Blackland Prairie once spanned much of East-Central Texas from North of San Antonio through Austin to the Red River. However, much of this ecosystem has been converted to agricultural land and now less than 0.01% remain – making it to most endangered ecosystem in North America. Blackland Prairies are home to diverse vegetation and animal species, however, due to the destruction of these ecosystems, species such as the American Bison, wolves, and jaguars can no longer be found in this region. In addition to providing habitat to numerous species, prairies also provide essential conservation services such as storing carbon, preventing erosion, and enriching the soil.
Project Description & History
In order to combat the loss of Texas Blackland Prairie, Jack Rouse and Mark DeGraff, two students at the University of Texas at Austin, established a pocket Blackland prairie on campus. They use the prairie to raise awareness about this endangered ecosystem, environmental degradation, and the ecosystem services provided by native plants. They have lobbied and passed legislation through student government to call for more native plants to be used while landscaping campus. They also work alongside the landscape services department to develop green spaces on campus for students to gather. For more details about the project, watch this video.
On November 30th 2020, The Campus Environmental Center’s Half-Pint Prairie team partnered with UT’s Landscape Services and the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center to carry out the first ever prescribed burn on UT’s main campus. Watch the video here.
Restoring a prairie means not only selecting plants that are native to the local area, but also maintaining them with methods that the land is evolutionarily adapted to. For millennia, prairie ecosystems have thrived with the help of periodic fires (and sometimes buffalo stampedes) deliberately set by native peoples. These fires prevented trees from shading out grasses, returned nutrients to the soil, and helped new species take hold due to decreased competition. Fires are the natural and regenerative way to maintain a healthy prairie.
However, in urban spaces like the UT Austin campus, executing a fire can be tricky. While the Half-Pint Prairie is just a postage stamp of green in a sea of concrete, CEC took extensive precautions to mitigate fire risk, prevent disruptions, and ensure social distancing. Although the burn only took about ten minutes, its impact will be enormous. With the help of the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center and UT Landscape Services, the Half-Pint Prairie team has established a set of best practices that can easily be replicated across the state of Texas.
Pocket prairies can provide a wealth of benefits to a college community once established. UT-Austin has a massive campus that requires lots of labor, water, and energy to keep looking lush. But if more of campus were to be converted to native plants like the ones that make up the prairie–the landscape would require less maintenance and fewer inputs in addition to provide home for pollinators, sequester carbon, prevent soil erosion, and offer students a relaxing slice of nature. In addition, new research has shown that spending time in nature improves mental and emotional health which is especially important for stressed college students.