Article

Prairie, woods . . . and snow.

Photograph courtesy Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center

Winter Walker
Its a blast to get out on showshoes on a cold winter night with a full moon. Its just really, really cool to be out there, and it is calm, except you will hear owls hooting and coyotes.
Dave Pederson, executive director, Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center

Now, Voyageur
Prairie Woods' canoe is named the EcoVoyageur. No, that isn't a misspelling! Voyageurs were French, Canadian, and American fur traders active in the Upper Midwest in the 18th and 19th centuries. Prairie Woods offers historical programs integrating Minnesota history and the legacy of the voyageurs with environmental and outdoor education.

Little House on the Prairie Woods
The famous American author Laura Ingalls Wilder grew up in Walnut Grove, a town in central Minnesota only a couple of hours from Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center. The facilitys Pioneer Girl Day invites young girls to live some of the daily activities of Ingalls life, chronicled in such books as Little House on the Prairie.

By Stuart Thornton

Monday, November 14, 2011

Located in rural Kandiyohi County, Minnesota, Prairie Woods Environmental Learning Center has a wide variety of programs designed to get students interested in the outdoors and the environment.

The nonprofit organization, on 500 acres of land that includes prairie and forest, offers everything from an afternoon at the facility’s shooting range to an introductory course on water quality testing. In the winter, Prairie Woods offers snowshoe tracking—finding evidence of animals through their tracks or wingprints in the snow.

Kory Klebe, environmental education coordinator at Prairie Woods, says some of the most popular programs are also some of the most unique. One offering allows groups of up to 15 people to explore some of Minnesota’s famous lakes and rivers in a 10-meter (34-foot) canoe. While paddling around, participants learn about water-quality issues and riparian resource management.

Another program, “Pond Study,” can be an unexpected treat for those who participate in it.

“It’s really amazing to dig in the muck and find macroinvertebrates,” Klebe says. Macroinvertebrates include organisms such as crayfish, clams, or freshwater worms.

Dave Pederson, executive director of Prairie Woods, says his organization has a singular goal: “The common thread is connecting people with self, others, and the environment,” he says. “We are doing what we can to connect people to the great outdoors, making an emotional connection with the outdoors and the environment so they care about it. If you haven't experienced it, you are not going to care for it.”

Pederson says all of Prairie Woods’ programs reinforce its mission.

“People can be skiing, snowshoeing,” he says. “They can be doing our time-travel programs, where they step back into a day in the life of the Anders Danielson family in 1888, or they can be on our challenge course. But it’s all about making connections with self, others, and the environment.”

Prairies, Woods, History

The geography of Prairie Woods includes several ponds and 11 kilometers (7 miles) of cross-country ski trails.

“It’s a combination of rolling glacial terrain, some of it forested, some prairie,” Pederson says.

The land previously belonged to the Danielson family, who homesteaded there after emigrating from Sweden in 1871. The Danielson family continued to farm on the property until the late 1980s.

Prairie Woods was founded in 1992, and offered its first batch of programs three years later. Pederson says the facility played host to around 800 people that first year. In 2010, between 20,000 and 22,000 people participated in its programs. Programs are available for people of all ages—from pre-kindergarteners to senior citizens.

Pederson has his own personal attachment to the land at Prairie Woods. Like the Danielsons, his great-grandparents immigrated to the area from Sweden.

“My mother actually grew up on a property that is now a part of Prairie Woods, so there’s a family connection that is pretty deep,” he says.

Renewable Energy

In addition to its programs, Prairie Woods hopes to turn individuals and businesses on to renewable energy by using sustainable technology at its facility.

Pederson says the buildings are primarily heated by biomass, organic materials from plants or animals. That’s an impressive feat, considering winter temperatures can drop to -34 degrees Celsius (-30 degrees Fahrenheit). The facility generates electricity with solar panels and a wind turbine.

“We are interested in demonstrating and experimenting with how do you live in a sustainable way in this place so that others can do the same in the future,” he says. “It’s important for people in our region to be exposed to these technologies and sustainable behaviors.”

One simple but effective way that Prairie Woods uses solar heat is with an air-heating panel mounted on the exterior wall of its climbing room. When the black metal panel becomes heated up by the sun, a fan moves the warmed air into the room.

Prairie Woods also partners with the Southwest Initiative Foundation, the Southern Minnesota Foundation, and the Minnesota Environment and Natural Resources Trust Fund on a renewable energy outreach program called the Youth Energy Summit, known as YES!

“It’s mobilizing groups of students in grades eight through 12 to get connected and work in partnership with their communities on renewable energy, energy efficiency, and energy conservation projects that are going to benefit their school or community,” Pederson says.

