An Adjusted Aesthetic and Reflections on Portraying Change

I have long admired the work of Stephen Packard.  His book  The Tallgrass Prairie Restoration Handbook (co-authored with Cornelia Mutel), for example, is a classic among restoration practitioners.   More importantly, he observes, reflects, and shares his thoughts in ways that influence the fields of prairie and savanna ecology in deeply meaningful ways.

In a recent blog post, Packard discusses a trip he and others took to Africa and shares thoughts about – among other things – the adjusted aesthetic required when visiting “real nature”.  The term adjusted aesthetic really resonated with me.  In his post, Stephen is referring to the way he and his fellow Illinois prairie ecologists had to get used to seeing grasslands and savannahs that were consistently and universally impacted by large numbers of grazing animals.

I often run into a similar situation when I talk to people about using grazing as a prairie management tool here in North America.  To many prairie enthusiasts, especially to the east of Nebraska, prairies and grazing don’t go together.  The idea of allowing big stompy animals to eat and crush plants just seems wrong, and the few pastures (mostly chronically overgrazed) they’ve seen bolster that opinion.  The prairie aesthetic in eastern tallgrass prairie is generally one of tall and abundant grass and blooming wildflowers.

On the flip side, ranchers I work with in the Great Plains tend to have a very different aesthetic.  To many of them, a grassland with tall plants that are producing seed is a waste.  That productivity should be put to USE!  We have a big world to feed, after all…  A pleasing-looking prairie to many Great Plains ranchers is one that is not too tall, not too short, and dominated by grasses, not “weeds”.  This is not a universally-held opinion among ranchers, of course, but common.

This photo is very aesthetically pleasing to me.  I like the patchiness of the habitat, the floristic diversity, and the presence of grazers showing that the prairie is changing at the moment the photo was taken.  However, some people will recoil at the site of cattle in a prairie, while others will see an undergrazed prairie full of weeds.

This photo is very aesthetically pleasing to me. I like the patchiness of the habitat, the floristic diversity, and the presence of grazers showing that the prairie is changing at the moment the photo was taken. However, some people will recoil at the site of cattle in a prairie, while others will see an undergrazed prairie full of weeds.

I spend a lot of time talking to both audiences (and many others) about prairies and the positive attributes of both grazing and rest.  I try to explain that plants can easily survive being stepped on and bitten off, and that there can be great value in adding large herbivores to the mix – at least in many prairies.  At the same time, I offer reminders that periodically allowing plants to produce seed heads is both good for habitat and builds vigor in those plants that can help provide stronger and more consistent productivity – especially under stressful conditions.

However, Packard’s post reminds me that it’s important to address the issues of prairie ecology and management from an aesthetic standpoint as well.  It’s one thing for us to agree on the principles of how a prairie should be managed, but if we stand and look at a prairie with very different visual desires and expectations, we’re going to have problems.

My personal prairie aesthetic is one of change and progression.  I like prairies that are DOING something, mainly because I think fits with what prairies are – dynamic ecological systems that are constantly in flux.  Prairie communities are constantly changing in response to fire, grazing, haying, rest, or weather.  Their resilience and ability to adapt to stresses both defines and preserves them.

Fire is one of several major factors that propels change in prairies.

Fire is one of several major factors that propels change in prairies.

Our Platte River Prairies change in appearance pretty drastically through both time and space.  As you walk through our prairies, you can find areas that are being intensively grazed by cattle, other areas recovering from a recent bout of that kind of grazing, and still other areas that are tall and rank.  Just about everyone would be able to find something aesthetically pleasing in our prairies if they walked far enough, but many people would also find areas they thought were jarring or ugly.  If they walked the same path a year later, they’d likely see a similar mix of habitats, but in different places and with different appearances than in the previous year.

Packard’s post has stimulated me to think about how I can more effectively portray the dynamism of prairies.  Photography is obviously a major communication tool for me, but individual photographs provide only a quick snapshot (literally) of what something looks like at the time the picture was taken.  To show change, I need to use series of photos that cover long periods of time.  The timelapse cameras at our Niobrara Valley Preserve and the restored wetland in our Platte River Prairies both help with that, but I should also be taking more photos of other places through time to show how they change from season to season and year to year.

