Restoring what once was

Oftentimes in the realm of ecological restoration, you will hear some people talk about restoring an ecosystem to its “pre-settlement conditions.”  This is somewhat of a narrow-minded approach, as those conditions represent only a moment in time, specifically, the conditions as seen by the settlers.  In the case of prairie restorations, as Chris Helzer wrote, “we can plant the most diverse mixture of native prairie seeds we can, and let the new prairie establish in a way that conforms to today’s soils and climate.”

All terrestrial ecosystems have been subject to constant change in their structure and appearance through the hand of Man and the wisdom of Mother Nature over the last tens of thousands of years and billions of years, respectively.  Human beings are a part of those ecosystems, sometimes a good part (restoration), but far too often a damaging part through modern, industrial agriculture (attempting to feed the world), housing developments, non-native lawns, land clearing, and other unsustainable or destructively myopic activities.  Many people feel that what they do in these modern times does not affect the land, either theirs or others’, because, “we are not a part of the ecosystem” – a silly, line of thought born out of ignorance and denial.  And then there are those who preach the concept of “wilderness”, but in reality there is no such thing.  Wilderness is an anthropogenic label that was made into reality only by the legality of 1960s feel-good legislation.

However, prairies (and other associated ecosystems like wetlands and oak savannas) can be restored to a semblance of their historical glory, simply because the sight of a prairie is something many people have never seen.  A recent article in National Geographic called the farming and oil region of South Dakota a prairie.  Wheat, alfalfa, corn, and oil patches do not constitute a prairie in any form, much less a grassland.  For the most part, true prairies are a thing of the past (save for the lonely, yet spectacular remnants), plowed under for row crops or for tame, almost synthetic pastures for domestic grazers.  In effect, restoration of a prairie is the reconstruction of an historical plant community.

When performing restoration work, the key points are to get rid of exotic species that do not belong, revitalize the present natives (or introduce missing natives back to their homelands), as well as restore ecological functions and processes that depend on native plants and organisms.  Healthy, functioning ecosystems are so inextricably linked to native plants that their complexity can be overwhelming to most people, hence a mindset of myopic apathy is taken as the easy way out of understanding one’s natural heritage.  Those linked processes and functions are broken when exotic, invasive species such as Smooth Brome (Bromus inermis), Johnsongrass (Sorghum halepense), Old World Bluestems (Bothriochloa ischaemum, B. blahdi, B. caucasia), Tree-of-Heaven (Alianthus altissima), and many others are introduced into an ecosystem, causing environmental degradation, water quality issues, and loss of native flora and fauna, to name a few.

It is unfortunate that restoration ecologists have to do what they do, but the work is also critically necessary and extremely vital to our quality of life and the overall health of the Earth.  Mankind cannot survive on Monsanto crops and GMO foods forever, nor can wildlife and plants survive without their native habitats, which are increasingly displaced on a daily basis as human populations overwhelm remaining natural ecosystems, land development and land clearing activities continue, and the too progressive hand of our modern culture eradicates more than what is restored or conserved.  This is not intended to be an alarmist statement, rather, it is from facts and studies with repeated results – we have a much higher quality of life when we have places in which to observe nature doing what it always has.

It’s hard for a lot of people to understand the need for protecting remaining prairie and other natural lands.  One is the urbanization of the mindset of millions of Americans.  They take for granted the lumber found at hardware stores, toilet paper in general stores, and the produce and other foods found at grocery stores without thinking about where it comes from or how it was processed.  As conservationists, we can tell people, “there is less than 1% of the original tallgrass prairie remaining in North America”, but some people can’t visualize that.  The prairie was such a vast and dauntingly open space we will never know again nor get to experience, unfortunately.  In order to really understand the loss of prairies, one needs to travel from north to south, or east to west, and see the remaining prairie tracts that are surrounded by the biological doom and gloom of modern agriculture, roads, golf courses, cities, parks, and other artificial, man-made installations.

Another way is to look at a map that shows all the current prairies, remnants or restored, on a Lower 48 scale.  Each prairie would barely be visible on the map; they would resemble pinpricks or grains of sand scattered about.  At this point, some people might think, “Well, if there’s hardly any left, why bother saving it?”  And that is a damaging question.  It invites apathy to a lot of people, but it also presents another opportunity in which to educate them.  Ninety-nine percent of the tallgrass prairie was gone before more than a handful of people truly knew what a prairie was; knew of its astounding biodiversity and unmatched web of life.  There is so much we don’t know about prairies because they were wiped out too fast.  For the remaining prairies, the importance of protecting them is so that we can learn about those ecosystems.  Science has millions of insects yet to be discovered, and possibly thousands of plants yet to be seen for their medicinal properties, some of which may hold the cure for cancer or AIDS.  Nature can give us much more than corn and beef if people would slow down and learn at her pace, see things through her windshields, and dance with her seasonal tunes.

