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Preserving the plains: Conserving Nassau's nature

Preserving the plains: Conserving Nassau's nature

A hand, frayed and calloused from years of uprooting invasive plants, rose into the Long Island autumn air and pointed, “Butter-and-eggs!” It was a narrow plant with triangular flowers that looked like small eggs, “That’s a non-native species, but it’s not invasive so we leave it be.”

Betsy Gulotta, the land’s conservation manager, smiled and we continued our walk down the small trail through the 19 acres of prairie grassland on Nassau Community College’s campus, preserved as “The Hempstead Plains.” She stopped every few feet and excitedly shouted a grass or flower name like “little bluestem” or “bush clover,” as if the plants were not surrounding her as she wore down the path with millions of footsteps over the last 17 years.

Sitting in her cramped third floor office, she remembered when the Plains was just an uncultivated grassland basking in 1988 sunlight, “As the college grew, the open land shrank so we finally got to the point that we wanted to save what little we had left.”

A student was taking a make-up exam in the hallway behind me and light shined from a corner window on Gulotta’s blue eyes. A hanging vine plant hovered above a smaller potted plant on the windowsill. Her bookshelf was loaded with an adorable amount of books on ornithology. Notable titles include “A Treasury of Bird Love, Red Tails in Love” and “Zoology Coloring Book.”

The prairie grassland was of particular interest to Gulotta because of sand plain gerardia, the most protected endangered species among all plants and animals. “It won’t live anywhere else! It has to have this grassland to preserve it,” Gulotta said as she bent over and flipped through a file cabinet near the floor, “Oh, it’s not in the brochure, but look it up on the website!”

The Nature Conservancy “supposedly took care of the property,” from 1988-2000. In 2001 Gulotta made the change from a full-time to an adjunct professor. “I’ve been a professor here since, believe it or not, 1969,” she said with a chuckle. “I never thought I wanted to be a teacher at all,” she said. “At all! Although in graduate school I got a grant to be a teacher for the labs.”

In 2001, she helped form a nonprofit organization, Friends of Hempstead Plains, to look after the Plains and has been the conservation project manager since.

“As an educator you just really want people to learn something about what is important, what you feel is important,” she said.

This tall prairie grassland is very important, not only for Gulotta, but for the preservation of different species of plants and insects. She emphasized that this is the only “true” tall grass prairie east of the Appalachian Mountains. “You have to realize that all living things on our planet need a place to live and the Hempstead Plains have very specific kinds of plants and those plants bring in specific types of animals.”

The Plains also attract a community of people who thrive in the grassland habitat. In the most recent newsletter, Gulotta boasted of 1,100 people who came to visit the Plains in 2017. Flipping through the pages, I saw poetry, math problems and records of bird counts put together by volunteers who love to be a part of something bigger than themselves.

Funding is a challenge for the Plains. People can pay dues to be a member of the Friends of Hempstead Plains, which  Gulotta told me to look at in the brochure. They also charge an honorarium if they speak out in the community.

 “We have a few things in what we call our ‘little store’ that we sell,” she said. The store is a desk in the “green” roofed Education Center on the Plains. For sale there are books of poetry made at the Plains’ own writing workshops; honey made from the Plains’ own bees; T-shirts and patches; pouches filled will fuzzy little grass seeds to plant in a backyard; and books explaining the history of the original 250-acre prairie grassland.

Gulotta was awaiting the results of a botanical survey and ecological assessment done by the New York City-based BAND Foundation, who specialize in nature conservation. The foundation would fund a three-year restoration project to remove invasive species and preserve native grasses, like the sand plain gerardia, in three different pieces of land, as Gulotta explained while looking for a map of the area.

A 65-acre “nice piece of prairie” opposite the Marriott Hotel on the other side Hempstead Turnpike, and a 15-acre plot at Eisenhower Park, would also be included with the Hempstead Plains for the project.

“We’re very excited!” Gulotta said. “I just love being out there and the fact that we have a habitat that we can preserve.”

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