Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Conferences

A guest post by Eliza Perry, one of our Hubbard Fellows.  All photos are by Eliza.

Last week, most of the Platte River Prairies cohort hopped in a van together and drove to South Dakota for the annual Patch-Burn Grazing conference, one of many conferences I’ve attended in the last four months.

Before I started with The Nature Conservancy, I had never been to a professional conference and the concept was very mysterious to me. Who goes to conferences? What do all of these people do for days at a time together? Why are conferences necessary? I found answers to these questions quickly, and continue to be blown away by each one that I attend. To be honest, I didn’t have a clear concept of patch-burn grazing systems prior to last week. Conferences like these aptly serve as a classroom for the newbies like myself and also as a forum for the seasoned to offer feedback, discuss strategies, and reflect on successes and disappointments. But perhaps above all they serve as a reminder to experiment!

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Tractors towing loads of “prairie people” from site to site at the Grassland Restoration Network workshop in July (Missouri).  I thought it was a creative way to transport so many people, but it was also a pretty goofy sight.

On one hand, prairies have varied responses to climatic, seasonal and environmental conditions, keeping us on our toes. But on the other hand, there is some discernible rhythm to land management, despite what Chris and Anne discussed in a recent post, and it is our job to constantly review and reevaluate our methods and maintain self-criticism, though it can be difficult to think beyond our own situations. The Patch-Burn Grazing conference was not just an opportunity to see what works elsewhere, but to open ourselves up to possibilities that hadn’t occurred to us or that we had previously discounted.

It’s been fascinating to see that what works at one site or in one particular year is not necessarily the end-all-be-all solution to our ever-present invasive problems, maintenance backlogs or lack of manpower. But hearing about others’ strategies prompts some useful reflection. For example, the fact that haying has been a prairie management tool for more than a hundred years does not mean definitively that we ought to continue doing it, partly because no one yet understands its comprehensive effects on things like soil composition, and also because there may be a more efficient or effective alternative management tool.  Likewise, as Chris argued at the patch-burn grazing conference, assumptions that seem to be common sense, such as the idea that promoting plant diversity and habitat heterogeneity allows most prairie species to thrive, still need to be tested by anyone whose management objectives are influenced by them. I was also interested to learn that the often-held “more is better” presumption that a high seeding rate is necessary to achieve high plant diversity was found not to be true at one of the restoration project sites that presented at the Grassland Restoration Network workshop this summer.

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A silver carp dances in front of my camera for a moment during a Missouri River field trip at the Nebraska Natural Legacy Conference.  Up ahead is a boat full of Nebraska’s conservationists.

The cherry on top of all this perspective-gaining for me is that I meet loads of interesting, energetic people from all corners of the Great Plains who are willing to answer my questions, reassure me it’s taken them a long time to understand all that they understand, and let me listen in on their conversations with others. All in all, I think conferences are an awesome way to share knowledge, build relationships, and provoke thought.

Editor’s note:  Eliza and Anne have been able to attend some really good workshops and conferences during the first four months of their Fellowship with us.  Most of those conferences have been relatively small and narrowly focused – and most of included great field trips and lots of time for discussion.  Unfortunately, for those of us who attend a fair number of them, not all conferences, conservation or otherwise, are like that.  More on that topic in the near future…

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is an ecologist and Eastern Nebraska Program Director for The Nature Conservancy. He supervises the management and restoration of approximately 4,000 acres of land in central and eastern Nebraska - primarily along the central Platte River. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press.
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10 Responses to Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Conferences

  1. Daniel Thompson says:

    I do a minuscule amount of prairie management in west central Illinois. 95% of that effort is by myself alone. I’ve been following your blogs for a few years, now but I’m always very appreciative of what you write (and photograph). Perhaps the most important thing I’m reminded of is that prairie work is continuously a learning opportunity, and that experimentation and patience are important.

  2. thompsonxyz says:

    Oops. Sorry Eliza. I thought I was responding to a post by Chris. (That might be because your post is right on the target.) You are fortunate to have done what you’ve done in 4 months and are clearly focused well.

  3. James McGee says:

    I think the following deserves its own blog post.

    “I was also interested to learn that the often-held “more is better” presumption that a high seeding rate is necessary to achieve high plant diversity was found not to be true at one of the restoration project sites that presented at the Grassland Restoration Network workshop this summer.”

