A celebration was held Oct. 4 for the 10,000 child visitor to the Clinton and Edith Sneed Environmental Research Area, near Sherman. Photo courtesy of Austin College.
Oct. 4, 2016
Today, fifth graders romped through Austin College’s blackland prairie remnant, officially known as the Clinton and Edith Sneed Environmental Research Area. Not only were they learning about ecology, they were helping celebrate a milestone – one of the kids was the 10,000th visitor since the field trips program began in 2002.
“We are thrilled to take this day to celebrate the many contributions from our Austin College faculty, student leaders, grant supporters, community members and teachers that came together to educate and inspire our next generation of conservationist spirits,” says Alex Ocanas, coordinator for the Center for Environmental Studies at Austin College. “As society begins to take notice of how much young human souls benefit from interacting and engaging with nature, a program like ours becomes a special curriculum supplement for teachers.”
According to Ocanas, over 30 years ago, Clinton and Edith Sneed donated their 100-acre property in Sherman, about 10 miles west of Austin College, to be used for educational purposes by Austin College.
“The land was traditionally blackland prairie, but lost much of its integrity and identity after being used for cattle ranching and cropland.”
For 20 years, Austin College faculty, staff, hundreds of students, volunteers and community members have been returning the land to its native state.
The Sneeds were farmers in Grayson County, raising beef and dairy cows and growing hay, corn and oats to feed them on the land. One of the first automated milking machines in Grayson County was contained in their milking facility, a remnant of which still stands. The Sneeds had no children to whom to leave their property and had nieces and nephews who were Austin College graduates, so felt moved to donate their beloved property for educational purposes.
Ocanas says that the land is located on what was traditionally a blackland prairie ecosystem. Blackland prairie covered roughly 6 million hectares between San Antonio and the Red River and is a small part of the North American Prairies, which covered hundreds of thousands of square miles. Today, less than 1 percent of the original blackland ecosystem remains.
“The prairie, 13 miles away from the college and backing up to the Hagerman Wildlife Refuge, is one of the last of its kind, and we [Austin College] are working to restore it,” she relates. “The property contains a small remnant of the original blackland prairie, a small gem, and we are trying to restore the rest.”
And indeed Austin College, through knowledge, planning and perseverance, is making the most of it. Their hard work is displayed to third through fifth graders throughout Grayson County via 12 to 24 field trips each year. Through grants, Austin College reimburses schools for bus trips for field trips.
The school inherited the property in 1984, but didn’t start restoration until 1996. In 2001, actual experimentation began on nine fields and one remnant field, which are divided by fences. Three factors take place – mowing with a tractor; cattle lent by a neighbor grazing (mimicking bison coming over the field) and burning some of the fields every few years.
Dr. Peter Schulze, project director, hosts a restoration class of about 15 students, doing hands-on restoration. One professor did a survey to determine how much wildlife existed and discovered 172 different types of wildlife. Two man-made pools exist. Biology, environmental and physics professors utilize the site, with the biology students doing animal studies. In essence, the prairie functions as a living lab, which gets students out of the classroom.
The property is not open to the public, but interested groups and individuals are welcome to contact Ocanas, project coordinator.
“It’s really alive, and as soon as you drive down the road, you realize that,” says Ocanas. “There are wild flowers, butterflies, and bees.”