Musicians put in many long hours of practice before they step on stage before they step on stage and have the opportunity to win over a live audience.

This was kind of the situation that Scott Glup, a project leader with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service in Litchfield, found himself in on Wednesday.

During his free time, he devotes literally hundreds of hours at the Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center as a volunteer. He’s passionate about prairies. He spends long hours removing invasive trees from prairie areas, hand-harvesting native prairie seeds and planting them in the areas from which he has removed the trees.

On Wednesday, over 130 students in Youth Eco Solutions teams from schools throughout west central Minnesota met at the Prairie Woods Environmental Center for the fall kickoff of their programs. Split into groups, Glup had about 40 minutes with each group to introduce them to the importance of prairies. He hoped to inspire in some of them the same interest and appreciation he holds for our natural landscape.

He started by admitting the challenge he faces. “You can’t care about something you don’t know about,” he said.

For most of the students who made the trek up the hill to the prairie being restored near the Westby Observatory, this was the first time they had stepped on native prairie. “The vast majority of you will not be on a native prairie again in your life,” Glup told the groups.

Only about one percent of Minnesota’s native prairie remains today, and there really is no bringing them back. While we are restoring prairie plants in areas, we are not successful in matching the diversity of a native prairie, Glup explained. Along with holding more than 300 different species of flowering plants and grasses per acre, native prairies hold soils that are filled with unique microorganisms. Certain plants rely on specific microorganisms, and once lost, so too are the plants.

“They don’t make this stuff anymore,’’ Glup said of native prairie.

Much of what is now the grounds of the Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center was covered by the northern tallgrass prairie. A colorful butterfly known as the regal fritillary and a moth known as the poweshiek skipperling were once as abundant on this prairie as are the stars at night over this last vestige of our native habitat.

Glup has spotted one regal fritillary in his many hours on the prairie here. They rely on a native prairie plant known as the prairie violet in the same way that monarch butterflies depend on milkweed. “Without prairie violets, there are no regal fritillaries,” he explained.

Glup said the poweshiek skipperling has been fast disappearing from Minnesota’s remaining prairies in the last 30 years for reasons we do not yet know.

At an alarming rate, Minnesota is also losing many of the 400 species of native bees that pollinate prairie plants, Glup told the students.

He reminded them as well that we’ve drained away 90 to 95 percent of our wetlands. Prior to settlement, there were an average of 87 wetlands per square mile in what we now call Minnesota.

An acre of new prairie can sequester 2,000 pounds of carbon dioxide per acre per year. Prairies hold nutrients and prevent erosion that harms our waters, according to Glup.

We are losing genetic diversity as prairie species blink out. We don’t know the future implications of these losses, he also told the students.

“This is a special place and we’re trying to save this,’’ Glup said. He offered each group a mix of the native prairie seeds he hand-harvested in the past weeks, and invited them to spread the seeds on some of the land he cleared of invasive cedars and buckthorn.

Students participating in the Youth Eco Solutions gathering that day at the Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center also devoted portions of the day to programming on water quality and a variety of other, ecological projects, as well as team building time and fun on the “flying squirrel.”

Originally began and known as the Youth Energy Summit, YES! has shifted focus to include more opportunities for ecological projects, Taylor Templer, coordinator for the west central Youth Eco Solutions teams told the Tribune. She said the change recognizes that more young people are interested in our environment and want to make a positive impact in their communities.

Glup said he is always interested in introducing the prairie to young people, but was especially eager for this opportunity. Because of the interest of these students in ecology and positive work, he knew he had a good audience.