Our Prairie People: JoAnn Collins

Published by Aspen Huebner on

JoAnn Collins: A Voice of the Prairie

JoAnn Collins, a passionate advocate for prairie conservation, shares her journey of falling in love with prairies and her efforts to raise awareness about their importance. She actively engages with the community and encourages others to understand and protect the local ecosystems. Read along as we dive into JoAnn’s prairie journey, showcasing her irreplaceable role within the NPAT community and how passionate individuals like her drive real change!

Can you share with us what initially sparked your love for prairies?

As a child my parents and grandparents would go on “Sunday Drives”. I wasn’t interested at first but without a phone and being a chronic carsick kid, I had to look out the window or I would get sick! As my family was calling out this crop or that crop, I found my attention drawn to the fencerows where the wild things grew. So I guess I had a secret crush on prairie plants. When I became a Texas Master Naturalist, I gravitated to trees and even took the Citizen Forestry class. However, things changed when I heard about trying to save a 200-acre tract of native prairie near Benbrook Lake. I became the sole organizer who searched for prairie advocates and planned a monthly hike on the prairie once a month until the prairie was sold to a developer. This group of people became the backbone of the new Fort Worth chapter of NPAT. During this time I met Kirsti Harms, Pat Merkord, and Amy Martin and soon got involved in planning the Prairie Conference that started the Fort Worth and Dallas chapters in 2014. I am a charter member of the FW-NPAT chapter which began with many of the folks I gathered to try to save this prairie. This summer marks our 10 year anniversary!

This sets up the way the prairie wormed its way into my heart. Those monthly prairie saunters truly revealed the prairie to me.

It’s not what it is on one day, but all days that make it special. Visiting at least once a month allowed me to see the changing palette that prairie’s very nature provides. If you don’t see something blooming on the prairie today, look harder! Even in the depths of winter there’s life there and the shades of bronze show the variety of flora that will burst forth in spring.

How do you actively engage with the community in Fort Worth to raise awareness about the importance of prairies?

With my trusty sidekick Evaline Woodrey, we attend all sorts of events to discuss prairies with the public. As a teacher, I encourage students to gain community service by attending events such as the annual Savage Cabbage Bash and all of our monthly chapter meetings. I even tell kids they can watch our local chapter meetings via zoom and send me an email telling me a couple of things they learned to earn service hours. Many students are not taught about the ecosystem they live in. I feel it’s more important to understand the ecosystem where you live, than the ecosystems across the planet!

As a state NPAT board member, I enjoy attending landowner workshops and finding out how their strategies are saving and restoring prairie. I have also been involved in supporting prairie conferences and I have attended some spectacular ones! I encourage others to attend these because you get to hear from boots on the ground prairie folks with the newest prairie research.

Last year, I received The Tallgrass Prairie Reader, edited by John T. Price, as a gift and was so inspired by reading some historical accounts of prairies that I decided to spend the year doing a prairie essay of my own every month. I titled these articles “Sundays On the Prairie” and posted them on my Facebook page. It also sent me on a quest to find nature writings written about Texas. Unfortunately I haven’t found many! I would love to read more Texas prairie authors! Great current prairie reads are Matt White’s Prairie Time and Amy Martin‘s Wild DFW. Amy’s book will even lead you to local public prairies!

Being a school teacher with a passion for educating children, do you integrate lessons about prairies into your curriculum? If so, how do you make it engaging for your students?

Since I am now retired, I work as a sub for Fort Worth ISD. I encourage students to join us at events and earn community service. I like to talk to them about “Savage” Cabbage whose common name is a word that gets their attention (Bastard Cabbage)! I joke about it to encourage their attention so they will be educated about its invasive nature. Unfortunately, it’s been easy to point it out this year since it’s on every roadway!

The other way I encourage prairie education is by holding teacher workshops. We plan on having another one in the fall. Sending information out to teachers by email and participating in the NPAT Pocket Prairie Facebook page is an easy way to promote prairies. I recently took a day off from subbing to teach kids at the Northeast Prairie School Classroom in Yantis. What fun!

What advice would you give to others who are interested in getting involved in prairie conservation efforts?

The best advice I can give to folks is to use your voice. Talk about prairies to those in your circle, whether in person or on social media! I’ve even been known to invite a family I talk to in line at the grocery store! So many of our friends and associates don’t think about the plight of our ecosystem. They need to be reminded. Pick NPAT as your birthday fundraiser. Talk to your HOA, apartment management, and city leaders about supporting native plants and having less mowing. Do some prairie preaching!

Are there any upcoming projects or initiatives that you’re particularly excited about?

