Their school is one of the most rural in Minnesota, located miles from the nearest town amidst the open prairie of western Minnesota in Lac qui Parle County.
Yet the lands surrounding the Lac qui Parle Valley High School are missing one thing: True prairie alive with tall grasses and colorful flowers waving in the winds.
That’s about to change, thanks to a project that has won a group of students at the Lac qui Parle Valley High School state honors. The school’s Youth Eco Solutions or YES! Team won first place, “all star” honors from among 21 YES! Teams in this year’s annual awards competition.
Consisting of only 15 students, (13 of them are now graduates), the team members decided they would convert about 38 acres of land surrounding the school back to prairie.
“It takes a lot of work, a lot more than we were expecting,” said Jessica Sigdahl, a YES! Team member. She was among the students who joined with their team captain, high school science teacher Rachel Rigenhagen, Taylor Templer, YES! coordinator for schools in the west central region, and this reporter at the school site this week. Afterward, they joined for pizza to celebrate their win.
The students are the first to admit they knew very little about prairies until they joined for a conference sponsored by YES! at the Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center near Spicer.
At the conference, the students were told that less than 1 percent of native prairie remains in Minnesota. They learned about the diversity and resilience of native prairie plants, which survive dry years and wildfires with roots that probe as deep as 15 feet.
They returned from the conference armed with information about the importance of prairies as well. Prairies provide needed habitat for a diversity of pollinators and wildlife, improve water quality and prevent soil erosion.
“I didn’t know half of them,” said team member Breann Longnecker, of the introduction to the diversity of plants found in a prairie.
There was a lot more to learn, and not all of it about prairies. Their instructor said the students worked with Sara Reagan, farm bill biologist for Pheasants Forever in Lac qui Parle County, to plan the prairie and obtain grant funding for it. The students successfully pitched the idea of converting the school-owned land to prairie to the district’s school board. The students sent out letters to local groups and visited with some to raise funds. The land had been enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, but was no longer in it.
Reagan wrote a grant application for the students’ project. The school was awarded a $50,000 Conservation Partners Legacy grant. A portion of the funds — $12,000 — will be used to plant native prairie on former food plots on Wildlife Management Areas in Lac qui Parle County.
The students needed to raise 10 percent of the $38,000 of the funds to be used on the school project. They overshot their goal. Along with raising funds, the students received pledges of in-kind help. The technicians at the Lac qui Parle County Soil and Water Conservation District are donating their time to seed the prairie with over 50 different species.
The students’ goal is to make this a place for everyone to enjoy and learn about the prairie, according to Rigenhagen. The plan is to eventually develop a walking trail and add signs to acquaint people with the native prairie plants that once filled the landscape in its entirety here.
The work to prepare the site for planting is taking place this year. Last year was too wet to allow the work to be done, said Rigenhagen. The seeding will be done this fall, with the possibility of adding some live plants next spring as well.
Their team leader said she was not surprised that the students took on a project as ambitious as this one. Along with it, she pointed out that they’ve taken on a wide range of projects, from adding solar lights to a bike trail in Appleton to collecting plastic bottles for recycling at high school basketball games to recycling holiday lights and plastic dry markers used by the school.
“A good group of kids,” said their instructor. “They do work hard. If you ask them to do it, they will do it.”
The Lac qui Parle district has sponsored a YES! Team since 2008. A previous team helped build a cold weather greenhouse on the campus. "It's all about the coach," said Templer of Lac qui Parle Valley's successful YES! program.
Team member Kyson Kells is an avid hunter and angler, and has plans to pursue a degree in environmental engineering. He said his passion for the outdoors led him to join this team. He and other students said their instructor and the fun they’ve enjoyed together as a group also explain why they’ve devoted so much of their time and energy to YES!
YES! has helped them all develop a better understanding of our natural environment and the importance of protecting it, said Rigenhagen.
The student’s enthusiasm was appreciated by Reagan, who said this has become one of her favorite projects with Pheasants Forever. She likes the fact that it will bring attention to the prairie, and that it all came from the minds of young people. “If they are thinking about stuff like this now, what are they going to be able to do as adults in the real world?” said Reagan. “What kind of awesome stuff are they going to be able to do as they move forward?"
Started in 2007, YES! aims to develop youth leaders and help them "learn by doing" as they take on clean energy, habitat restoration and other projects. Major funding for the YES! program is provided by the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund as recommended by the Legislative-Citizen Commission on Minnesota Resources.