at Warrenton’s Clifton Institute
Story and Photos by Lindsay Hogeboom
“To inspire the next generation of environmental stewards, to learn about the ecology of the northern Virginia Piedmont, and to conserve native biodiversity” — this is the mission of the Clifton Institute, a Warrenton non-profit located on Blantyre Road. The organization’s 900-acre property, which is permanently protected under a conservation easement, boasts a variety of beautiful landscapes and wildlife habitats and provides an ideal setting for the environmental education, habitat restoration, and ecological research being conducted by Clifton Institute staff and volunteers.
Get to Know the Directors
For Bert Harris, executive director of the Clifton Institute, his interest in nature began during his childhood in north Alabama, where he became fascinated by birds. This interest grew as he continued his education at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee. “I started a natural history club to try to get other students interested in animals and plants that were on the campus,” says Bert. “That kind of gave me the idea of what it would be like to do environmental education.”
Eleanor Harris, managing director of the Clifton Institute, explains that while she has always had a love for the outdoors and animals, her career path took a slight detour in college, where she majored in mathematics before discovering her passion for biology her senior year. During graduate school in computational biology, “I was a teacher’s assistant for a couple classes and then I volunteered at a local prison teaching algebra. I realized I really loved teaching.”
After the couple moved to Virginia in 2015, they began attending and volunteering with the Clifton Institute’s education programs. In 2018, the Clifton Institute’s board of directors brought on both Bert and Eleanor to co-direct the organization. The couple lives in Marshall and are conducting restoration and conservation efforts at their home also, which ties into their work at the Institute.
Providing Nature-Based Education
Bert and Eleanor work with staff members and volunteers to provide a wide variety of educational programs for youth year-round, including summer camps, nature and science clubs, and guided hikes around the field station. “A big part of our teaching philosophy is letting kids drive our programs,” says Eleanor. “We always stop and talk about whatever they want to because whatever is catching their interest is the thing that they’re going to go home and remember, tell their friends about and want to come back and see again.” However, Eleanor says they are mindful of keeping a healthy balance between exploratory time and structured lessons. “I think those two things play off of each other — of course…there is specific scientific information we’re trying to impart, but then we also want to make sure to give them time just to be outside, getting to know each other and getting to know the landscape.”
The Clifton Institute also offers educational programs for adults, including monthly bird walks and Mindful Naturalists programs, a series created to inspire mindful observation and nature appreciation. Many of the educational programs the organization offers — both for adults and youth, in-person and virtual — are free, making them highly accessible.
According to Eleanor, “One special thing about our organization is that we’re not just an education organization and we’re not just a conservation organization, but we’re both of those things, and they feed off of each other in a really positive way. By having kids and adults come to our programs we get to show them the restoration work that we’re doing so they get to see what they can do on their own properties…. Vice versa, having kids and adults here also helps our restoration work because we hear from them what they want to learn and what problems they’re having on their own properties.”
Restoring the Northern Virginia Piedmont
One facet of the Clifton Institute’s mission is conserving native biodiversity. To that end, staff are conducting a number of restoration initiatives, a major focus being northern Piedmont grasslands. “They’re almost all gone now — they’re hanging on in little, tiny fragments in powerline clearings mainly,” says Bert, “but there’s a lot of interest in restoring them. When people buy land, many want to convert their non-native fields into wildflower meadows.” Bert says that if the Clifton Institute can work with landowners to tweak their seed mixes to consist of Virginia-native plants, then grassland restoration can happen on a large scale across the region. “I think that’s important because not many people are advocating for Piedmont prairie restoration. By being picky about the seed mixes around here, we can plant beautiful wildflower meadows that are also recreating these prairies.”
In addition to providing information and seed mixes for grassland restoration, the Clifton Institute recently hired a new employee who visits properties and gives landowners advice about managing their land for the benefit of local plants and wildlife.
Conducting Environmental Research
During 2021, the Clifton Institute’s primary research project will be tracking American Kestrels to determine what kinds of habitats these birds use for hunting to better understand the causes for the species’ decline. “An interesting thing about the project is its overlap with agriculture,” says Bert. “For a lot of the conservation tactics that people recommend, you have to stop agricultural production on your land. But with Kestrels, you should be able to have a win-win in some way. They really like the short grass that cows maintain, and row crops may also be suitable. We don’t know the details yet, but there’s definitely promise.”
A Gem in Warrenton
When asked what makes the Clifton Institute unique, Eleanor says, “Our property is just such a special place. We’re really fortunate to have…all sorts of different habitats, and an amazing amount of biodiversity that we can show our visitors.” Eleanor says this is important because allowing people to interact with nature in this way fosters a sense of environmental stewardship that will benefit the future people, land and wildlife of Fauquier County and beyond. “My goal, especially in our education programs, is not so much to impart solutions to any one problem, but hopefully to get both kids and adults to care about doing the right thing for the environment in general.” In addition, Eleanor says, “I think…it’s good for our society to have happier, more grounded, peaceful, compassionate people from having spent time outside.”
To learn more about the Clifton Institute’s education offerings and environmental restoration and research initiatives, visit cliftoninstitute.org.