When I see this photo, I see a prairie that has responded to drought and wildfire from a year ago, and is also being affected by bison grazing.  However, to people who aren't familiar with the site and its recent history, the photo is less instructive.

When I see this photo, I see a prairie that is responding to drought and wildfire from a year ago, and is also being affected by bison grazing. However, to people who aren’t familiar with the site and its recent history, the photo is less instructive. A series of photos over several years would help me share the change I see much more effectively. The Nature Conservancy’s Niobrara Valley Preserve.

What’s your personal prairie aesthetic?  Does it include change or is it a static image of what a prairie should look like?

 Please consider visiting Stephen Packard’s blog at:



About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is the Director of Science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. His main role is to evaluate and capture lessons from the Conservancy’s land management and restoration work and then share those lessons with other landowners – both private and public. In addition, Chris works to raise awareness about the importance of prairies and their conservation through his writing, photography, and presentations to various groups. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press. He lives in Aurora, Nebraska with his wife Kim and their children.
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20 Responses to An Adjusted Aesthetic and Reflections on Portraying Change

  1. Not that anything stated above is unfair, but in the context of the more eastern tallgrass prairie, I would like to state the following.

    1) I haven’t met many people that have a static view of prairie, even in Iowa, Illinois, or Wisconsin. Many have a different view on the relative importance of different forms of disturbance.

    2) The stompy animals that were more prevalent towards the east were not bison, but elk, which have different habits compared to bison and cattle. We have no idea what the impact of losing elk has been, nor do we know what a good management surrogate would be.

    3) Most eastern prairies are relatively small. It is a challenge to manage them with cattle, because cattle could only spend a few days at any particular prairie, and prairies are far apart and not necessarily near other grazing/cattle production. There are native, disturbance dependent species on these prairies, but there is also a lot of edge and surroundings often dominated by invasive species that have life histories that capitalize on soil disturbance. which presents a conundrum. Often, disturbance-dependent species find homes where encroaching woody vegetation is removed or burned, along trails, etc.

    4) Grazing presents fewer challenges further west, but we need to consider that disturbance patterns created in our managed systems are likely much different from those created by bison, which migrated over vast areas, focusing on completely different landscapes at different times of year. Penned comparisons of bison and cattle (like those from Konza) are comparisons of the two animals in production systems and not comparisons of present-day cattle to historic bison. That said, there isn’t any clear reason why we need to imitate a historical pattern of grazing and disturbance. We should just know that we aren’t, even when there are hundreds or thousands of acres to work with. Grazing needs to occur with particular management goals and with awareness of the impacts–just like you do Chris!

  2. Katie Stevens says:

    Grazing has always been prevalent on the prairie — the question is what is grazing. I agree that the problem with grazing further east is that the prairies there are so small. I see no problem with grazing a large-enough prairie (whether with cattle or bison) if numbers, distribution, season of use and stocking rates are kept paramount. Wild ungulates self-regulated these factors, but ranchers have to do the work with cattle. Many western Nebraska ranchers are doing a fine job with this, while others overstock.

    Another factor to remember is that something is preserved if it has economic value. That is the way of the world. Grass fed beef has economic value, and can thus help preserve prairies. Ranchers will preserve their lands in grass if they can get a return from that grass. In turn, that grass benefits many prairie species. Conservation organizations can never hope to preserve the acreage in grass that ranchers can. At the heart of it, ranchers should be allies of prairie preservationists, not enemies. If prairie preservationists work with ranchers and help them to enhance their livelihoods, it could be a symbiotic relationship.