YES! mobilized more than 200 students in 2011. Their projects included setting up compost bins at school and installing solar-powered lights along trails in their communities. One team of students won a $50,000 technology grant from Samsung for their energy monitoring program.

Prairie Woods is working to improve its own facility in similar ways. In the future, Pederson hopes to power vehicles with vegetable oil or electricity rather than fossil fuels.

“For now, we are trying to get better at what we are doing,” he says. “In general, what we want to do is continue with the renewable energy initiative.”

Vocabulary

Term Part of Speech Definition Encyclopedic Entry

biomass

Noun

living organisms, and the energy contained within them.

canoe

noun, verb

small, open boat with pointed ends.

compost

Noun

mixture of decaying organic material, such as food waste and plants.

conservation

Noun

management of a natural resource to prevent exploitation, destruction, or neglect.

Encyclopedic Entry: conservation

crayfish

Noun

crustacean resembling a small lobster. Also called a crawdad.

cross-country

adjective, noun

having to do with moving across the country, athletically associated with rough terrain (skiing, trekking) .

electricity

Noun

set of physical phenomena associated with the presence and flow of electric charge.

emigrate

Verb

to move from one's native land to another.

energy efficiency

Noun

use of a relatively small amount of energy for a given task, purpose, or service; achieving a specific output with less energy input.

environment

Noun

conditions that surround and influence an organism or community.

evidence

Noun

data that can be measured, observed, examined, and analyzed to support a conclusion.

facility

Noun

a building or room that serves a specific function.

family

Noun

group of organisms that come from the same ancestors and share similar characteristics. Family is also a classification in chemistry and math.

Encyclopedic Entry: family

farm

Noun

land cultivated for crops, livestock, or both.

feat

Noun

accomplishment or achievement.

forest

Noun

ecosystem filled with trees and underbrush.

fossil fuel

Noun

coal, oil, or natural gas. Fossil fuels formed from the remains of ancient plants and animals.

generate

Verb

to create or begin.

geography

Noun

study of places and the relationships between people and their environments.

Encyclopedic Entry: geography

glacial

Adjective

having to do with glaciers.

homestead

Noun

area of land including a dwelling and any outbuildings, such as barns.

immigrate

Verb

to move to a new place.

lake

Noun

body of water surrounded by land.

macroinvertebrate

adjective, noun

animals that have no backbone and are visible without magnification.

muck

Noun

moist or muddy wetland earth and vegetation.

nonprofit organization

Noun

business that uses surplus funds to pursue its goals, not to make money.

permanent

Adjective

constant or lasting forever.

pond

Noun

small body of water surrounded by land.

prairie

Noun

large grassland; usually associated with the Mississippi River Valley in the United States.

Encyclopedic Entry: prairie

property

Noun

goods or materials owned by someone.

recycle

Verb

to clean or process in order to make suitable for reuse.

region

Noun

any area on the Earth with one or more common characteristics. Regions are the basic units of geography.

Encyclopedic Entry: region

renewable energy

Noun

energy obtained from sources that are virtually inexhaustible and replenish naturally over small time scales relative to the human life span.

resource management

Noun

art and science of directing or negotiating the way people interact with the natural landscape. Also called natural resource management.

riparian

Adjective

having to do with a river or stream.

river

Noun

large stream of flowing fresh water.

Encyclopedic Entry: river

rural

Adjective

having to do with country life, or areas with few residents.

senior citizen

Noun

older person, usually retired. In the U.S., people 65 years and older are considered senior citizens.

shooting range

Noun

site where people may safely shoot guns at targets.

snowshoe tracking

noun, verb

process of snowshoe-wearing people tracking animals in the outdoors, finding evidence through the animals' tracks or wingprints in the snow.

solar panel

Noun

group of cells that converts sunlight into electricity.

sustainable

Adjective

able to be continued at the same rate for a long period of time.

technology

Noun

the science of using tools and complex machines to make human life easier or more profitable.

temperature

Noun

degree of hotness or coldness measured by a thermometer with a numerical scale.

Encyclopedic Entry: temperature

terrain

Noun

topographic features of an area.

unique

Adjective

one of a kind.

vegetable oil

Noun

liquid fat extracted from a plant.

water quality

Noun

chemical, physical, and biological characteristics of water for a specific purpose such as drinking.

wind turbine

Noun

machine that produces energy using the motion of wind to turn blades.

Credits

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Writer

Stuart Thornton

Editors

Jeannie Evers
Kara West

Producer

Caryl-Sue, National Geographic Society

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