Starting Them Young: How to Create Lifelong Grassland Lovers

By Clark Mitchell, Director and SGI grant officer for the Band Foundation


I’m an unlikely ambassador for grasslands. I’m not a botanist (though I’m learning!), I don’t work for a major conservation NGO or teach courses on the importance of grassland flora and fauna to the next generation of field biologists. But I do what I can to protect grasslands, and my interest began with a single person—a teacher in the ninth grade.


Mrs. Ellen Turner was my science teacher at a summer camp in northwest Arkansas in 1990. Mrs. Turner took me and my fellow campers to Searles Prairie, a 12.5-acre remnant tallgrass prairie, which had been put under conservation easement by its owner, Anna Mae Searles. Mrs. Searles had requested that her prairie be used to educate young people about their natural and cultural heritage. Our school bus pulled up to the prairie on that hot summer afternoon in 1990, and for at least one of us, that experience would be life-changing.  

Anna Mae Searles and Ellen Turner at Searles Prairie in the 1990s. Photo: Neil Compton.

Cultivating lifelong grassland enthusiasts


Fast forward nearly 30 years and that ninth grade boy is a 44-year-old lifelong grassland enthusiast. I’m now a director at the BAND Foundation, and many of the grantees that I work with, including the Southeastern Grasslands Initiative, are focused on grassland conservation—all thanks to one inspiring teacher, Ellen Turner.


I live in New York City now, and one of the first grantees that I began working with was the Friends of Hempstead Plains. Did you know that there were once 40,000 acres of native prairie on Long Island? Thanks to the dedicated work of another extraordinary educator, Professor Betsy Gullota of the Nassau County Community College, a 16-acre tract of that once vast grassland is being successfully managed for prairie today and serves as a natural classroom for countless kids (and adults). BAND is working with the Friends of Hempstead Plains to expand that prairie management into an adjacent tract that will more than double the amount of prairie habitat at the site.


The Friends of Hempstead Plains puts education in the forefront of its mission. Through a Nassau County grant, they were able to build a state-of-the-art education center, a Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES) building made of former shipping containers. This visitor center and classroom is powered by alternative energy and has a green roof, planted with seeds that school children and other volunteers collected from the prairie. Students, classrooms and community members can attend prairie-focused activities at the center, stroll along interpretative trails, volunteer with projects such as invasive species removal or picking up trash—all while learning about the significance of this remnant grassland right in their backyard.

A reunion at Long Island's Hempstead Plains. From left: Betsy Gullotta, Clark Mitchell, Friend of Hempstead Plains Executive Director Amanda Furcall, Ellen Turner, Tom McClure. Photo: David Stolarz.

 SGI’s plans for cultivating the next generation of grassland lovers


SGI is beginning to cultivate the next generation of grassland enthusiasts as well. Kids have been helping out at an SGI-led prairie restoration at Dunbar Cave State Park, near Clarksville, Tennessee. Cooper Breeden, SGI’s Plant Conservation Coordinator, recently presented to a group of teachers about the value of the iNaturalist app and explained how SGI is using it to document grasslands. This is just the beginning: SGI plans to ramp up its education offerings with a multitude of programs targeting all age levels. With enough funding, SGI even wants to pursue a grants program that will support grassland-related educational activities that are strongly connected to—or have the ability to guide—on-the-ground conservation.

Children at an SGI Dunbar Cave prairie restoration workday. Photo: Amanda Blount.

 These programs are critical and I hope you’ll support them with your time and with your dollars! It is imperative that we develop the next generation of grassland lovers, while simultaneously doing the important work of conservation today.


My story with Ellen: inspiring the original inspirer


I recently got a call from my former teacher, Ellen. We hadn’t talked in nearly 30 years. She had heard about my work with the BAND Foundation and my love of grasslands. Ellen was trying to raise enough money to help the Arkansas Natural Heritage Commission purchase a 2.5 acre tract of virgin prairie adjacent to Searles Prairie, that site she had taken me to all those years ago. The land around the prairie had become very expensive since I was a kid, thanks to development and urban sprawl.


I told her my story, how my love of grasslands had started with her and with that first trip to Searles. I pledged an amount toward her fundraising, but she later told me it was that story that was the most useful thing I could have given. Ellen used my story—our story—to inspire others to give, and Ellen raised everything she needed. Now Searles Prairie will be a little bit bigger, in part because she took the time to teach a kid how important grasslands are.

Clark Mitchell exploring the Hempstead Plains after being reunited with his teacher Ellen Turner. Photo: Tom McClure.

 I recently had a chance to see Ellen in person. She and her husband, Tom McClure, were in New York for a week. I suggested a field trip to the Hempstead Plains, and Ellen and I got to walk through a prairie together once again, my old teacher telling me the names of plants (“Oh look, there’s blue-eyed grass!”). Only this time, I got to point out a few things to her as well.

Banner photo shows Searles Prairie in 2019. Photo: Eric Fuselier.