by Michelle Tice, Prairie Wetlands Learning Center ’08
When I was a newly minted B.S. in marine biology with zero job prospects, I learned about SCA from a friend and was curious about an environmental education internship.
Did I like working with children? Check.
Would I get a living stipend? Check.
Were housing and transportation provided? Check.
Could I get out of New Jersey? Check.
Three weeks later I was on my way to Prairie Wetlands Learning Center in Fergus Falls, MN. I knew nothing about the prairie, or that it had wetlands, but all that was about to change.
The Prairie Wetlands Learning Center opened in 1998 and is the first residential environmental education center operated by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. The center provides training—for students, the public, and private landowners—focused on the history of the prairie potholes (now I know that a prairie pothole is a wetland), and what we can do to help restore them. The potholes were left when glaciers receded during the last ice age. Throughout Minnesota, less than one percent of native prairie remains, much of it cleared to make way for industry, agriculture, roads, cities, and towns. The center has 17 acres of native prairie, which means that it was never plowed (but may have been grazed), and another 313 acres of restored prairie and wetlands. It’s hard to believe that only 10 years ago, these acres of rolling hills of prairie grasses and wildflowers didn’t exist.
How can a girl from New Jersey fit in at a place like this? I can tell you: pretty darn well. I fell in love with Minnesota. Not only did I learn from my mentors what it means to be an environmental educator, but I also learned what it truly means to be a naturalist. I did things there that I never would have imagined “back home.” For example, I now love spiders. At home, I used to flip out when I saw one and kill it. Now I know how fascinating, and yes, even cute, spiders can be.
This will surprise my family and friends: I admire and respect snakes too. (My mother just fainted.)
About halfway through my internship I realized I couldn’t wait to keep learning and participating in environmental education programs. Prairie wetlands are a very special part of our natural world. I hope that I can continue to teach people why this special habitat and others like it need to be preserved, restored, and protected for years to come.
Photos: top - Michelle enjoys some quality time with one of her newfound reptile friends; bottom - Michelle (left) with some future conservationists on the prairie
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