    It makes complete sense. I think restoration practitioners prefer a higher seeding rate to help reduce invasive species control work. However, I think the best result is achieved by going slow. It is best to establish the species which are typically infrequent in restorations first. If you go slow and one species seems over abundant then you can interseed with other species to help balance the composition. Many of the best species have not even produced seed in the last two years because of the drought and time needed to recover. In cases, it may be best to put off a restoration effort until the desired seed can be obtained. In my garden, prairie species have been permanent once established. Since this is the case, it is important to get it right the first time.

    James

    • Chris Helzer says:

      James,

      Interestingly, it seems the appropriate strategy varies (widely) by site. Many sites have experimented with small plantings early in the process and then expanded the scale of their work once they found a strategy that works well for them. What’s fascinating is that the successful strategies are pretty different from site to site, and – at least up this point – we’ve not been able to figure out exactly why, or to predict what might work at a site until several options are evaluated. In some places, a very high seeding rate (often excluding most or all of the more aggressive native grass species) has turned out to be the best strategy. In other places, a very light overall seeding rate is sufficient and successful. Some sites struggle with invasives much more than others. Some sites fight against eventual domination by native grasses, while others. It’s very interesting, and maybe someday we’ll know enough to predict outcomes, but for now, it seems the best option is to just start by doing small experimental plantings until a successful strategy becomes apparent.

      You’re right, it’d be a good blog post. I’ll add it to my list.

      • James McGee says:

        I think a lighter seeding rate would tend to be best in healthier soils and a heavy seeding rate would be needed in poorer soils. In healthy soils a larger number of seedlings will grow to maturity, produce more seed, and fill in the gaps more quickly. In poorer soils the exact opposite occurs.

        The health of soil can generally be improved by feeding it. I let deciduous tree leaves decompose on my garden during the winter before I plant. The leaves improve the soil, both by enriching it and loosen it. I think the action of the greatly increased population of soil organisms is what helps loosen the soil. The best part is the weed seeds somehow get killed producing a nearly weed free bed. I think the heat produced by the decomposition of the leaves either causes the weed seeds to germinate prematurely or kills them out right.

        I still think the grass dominance issue is a biological problem. I think nematodes are most likely the important factor. The restorations where grass dominance is not a problem likely had some thin strips of native turf that were missed when the sod was originally broken.

        James

        • James C. Trager says:

          “The health of soil can generally be improved by feeding it.”
          I’d hesitate to make this generalization, James. We’re back to Chris’s comment regarding site specificity of what works.
          Around here, all else being equal, fertile soils generally give us more weed problems during establishment of prairie plantings than do less fertile ones. I’ve been heard to complain on occasion the “We are cursed with good soil”. And of course, you couldn’t, just to give an extreme example, restore a sand prairie on good soil. Even former sand prairie soil that had undergone the indignity of being fertilized or manured for a number of years could take a while to leach out sufficiently to be good for replanting sand prairie.

          • Chris Helzer says:

            James T, I tend to agree with what you say. It’s much easier to get a native plant community established with few weeds on sandy soil than on more productive soils. And, I’d also say that of the sites I’m familiar with, managers tend to lean toward using heavier seed rates on more productive soils and lighter rates on less productive soils. Though, of course, that varies… : )

          • James McGee says:

            Hi Mr. Trager, There is a big difference between nitrogen rich manure and the deciduous tree leaves that get raked in the fall. Deciduous tree leaves are primarily carbohydrates. The decomposition of tree leaves adds organic matter to the soil without spiking nitrogen level. I can easily see the difference between the tan soil that was old lawn and the adjacent dark soil which was enriched by the decomposition of dry leaf matter. In your area, weed free straw might be a better choice. Soil enriched with low-N organic material looks a lot like virgin soil. Indeed, the accumulation of decomposed dead plant material is probably how these soils develop. I think I am able to restore the level of organic matter in one or two seasons that would otherwise take centuries to accumulate. The conservative plants that naturally grow in these conditions should establish more quickly if the soil is restored. The plants in my garden sure have appreciated it. This includes both conservative natives and my tasty home grown vegetables.

            James

  4. Pingback: The Kind of Conferences I Learn Best From | The Prairie Ecologist

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