  3. Mike says:

    Loss of seed production is the most detrimental impart of grazing. Plants are not allowed to set seed before grazed. Suburbanites like to wish their lawns looked like the local golf course. What most do not realize is that golf course is constantly over seeded to place worn out dying plants. A prairie over seeds naturally.
    Prairie plants are not immediately visible either like rye grass and marigolds. As we know it takes much longer to see results of native seeding.
    Grass production is greatly reduced in the west vs eastern prairies. As drought intensifies the cattle which man manages are not permitted to migrate to greener pastures. Those cattle are kept until the grass is exhausted then slaughtered if the drought persists.
    There seem to be too many variables for a set rule.For instance we raise much more beef per acre in the east then the west due to the eastern climate and soils ability to produce forage.
    I agree with Chris, my greatest pleasure is experiencing the changes and evolution in my prairie plots. Not only the reestablishment of native grasses and forbs but also the wildlife that returns.

  4. Jeff from Minnesota says:

    Grazing is another disturbance tool and should be used for a predetermined purpose and structured for that purpose. Season long low intensity grazing, short term high intensity grazing, no grazing and other applications of it can be very useful in achieving goals, it just depends on what the objective is. And one objective may indeed be to maximize the abundance of showy plants (the calendar prairie), as those iconic visions of flower filled prairies inspire many people to take up the cause of prairie conservation. And at the other extreme, a close cropped area is part of the habitat requirements for prairie chickens, upland sandpipers, and burrowing owls, and those species are yet another reason people care about prairies. So realizing that people will have different aesthetics (I’m still trying to convince local farmers that ragweed is a good thing) providing for as many of these aesthetic values as we can is vital if we are to keep prairies a part of this human dominated world.

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Jeff and others – great comments and discussion, thanks! Here are a few thoughts.

      Dan (Prairie Botanist), I certainly didn’t mean to imply that eastern prairie folks have a static view of prairies, so if that came through, I apologize. I do think SOME eastern prairie naturalists tend to focus heavily on floristics, and I wish they’d think more about insects and other non-plants. Homogenous management treatments such as frequent burning or haying may be sufficient to maintain floral diversity, but certainly limit habitat variety and have some other limitations for other species. That said, I also completely understand the limitations of prairie size and the ramifications that has on management options (and I’ve written about that in previous posts). I definitely don’t advocate grazing on (most) very small prairies, but I do think there are some creative ways to offer more habitat heterogeneity that could be interesting to try and study.

      Laci – trying different animals is certainly worth a shot. Goats tend to be forb eaters, which can make them tricky – but not impossible – to utilize when plant diversity is the primary objective. Camelids would certainly be interesting…! I like the way you’re thinking. I also think a single cow could provide some interesting impacts on a small prairie, but the logistics and infrastructure needed to maintain that cow will almost always make that infeasible, I’m afraid.

      Jeff, your comments on objectives are spot on. Whether it’s eastern or western prairies (or northern or southern) thoughtful objectives and strategies to match are the key.

      Overall, what I’m hoping to do is make sure people are thinking beyond their favorite species, group of species, or visual image of what a prairie should look like. Focusing on the larger biodiversity and ecological resilience of sites is critically important, especially in prairies under added stress from invasives, climate change, fragmentation, and other threats. Every prairie responds differently to management, so there’s no RIGHT way to do it. If we’re thoughtful and adaptive, we’ll probably do good things.

      Thanks for your thoughtful responses, everyone.

      • Craig Maier says:

        I’d also suggest that we may now be in the middle of a period when there is a rapid increase in the number of land stewards and ecologists across the Midwest who are thinking about managing for heterogeneity in habitats and also taking measures to conserve and restore insects, fungi, and other components of the prairie ecosystem. The plight of the Karner blue butterfly and regal fritillary have helped to raise awareness over the last decade, and over the last one to two years, conversations are more and more often coming around to bumble bees, ground nesting bees, silphium borers, and a litany of other tiny creatures. Many, if not all of the burns conducted by the State Natural Areas program in Wisconsin incorporate refugia to help protect insects with strict habitat requirements and dispersal limitations. When I polled the Wisconsin Prescribed Fire Council earlier this winter to learn about research needs, one of the first topics that was brought up was rare, threatened and endangered species – particularly insects. Whether we are discussing prairie fens in southern Michigan, oak openings in northwest Ohio, fragments in the Chicago area, broad expanses of prairie in western Minnesota, bluff prairies in the Driftless region, oak savannas in southern Iowa, or the Loess Hills in western Iowa, I am consistently hearing about pyrodiversity and insects among prairie enthusiasts north and east of the Missouri. When I started attending prairie conferences eight or nine years ago, this was more of side topic raised by a few passionate researchers and advocates, but it is rapidly moving to the center of the conversation and being discussed among undergrads, interns, and old hands alike.

