Environmental Science seniors undertake Prairie Project

Elliot Steeves-

Three Senior Environmental Studies majors –Ella Castleman, Jolie Grimes, and Liv Nelson– are creating something very unique for their Senior Seminar. The project involves the construction of a new Prairie near Chapel View, along with the installation of several solar panels.

The project is part of the Senior Seminar program in the Environmental Studies program, in which students plan something that will be retained or implemented after graduation. It is based on the Gustavus sustainability report, in which students try to help fix a lower rating.

The students are currently building an advocacy fund for a prairie along 7th Street to get money from the board. Ideally, because of its placement, the prairie would filter unwanted materials that run off of campus toward the Minnesota River. The Student Senate is also working to pass a support piece on the project.

The two pieces of the sustainability report that inspired this project were the areas that do not require mowing or fertilizing. In other words, land areas that are not lawns.

“It is a lot cheaper to have a prairie than a green grass lawn,” Chemistry and Environmental Studies Professor Jeff Jeremiason said. “Because the irrigation is really expensive, the fertilizer and mowing is something that we burn through every three years. Once a prairie is established, that is the only expense.”
“It’s a great way to increase overall biodiversity, and it helps with groundwater, and the health of the land,” Castleman said. “It’s also a feasible project to implement. The change by Nobel to native grasses instead of a regular lawn was part of the inspiration.”

The addition of this land area would also be a boon for environmental sustainability on campus. Prairies are better than other lawns at capturing and storing carbon.

“Prairies are also important to seed sources, and are a habitat for migratory birds,” Castleman said. “This is important for climate change mitigation and the restoration of native plants and insect species.”

Students who are interested in assisting with Gustavus’s prairie lands, both current and in the future, can help with the seeds required for the process. They can also assist in several other ways in helping Gustavus become more environmentally friendly.

“Students can collect seeds in the fall,” Jeremiason said. “They can also identify areas on campus where we do not need manicured lawns. One visible way is to ask publicly that Gustavus maintain a sustainable campus. College money will be saved if we are better toward the environment.”

“There are a lot of plant seeds out there,” Castleman said. “Instead of using what we have stored, harvesting these seeds is super helpful, easy, and fun. You can also do research and harvest your own seeds, and bring them to the arboretum staff.”

Prairie plants are over ten feet deep, and, as mentioned, store a heavy amount of carbon. While plants and trees do not necessarily omit emissions, they can offset some of the carbon that is already in the atmosphere, and this is even more true for prairies.

“It is also critical for taking care of the ecosystem, and for maintaining the Minnesota Valley River system,” Sustainability Manager Kari Wallin said. “And then, I think aesthetically, it is a well-established prairie piece like many of ours already are. It looks beautiful, and does not just look like blank turf.”

Gustavus already has a history with more eco-friendly landscaping. Not only has there been a bend toward prairie establishment in the arboretum, but Gustavus also has a grounds manager and landscaping specialist who try to be as environmentally sound as possible.

The important factor for students, of course, is that they have the ability to ask for an environmentally sustainable campus.

“Students who are concerned about climate change should ask about what Gustavus is doing,” Jeremiason said. “Students have asked for divestment from fossil fuels. Students have also asked about why the dorm rooms get so hot because of the heaters.”

Another main hope is that students will be respectful of this plan when it is put into motion.

“Students can… help with this process,” Castleman said. “Ultimately, this will save the college a lot of money. The groundskeepers are in full support of it. Be respectful of what you are doing in the area, and if you are off the path, leave as little a trace as possible.”

One last exciting tidbit: Future FTS classes might be able to adopt a prairie patch, and watch as it freshens. So, this is a project that not only will help Gustavus’s environmental cost but will also be a hands-on way for Gustavus students to contribute.