Students plant prairie, make campus more sustainable

Caroline Cummings

Students from the University’s Half-Pint Urban Prairie project planted a pocket prairie outside of the Student Services Building Feb. 1 to help restore the blackland prairie and to make campus more sustainable.

The project was funded through Green Fund, a UT grant supporting sustainability-related projects proposed by University students, faculty or staff. Jill Parish, Green Fund program coordinator said the prairie is both beautiful and educational.

“Planting a pocket blackland prairie on campus not only helps with increasing the amount of the threatened ecosystem, it will also serve as a convenient educational opportunity for interested faculty and students,” Parrish said. 

Only 1 percent of the blackland prairie — located in parts of East Texas — remains, making it one of the rarest ecoregions in the United States, and it is only found in Texas, according to the World Wildlife Fund. 

“There is a certain draw to (it) because it is almost like something that has been lost,” said Mark DeGraff, a project team leader. “It is almost like this hidden treasure … I hope that … people look at it (and say) ‘Wow, this is something really cool that we should do more to protect.’” 

UT Landscape Services architect Lisa Lennon said the prairie showcases what the local landscape looked like prior to intense development. 

“I think the students really respond to …  (seeing) more natural life … not just squirrels and grackles,” Lennon said. “That’s what my goals are for the campus — to make it look more like a representation of our state.”

Jack Rouse, a project team leader and accounting sophomore, said the prairie will not need to be watered once it is established. 

“It will require a lot less maintenance than green grass lawns do,” Rouse said. “In Austin … over 50 percent of our water goes to watering our lawns. Given the impacts that we are going to have to deal with from climate change and water scarcity, (transitioning) toward projects like this (are) a really interesting … way we can reduce our water usage.”

DeGraff, an environmental science freshman, said having the prairie on campus has a variety of benefits.

“There are peer-reviewed scientific studies out there showing that green spaces on campus — they do things like reduce stress, they improve perceived quality of life,” DeGraff said. “They can also provide ecosystem services and benefits like pollinators and erosion control … the list goes on and on.”

Students interested in getting involved with the project can plant warm-season grasses on April 5 with the Campus Environmental Center, and can subscribe to the organization’s newsletter.