Austin College is being recognized for its educational efforts in restoring a small portion of what was once the Blackland Prairie. The college has been award a 2020 Texas Environmental Excellence Award by the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for its work on the Sneed Prairie Restoration Project.
The project, which has been ongoing for more than 20 years, sees college professors and students work to develop strategies for returning land into its original state before human intervention.
"You often hear people talk about preservation and protection, but with restoration I kind of think of it as the next step for some of these places. In an area that has had a lot of human impact, restoration can take it back to what it used to be."
The awards, which were originally announced in March but were delayed by the COVID-19 pandemic, recognize communities organizations and individuals for their efforts in protecting and preserving the environment. This year, AC was recognized in the category for education at Sneed Prairie.
"We are very honored. We feel we are in a very prestigious company with the other award winners," he said. "One of the things we hope that this award will do is keep up our grant funding so that we can continue to provide free field trips out here."
In addition to providing courses on environmental studies at the site, the college regularly hosts field trips from local school districts at the site. Over the years, more than 11,000 students have visited the site.
The Sneed Prairie site was previous a 100-acre farm owned by the Sneed family. In the 1980s the Sneeds gifted the property to the college. In 1997 efforts to return the former farm to a natural state began.
Archer said the prairie was once a part of the larger Blackland Prairie, a long, miles-long stretch of plains that extended from San Antonio to Texoma.
"This whole area pretty much all the way down I-35 was the Blackland Prairie," Archer said.
Today, the Blackland Prairie is considered a critically endangered ecosystem, with only about 1 percent of the prairie left in tact.
The AC site featured nine separate fields where scientists work on ways to restore the five native grass species that once called Texoma home. Between the fields, Bermuda grass and other domestic species of grass continue to grow.
Scientists have tried a variety of ways to encourage the grasses to return ranging from manual planting to letting mother nature itself take the lead.
Archer said a neighbor has loaned the college a herd of cattle, who are being used to simulate the effects that buffalo and other large animals would have had on the prairie. These animals would often stomp and trample down tree seedlings, preventing them from reaching full height.
"The big thing we try to control out here is tree growth," he said. "Trees are not a good thing for the prairie. We like trees in general, but once a tree grows up it shades the ground and the grasses struggle under it."
In its native state, the prairie had very few trees grow up to the height that they do today. Instead, nature kept them from growing tall through fires and other natural methods.
However, as people began to settle the region, fire control efforts stopped and hinder the natural process, leading to tree growth in areas where they normally wouldn’t grow.
Archer said the scientist have used controlled burns to try and simulate these regular wildfires.
The restoration of the ecosystem can have a variety of positive effects on the community, Archer said. The tall grasses are better able to mitigate water run off and return it to ground water. The plants also serve as a habitat for many wildlife species, he said.
Michael Hutchins is the local government reporter for the Herald Democrat. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.