds br>
*Assemblages of birds associated with rare or representative habitat types br>
*Restricted-range species or birds that are not widely distributed br>
*Sites important to education and research
The Spring Creek Prairie was among the first of these Important Bird Areas. Each Area must monitor the sites on which the birds reside as well as work with landowners to ensure the protection of the birds. The second part of the mission of the Important Bird Areas is to educate the public and landowners about the importance of preserving the natural habitat of the birds.
The Spring Creek Prairie has exemplified the promised efforts to the fullest extent. Initially, the land purchased numbered at 610 acres but grew to 640 acres with the acquisition of the Wachiska Woods, a 30-acre area of trees along a creek bordering the initial prairie land. With a purchase last year of 168 acres, the total land preserved by the Spring Creek Prairie comes to 808 acres of tallgrass prairie, as well as wetlands and riparian area.
However, the Spring Creek Prairie has taken further steps to spread the message of conservation and the ideas of the Important Bird Areas. The team of dedicated staff at the prairie have reached out to surrounding landowners to create a 3,000-acre tallgrass prairie complex, the bare minimum area to support a healthy prairie ecosystem.
Each of the participating landowners has signed a contract that states he or she will not sell the land to developers and also will encourage talks with the Prairie. The central part of this tallgrass prairie complex is the relationship between the landowners and the Spring Creek Prairie. Both sides have input on the conservation and preservation of the prairie ecosystem.
Arnold Mendenhall frequently engages in one-to-one talks with the property owners about the prairie that foster a learning process for both sides. The same situation is echoed in the Spring Creek Prairie's commitment to initiating conversation with the community of Denton.
Spring Creek Prairie also is devoted to education. Clearly evident in the creation of a new, green Education Center, the education component of the Prairie's mission statement can be found in countless other examples, including through the personal dedication of Marian Langan, the director for Spring Creek Prairie.
Initially, the visitor's center for the Prairie was the ranch house of the former owner. As school groups began to travel to the Prairie, it became apparent that a new building was needed. In a gracious move, the Spring Creek Prairie held off the creation of its Education Center in order to allow the allocation of funds to a sister Important Bird Area, the Rowe Sanctuary, to build an education center.
Two years ago, the Spring Creek Prairie Education Center began construction. The opening of the Education Center brought a special event to the Prairie in September of 2006. Deb Hauswald, the education specialist, says, "the Education Center created a destination for people visiting the Prairie." The center provided office space for more efficient organization, exhibit space for information about the prairie ecosystem, and a space for school groups in case of inclement weather.
The creation and design of the Education Center again highlights the mission of the Spring Creek Prairie. Hauswald said that the building's design included everyone's opinions, regardless of expertise. "Decisions were made with a great deal of thought," says Hauswald. After a year of discussion with architects and a year and a half of construction, the building opened with an expansive, green design.
The building roof's overhang angle blocks summer rays, while collecting winter rays for maximum energy efficiency. Propane usage has decreased as the visitor's center moved from the ranch house to the Education Center, even though the square footage increased immensely.
The walls and roof are insulated with 200 bales of biomass, harvested sustainably from Spring Creek Prairie, and 400 bales of agricultural waste materials (wheat straw). Much of the materials used in construction was recycled, salvaged or reused. The metal for the roof components was taken from a pipe shed, and recycled steel was used in wall studs. The ceramic tiles used in the dragonfly mosaic were reclaimed from various sources. Thousands of recycled milk jugs were incorporated in the creation of the picnic tables, benches, directional kiosk, bicycle rack and outdoor waste receptacles.
Dedicated to educating children and adults alike, the Education Center, along with numerous tours, highlights the important points of the prairie ecosystems. As school groups make use of the prairie, Hauswald and others keep the programs student-directed as to foster problem-solving techniques and to better the well-being of all visitors.
"We want to get kids outside," says Hauswald, "to help them to be comfortable with being outdoors." The place-based education about prairies provides visiting students the chance to develop skills rather than to simply improve a pool of facts.
A 2005 study by American Institutes for Research showed that students involved in outdoor education programs raised science scores 27 percent and showed a higher retention rate of knowledge. Being outdoors can teach students not only science, but also all other disciplines. The growing movement for peace-oriented education can also benefit through outdoor education. The 2005 study showed significant improvements in students' ability to mediate conflict and to cooperate with other students.
The objectives of the Spring Creek Prairie's commitments to place-based education include exploration of animals and habitats of the prairie. Students are encouraged to get dirty in the muddy wetland areas, to venture on the prairie trails and to investigate the wooded areas. The Prairie Explorers program provides students the opportunity to make individual discoveries about the prairie and the natural history of the area. The Prairie Waterworks program plunges students into the world of wetlands on Nebraska plains, allowing the students to explore the habitats of wetland plants and animals.
In each of these examples, the idea of place-based learning takes precedent, involving students in hands-on activities in which the students make individual findings about the natural ecosystem of Southeast Nebraska. The programs also meet a number of Lincoln Public Schools science requirements.
Many groups visit the prairie from Boy Scouts to fourth graders. The place is also home to many festivals and events. Annually, the "Twilight on the Tallgrass" event takes place, this year on September 8. Also, the Prairie plans to host an event during the summer sponsored by local Roots & Shoots groups, members of the Jane Goodall Program. The event will highlight environmental issues to the public in order to give ideas on how to better their communities and follow the reasons for hope of Dr. Jane Goodall.
As students, parents and other visitors venture out onto the prairie, the place-based education about the natural ecosystems of Nebraska can open the door to wondrous encounters. Deb Hauswald recounts witnessing interactions between a doe and a bobcat.
She glanced out the window during a typical day's work and saw a doe coming out of a ravine. The doe was very agitated, and suddenly a bobcat arose from the grass and approached the doe. After making false starts and attempting to lead the bobcat away from her position, the doe charged the aggressor. The cat curled up on the ground and began pawing at the attacking doe, which pawed back with razor-sharp hooves. Eventually, the bobcat rose and scurried away from the scene, followed close by the angry mother deer. All the while, the shocked staff looked on as this event unfolded.
Many other examples of this tremendous display of nature can be seen. Trumpeter swans have made use of the prairie, baby turtles hatched and swarmed the wetlands, monarchs make the prairie home during migration, as does the majestic bald eagle on occasion.
All of these examples of the spontaneity and beauty of nature can be seen, but "it's up to us to stop and take a look," says Hauswald. The prairie is a place of hidden beauty, and the beauty sometimes lies in such hidden places as the diversity of insects living down in the grass. Hauswald says, "The prairie is such an amazing place, and I am not articulate enough to express in words the wonder of the prairie."