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  6. James McGee says:

    I have both views of our local prairies. I have known some plants for a least a decade and in my mind those prairies are static. In contrast, I have seen a lot of changes over time. I agree that grazing should be done in natural areas out of a prescription. In certain areas grazing would be useful in reducing dominating species allowing disappearing species a chance to survive. I would like to see grazing used as a tool in prairie restorations in the east. I think grazing could reduce dominating plants giving species being over seeded a chance to get established. I also think prairie fires in the east are typically too hot. I think grazing would contribute to “pyrodiversity” increasing survival of a number of species.

  7. James C. Trager says:

    Prescribed burning is also not as uncontroversial as people seem to think here in the Midwest. Some bullet points:
    * While it’s hard to argue with the stimulation of the herbaceous layer, and the prettiness and diversity of post-burn green-up and flowering, the impact on invertebrates that pass the winter in the litter layer and vegetation residue that constitutes most of the fuel for a prescribed burn is generally negative, and sometimes catastrophic. (This goes to James McGee’s point above about fires being too hot.)
    * There’s a good study from Florida longleaf pine savannas (which, as we’ve heard before form Chris, have many prairie like management features/concerns) demonstrating near-nil insect herbivory in the middle of spring burn units during the following growing season, with increasing levels of leaf damage approaching the edges of the units. One could argue this as a positive for vegetation, if indeed more seed is produced and germinates during the “vacation period” with very reduced insect damage.
    * In an amazingly detailed study of over 1200 species of insects and spiders in a 20+year study in southern Swiss chestnut woodlands (some sites burned at a several-year interval perhaps since Roman times!), long-unburned sites have different small fauna from long-burned sites, or from those recently brought into a fire-regimen.
    * Comparably, in a survey of Orthoptera (crickets and grasshoppers) of Missouri, the researchers found a very distinctive and rich fauna at TNC’s Bennett Springs Savanna (described by many who see it as a prairie with trees, because of the composition fo the herbaceous flora), frequently burned for as long as any local old-timers could remember, compared to even nearby sites of different burn histories (irregular, infrequent or recent-only).
    * In some western grasslands, burning strongly favors invasion by cheat grass (Bromus tectorum), and in California, it is reputed to favor invasion by a whole host of Mediterranean-origin invasives in the delicate and vanishingly rare native grasslands there. Close to home, in Missouri prairies, spring or winter fire as the only management favors Lespedeza cuneata, Coronilla varia, Lotus corniculatus, and Vicia spp., which need chemical control measures (or haying or mowing or some sort of livestock grazing, etc.), which prevent, rather than stimulate their reproduction by seed.
    * So, a couple of big questions that come from what I’ve written above are:
    Do we accept the aesthetic of a prairie with no insect damage?
    To what extent does our aesthetic tolerate invasive species, since they are here and we shall never be without them?


    • Chris Helzer says:

      Great questions, James. I don’t, of course, have great answers – which I think is the point you’re making. The Orthoptera survey sounds really interesting. Is the Bennet Springs fauna similar to prairies in MO while being distinct from woodlands. I’d really like to know more about how invertebrate communities vary with habitat structure in grasslands with similar plant communities but varying structure across them. I know some of this has been done with patch-burn grazing research in Oklahoma – I’ll have to look it up.

