The Right Metaphor for Prairie Restoration

Prairie restoration can be a powerful tool for grassland conservation, but we’re not taking advantage of its full potential.  Too often, we think and talk about prairie restoration (aka prairie reconstruction) in the wrong way.  Instead of trying to restore an ecosystem, we try to reproduce history.

Nelson Winkel, land manager for The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies, harvests grass seed using a pull-behind seed stripper.

I was in Washington D.C. a couple weeks ago and visited Ford’s theater, where President Lincoln was assassinated in 1865.  After the death of the president, the building went through drastic changes, including being completely gutted after a partial collapse of the interior.  By the time the decision was made to restore the building for use as a historic site, the National Park Service basically had to start from scratch.  Regardless, through painstaking research and a lot of hard work, the theater was rebuilt to closely resemble Ford’s theater of 1865.

The rebuilding of Ford’s theater is a decent metaphor for much of the early prairie restoration (or reconstruction) work dating back to the 1930’s in North America – as well for some of the restoration work that continues today.   In the case of prairie restoration, someone identifies a tract of land that used to be prairie but has been converted into something completely different (usually cropland), and tries their best to restore what was there before it was converted.  Just as in the restoration of Ford’s theater, the prairie restoration process requires lot of research and hard work to identify, find, and reassemble what had been there before.

Unfortunately, the Ford’s theater approach has turned out to be a poor fit for prairie restoration.  Prairies aren’t buildings that have specific architectural plans and well-defined pieces that can be collected and assembled to create a pre-defined end product.  Prairies are dynamic ecosystems that are constantly changing and evolving, and their components include organisms that interact with each other in complex ways.  Trying to recreate a prairie that looks and functions just as it used to – especially on a small isolated tract of land – is nearly impossible.

Reseeded prairie at The Nature Conservancy’s Kankakee Sands Restoration Project in Indiana. If the plant community today looks different than it did before it was farmed, is that really a failure of the restoration project?

That doesn’t mean small scale prairie restoration is a bad idea.  I think reestablishing vegetation that is similar to what was at a site many years ago can have tremendous historic and educational value, and can also provide important habitat for many grassland species.  Where this kind of prairie restoration falls flat is when we expect too much from it.  It’s really easy to find glaring differences between the restored prairie and what we know or think used to be there – soil characteristics are different, insect and wildlife species are missing, plant species are too common or too rare, etc.  These “failures” have led some people in conservation and academia to become disillusioned with the whole concept of prairie restoration.

In reality, prairie restoration has proven to be very successful, and is a tremendous tool for grassland conservation.  We just need to find and apply a better metaphor.

A Better Metaphor for Ecological Restoration

Unlike efforts to restore old buildings, prairie restoration projects should not be aimed at recreating something exactly as it existed long ago.  Instead, effective prairie restoration should be like rebuilding a city after large portions of it are destroyed in a major disaster.  When reconstructing a metropolitan area, replicating individual structures is much less important than restoring the processes the inhabitants of the city rely on.  The people living and working in a city depend upon the restoration of power, transportation, communication, and other similar functions.  Those people don’t care whether roads, power lines, or communication towers are put back exactly as they were before – they just want to be able to get the supplies and information they need, and to travel around so they can to do their jobs and survive.  Restoration success is not measured by how much the rebuilt areas resemble the preexisting areas, but by whether or not the city and its citizens can survive and thrive again.

Similarly, restoration of fragmented prairie landscapes should not be an attempt to recreate history.  It should be an attempt to rebuild the viability of the species – and, more importantly, the processes – that make the prairie ecosystem function and thrive.  Success shouldn’t be measured at the scale of individual restoration projects, but at the scale of the resultant complex of remnant and restored prairies.  Are habitat patches sufficiently large that area-sensitive birds can nest successfully?  Are insects and animals able to travel through that prairie complex to forage, mate, and disperse?  Are ecological processes like seed dispersal and pollination occurring between the various patches of habitat?  When a species’ population is wiped out in one part of the prairie because of a fire, disease, or other factor, is it able to recolonize from nearby areas?

Pollination is an example of an important process that drives prairie function. Increasing the size and/or connectivity of prairies by restoring areas around and between prairie fragments can enhance the viability of pollination and other processes.

At first glance, choosing the appropriate metaphor for prairie restoration may seem insignificant compared to other challenges we face in grassland conservation.  However, if we’re going to successfully restore the viability of fragmented prairies, we can’t afford to waste time and effort worrying about whether or not we’ve matched pre-European settlement condition, or any other historical benchmark.  Instead, we need to focus on patching the essential systems back together.

After all, we’re not building for the past, we’re building for the future.


Read more on this subject…

– An earlier blog post about using prairie restoration as a landscape scale conservation tool.

– A prairie restoration project case study, with ideas about how to measure its success.

– Some recent early attempts we’ve made to measure restoration success by looking at the responses of bees and ants.

– A post about the importance and definition of ecological resilience in prairies.