Many people will claim that a prairie or grassland that is not being burned, grazed, or mowed (much less plowed and growing crops), is “wasted”.  I’ve never understood that outdated agrarian concept nor understood the need for constantly doing something to the land or trying to feed the world.  And with 40% (even 50% according to some sources) of the food produced in the US wasted (uneaten), converting cropland to prairies isn’t wasting one square inch of land; it is rejuvenating it, freeing it of the slave-driving production that the Great Plains are so mercilessly used for; it is about returning a biota that is perennially sustainable (without government subsidies, artificial irrigation, or GMO seed) to a place it occupied for 12,000+ years before European agrarianism destroyed the prairie; it is what should be here in this wide open country because it fits the climatic extremes of that region so well.

A late spring thunderstorm rolls in at Griffith Prairie, highlighting the (?) grass and spotlighting the perennial forb
A late spring thunderstorm rolls in at Griffith Prairie, highlighting the Little Bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) and spotlighting the perennial forb, Leadplant (Amorpha canescens).

Prairies are also huge sponges to help rainfall infiltrate into aquifers and recharge the groundwater.  Since most of the prairies in Nebraska are farmed, almost all of the water runs off the land.  Current groundwater withdrawal rates in the Ogallala Aquifer region of the Great Plains are higher than what is being recharged (returned to the aquifer); 90% of the withdrawn water is used for irrigation of annual crops such as corn and soybeans.  Prairies require no water at all, except what Mother Nature gives.  Drought tolerance of corn and other annual cash crops don’t hold a candle to the drought tolerance of a prairie, and with watersheds broken up, diverted, changed, and all but destroyed, replenishing groundwater aquifers in the face of a warming climate will be less and less probable as long as our nation continues to try and feed the world.

Surface hydrology in all watersheds within the Ogallala Aquifer region are forever altered by farming, roads, dirt work on ranches, dams, channelization of streams within towns and cities, roadside ditches, houses and other structures, reuse pits, shelterbelts, etc., and those man-made scars will be there for a very long time, causing groundwater recharge of the aquifer (and any other) to become that much harder, if not impossible in some areas, due to those human made artifacts being in the way and interfering with flow of water – which always follows the path of least resistance.  And because farming has changed the prairie soils to a large extent (especially in the form of compaction), the rate of precipitation infiltration has also negatively changed.  Factor in climate change and the farmers have it really rough in the coming decades.  It’s way past time for a change.  We can all live without corn, but we cannot live without water.

“The trouble with water – and there is trouble with water – is that they’re not making any more of it.  They’re not making any less, mind you, but no more either.  […] People, however, they are making more of, many more – far more than is ecologically sensible – and all those people are utterly dependent on water for their lives, for their livelihoods, their food, and increasingly, their industry.  Humans can live for a month without food but will die in less than a week without water.  Humans consume water, discard it, poison it, waste it, and relentlessly change the hydrological cycles, indifferent to the consequences; too many people, too little water, water in the wrong places and in the wrong amounts.”  – Marq de Villers

This former 34 acre cornfield once required 18 gallons per minute per acre per day to keep the corn growing. The irrigation well casing failed, and at a cost of $16,000 to fix, it is far cheaper (and better for the environment) to convert this area back to prairie, which we did at PPRI.

“On a per-acre basis, with no fertilization, irrigation, or cultivation, prairies sequester almost five times more carbon dioxide than cornfields.  In fact, most cornfields are net emitters of carbon dioxide and contribute directly to soil erosion and impaired water quality.  And they provide little or no wildlife habitat value.”
– Steve Aplfelbaum, Chairman and Principal Ecologist of Applied Ecological Services and author of
Nature’s Second Chance: Restoring the Ecology of Stone Prairie Farm, 2010.

The site is being disc plowed to break up the corn rows and corn stubble prior to restoration planting.
The site is being disc plowed to break up the furrows and bean stubble prior to restoration planting.
Filling the drop spreader with wild, native seed.  Roughly 150 plant species are in the mixes used at Prairie Plains Resource Institute.
Filling the drop spreader with wild, native seed. Roughly 150 plant species are in the mixes used at Prairie Plains Resource Institute.
Planting with drop spreaders is relatively easy - drive the pulling vehicle (ATV in this case) and make uniform passes that cover the longest ground in each pass - and don't run out of seed and keep going!
Planting with drop spreaders is relatively easy – drive the pulling vehicle (ATV in this case) and make uniform passes that cover the longest ground in each pass.  The passes on this site ran roughly one half mile North to South.  A GPS unit is mounted to the front of the ATV to track our progress and makes it easy to see spots we may have missed.
Compassplant (Silphium laciniatum), a classic tallgrass prairie wildflower, is being planted as a seedling at a private planting.
Seedlings (1-3 years old) can be used in addition to seeds to diversify age classes of plants in restoration plantings, providing a heterogeneous stand structure and creating micro climates conducive to seed germination.  Here, Compassplant (Silphium laciniatum), a classic tallgrass prairie wildflower, is being planted on a private site that was recently burned with prescribed fire.

“What is life about if we cannot know and enjoy our own heritage? Do we have to bow completely to the economic dictates in which every inch of prairie soil is valued for row crop production? There is an aesthetic value to the prairie. It is beautiful in its own right.” – David Monk, 2003

For more information on the Great Plains and its nearly decimated landscape, view the film “The Great Plains: America’s Lingering Wild” by Michael Forsberg.  Copies can be bought here and a preview can be seen here.


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