  8. Ian Lunt says:

    Hello Chris, thanks for another great post. We face the same issues in remnant grasslands in Australia. One of the reasons why I think it is very valuable to portray the endlessly changing dynamic of the prairie is to try to reduce the visual ‘distance’ between what a visitor may see on a random day, especially when everything doesn’t look its best, and the visions we often portray when we photograph the sites at the peak of their splendor. I often worry that it’s extremely difficult for a new observer to make any links between our superb photos and the reality of a grassland in a poor season (‘is that really the same site?’). Your time-lapse sequences are a great way to highlight that a grassland / prairie is continually changing, and that some features look awesome in some periods and others at other times. Trying to find a way to bridge this seasonal gap between the beauty and the ordinariness (to the uninitiated) seems very important or we risk putting people off through a perception of ‘false advertising’. BTW Steve Packard’s work was very influential over here as well. I wrote a blog about his influence a while ago: Thanks for the link to his new site, which I had missed. Keep up your wonderful posts, best wishes Ian

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Thanks Ian – you bring up a great point about visitors. I’d thought about including something on that topic but decided to keep the post shorter… : )
      I agree – we have a tricky balance to maintain between using photographs to engage people and attract them to natural areas and the risk of “overselling” nature so much that it doesn’t live up to the hype when people come to see it in person. I don’t know what the answer is, but I do think timelapse is an important tool. I also think that photographs of small things (flowers, insects, etc.) are helpful because they encourage people to look closely for beauty, even when the landscape around them may not live up to their “calendar photo” ideals. Of course, since I’m a macro photographer at heart, I’m probably a little biased toward that second opinion… Thanks for the comments and the reminder about your Steve Packard post!

  9. Nature Boy says:

    A really thought provoking article. I tend to lean toward the beautiful forbs and grasses are the best part of a prairie point of view. It’s easy to forget that the prairie is a very complicated ecosystem with lots of moving parts that we don’t usually see. I like your comment that prairies are naturally dynamic and should be “doing something”. I’m a rookie NE Master Naturalist – interested in our prairie heritage – and your blog is a great resource for me. Thanks for pushing me out of my rut.

  10. James McGee says:

    In the Chicago region we have another issue regarding aesthetics. We have what “savannah lovers” call “tree lovers” and vice versa. A number of people want to return areas to an oak savannah structure by removing native trees that have invaded due to fire suppression. In contrast, there are areas that have a well developed woodland flora which a number of people believe should be maintained in the current closed character. In cases this rather simple difference of opinion has effectively divided the conservation community. When people cannot agree they often just stop talking to one another. After reading Chris’ blog I have learned that we really need both views if we are going to maximize diversity.

  11. Dave from western MN says:

    On the (tall grass) prairie restorations on my land, I have 2 basic goals : increase native biodiversity (starting with the plants & everything else will follow) and increase soil organic matter. If an activity or management option improves those 2 qualities of the acreage, then I go that route. I have one chunk of ground that I took out of farming in 2000, it has not been cropped, grazed, hayed, or burned since. The biodiversity there is probably higher than any other restoration within hundreds of miles. This has mainly been achieved by carefully hand picking and hand spreading of seed from local native remnants by my wife & I in our spare time. It has been a source of great satisfaction to see this ground flourish.

    I have to take issue with one statement you made : “We have a big world to feed, after all…” Farmers in the area often make a similar statement – “But we need to feed the world”. This, I think, is used as justification for the “aggressively farmed” local attitude (farm every acre and do whatever it takes to get maximum bushels per acre). And also goes to the underlying issue of “I need/want more money”. I would counter that it makes as much sense for American agriculture to feed the world as it does for China to be the manufactured goods producer for the world. Many of the repercussions are the same. Actually I think the world should feed the world. Just as, if we manufactured more of our own consumer goods, we would be better off in so many ways.

    I am not promoting that we stop farming and restore everything to prairie. But I am saying we have gone way too far in the other direction, to the point there is only a fraction of one percent of the prairie remaining in this area. We need more balance, more diversity. I think we are supposed to learn from nature. And it is very obvious that nature is diverse and full of “cycles”.

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