28 thoughts on “The Right Metaphor for Prairie Restoration

  1. This was fantastic. Thank you. I think we need lots of new metaphors in ecological and environmental movements, because current perceptions seem to hinder more than help progression.

  2. The most telling sentence in your post is the last one: “After all, we’re not building for the past, we’re building for the future.” However, if we’re building for the future AND trying to do this specifically in locations that are isolated from other native populations – then does it make sense to try to manage for the health of native species that we know are viable within a certain sized area? If for example you’ve got 10 acres to work with in an area surrounded by cropland for a mile in every direction – is there a subset of native species that could / should be viable and could be managed for?

    I’ve got one of those small isolated ‘prairies’ that is brome-infested and at present just intend to eliminate trees, burn and watch and wait to see what native plants will be able to re-establish their dominance … but it would be nice to have some goals that are animal/insect-focused … and realistic given the isolation of the prairie.

    • Teresa – yes, I think you’re on the right track. I know you read my post about how to manage small prairies, in which I presented some of my thoughts, so I’ll stick to that instead of restating it all. I do think that in your case, you want to pick objectives that match both your desires and the potential of your land. You’ll be able to do some great things – just don’t set unreachable goals!

  3. More important, perhaps, than finding the best metaphor is finding ways to cause more (and larger)prairie reconstructions to happen at all.

    • You’re right, Ted. Having the ability to do something is not the same as having the opportunity. All the same, you can’t do the second without the first, so at least we’re part way there! I tend to think that we’ll find opportunities for large scale restoration in the coming years. As commodity prices, social pressures, and lots of other factors change, land use priorities change too. If we’d been where we are now when the 1985 Farm Bill created CRP, for example, we might have been able to put that program to better use (higher diversity, local ecotype seed mixtures and more strategic locating of the seedings near remnants, etc.). We need to be ready when the next big (or small) opportunity comes.

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  5. Chris,
    You had to pick a controversial topic for elections day. :) However, your metaphor is particular apt after hurricane Sandy.
    I’m going to play devil’s advocate. The fact is … seed of species we really want to establish is hard to obtain in any quantity. Everytime we sow that seed, we are placing a bet. History is a great predictor of success. However, other factors like soil moisture, soil chemistry, biological factors, topography, light levels (savannah and woodland), weather, etc. are important considerations in the absence of precise detail. Variable factors like fire regime, grazing regime, and preserve size will also effect the outcome. A species which never previously existed in an area may do quite well if introduced. An example locally is Royal Catchfly, Silene regia. Some would argue that restoration is taking resources away from conserving remnant ecosystems. I do not completely agree, but I have seen people focus on their restorations when higher priority work in actual remnants was not being accomplished.
    In summary, using history as a guide is important. If we are trying to recreate prairie, what could be a better measure of our success than to compare our restoration to an actual remnant?


    • James, there is definitely value in using a historical context to help design seed mixtures that stand a good chance of establishing. As you say, however, it’s not always possible to predict which species will establish based simply on what used to be there. Conditions change because of farming history, fragmentation (and associated issues with edge, invasive species pressure, etc.) and of course climate. Also, trying to establish every plant species at once has inherent problems.

      However, the biggest problem I see with using remnants as reference sites is that those remnants have their own management history that has shaped the plant community – along with the soil and other conditions. The plant community – relative abundance of species, at least – can change with management, so who’s to say the current community is what a nearby restoration “should” look like? In fact, a restoration that has some different plant species and different relative abundances of species can act in a complementary fashion by providing resources not provided by the remnant – potentially improving conditions for the larger prairie. There’s nothing wrong with looking at existing remnants to get an idea of what potential exists for a restored plant community. But I think it makes more sense to look at a range of remnants to get a broad feel for potential rather than trying to match one particular remnant. And the biggest point I tried to make in this post was that success should be measured at a scale larger than an individual seeding project.

  6. ChrIs, I’m curious about possible plans for prairie restoration on the land being purchased to Provide water to the Republican river. Any discussions on how this land will be managed?

  7. You’ve put into words what my husband and I experienced when we purchased 160 acres of Saskatchewan prairie in 2003. We returned cultivated sandy soil to mixed grasslands and eventually we found native species growing in the seeded grasses. Most exciting was standing amid the pollinators–the sky was hazy with them–and hearing frogs again in the dugouts and sloughs. Without chemical applications to the land the surface water cleared again and was usable for cattle and irrigating the garden. Native aspens also started to spread out, giving shelter. The wild animals (mostly foxes and moose) squatted with the cattle, taking full advantage of the straw bedding. I cried to leave it two years ago, but it was life-affirming to know how little it takes to see nature return itself to balance: mostly, a little time to be left alone to do its thing.

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  9. I hope one thing that will be restored is the wildlife. Black-footed ferrets have been reintroduced back into Saskatchewan. I hope the greater prairie chicken will be reintroduced back as well soon. The swift fox has been re-established in both Alberta and Saskatchewan. Buffalo National Park in Alberta has led to the re-establishment of the plains bison.

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