As a NPAT board member, I am very excited to embark on our new journey of the North Texas Prairie Initiative where we hope to protect another 2,000 acres of land in the North Texas region. I serve on the NTPI committee and am looking forward to great success with our new Executive Director, Amber Arseneaux. I enjoy meeting landowners and discussing how to best serve the ecosystem with their properties. We have amazing land owners!

You mentioned your love for prairies, but do you have a favorite place in Texas that holds a special significance for you? If so, what makes it so special?

My favorite spot in Texas was the prairie I worked to save 10 years ago in SW Fort Worth. At the time the General Land Office was trying to sell 2,000 acres of mostly degraded land in the area. They would not split off 200 acres of prime remnant prairie to give us the opportunity to fundraise for it. As I brought people to visit the property every month to raise awareness, the land somehow wound its way around my heart. The sun kissed flowers that change their hue throughout the seasons; the sight of monarchs roosting in trees on their fall migration; the animals and birds we encountered over the time we were there; the limestone fossils that remind us we were not the first here; all of these plus more makes us yearn for our land of long ago. I visit the Sid Richardson tract at Benbrook Lake when I miss my special prairie. It’s the closest public prairie to that land. However, when Fort Worth opens Rock Creek Park, that land is just adjacent to my lost prairie. I’m looking forward to spending time there when it opens.

Photos by Sean Fitzgerald

Can you tell us about your favorite conservation activity or project that you’ve been involved in?

Eight years ago when my child and I were riding bikes along the Trinity Trail we noticed the tall plants with flowers that strangely reminded us of the Truffula Trees in The Lorax, which we had recently watched. A little investigation revealed this plant to be the invasive Rapistrum rugosum, aka Bastard Cabbage. Because the name lends itself to curiosity with teenagers, I started discussing it with the students in my classes where I sub. Eventually a student asked how to get rid of it and we talked about it being an annual plant, needing seeds of this year to reproduce next year. The class said they could pull it. So, with my guidance, a class at Young Women’s Leadership Class contacted one of their sponsors, Marty Leonard of Tarrant Regional Water District, to set up a meeting with the folks there to see what could be done. This led to the first Savage Cabbage Bash, a name coined by the girls at YWLA, since we couldn’t call it by its real common name! We have held Bashes every year except during the covid-19 pandemic. This year, we have held three bashes, and at least one more is planned, since this is the worst year yet of this plant!

Given your passion for prairie conservation and environmental activism, do you bring aspects of conservation efforts into your home life? If so, could you share some examples of how you incorporate sustainability and conservation practices into your daily routines?

I have loved trying to reproduce a pocket prairie in my yard. I have had limited success, in that prairie plants grow where they are happy and that often means where I planted them is not where they particularly stay! Finding the balance between wild prairie and urban lawn is not easy, but it is a struggle I embrace, even to the extent of explaining my yard to code compliance. I have found that educating your neighbors and sharing is a good way to not rock the boat!

2024 Savage Cabbage Bash along the Trinity River in Fort Worth
2024 Savage Cabbage Bash along the Trinity River in Fort Worth
2024 Savage Cabbage Bash along the Trinity River in Fort Worth
2024 Savage Cabbage Bash along the Trinity River in Fort Worth
Looking ahead, what are your hopes and aspirations for the future of prairie conservation in Texas?

As an elementary educator, my passion would include making sure each Texas child learns that they live on a prairie and all of the ecosystem services that prairies provide. Growing up I loved to watch Little House on the Prairie but never realized that I lived on one that was so similar. Every citizen living in Texas should know what kind of ecosystem they live in and hopefully be informed so that they can use their voice to protect it. Of course I want more prairie land conserved and responsibly managed to survive the changes we see coming.

Could you share a personal motto or philosophy that guides your work in preserving these vital ecosystems, both within your community and in your everyday life?

Having a propensity for preaching prairie preservation perpetually is a perfect motto! Reading about prairies from past by various authors has filled me with such a sense of loss. I would invite folks to read a good prairie book, it’s like going to nature church. Here are a few of my favorites: The Tallgrass Prairie Reader and Not Just Any Land: A Personal and Literary Journey, both by John T. Price; Ecology & Economics of the Great Plains by Daniel Licht; and The Prairie and the Sea, a special gem of a book written in 1905 by a Methodist minister name William Quayle. I wish I could find more writing by Texas authors. I recently read that the Texas landscape was already changing before the Civil War, and I know that the North Texas county where my dad’s family farmed was crawling with people in the early 1900’s. So, by then some of our historic prairies were already lost, as all it takes is a plow to change a prairie forever. Now it’s our job to find and restore them!

JoAnn and her grandmother standing on a prairie in Leonard, Texas

Interview by Aspen Huebner


Leave a Reply