Ruminations on Tree Planting and Prairie Conservation

Trees are great, but trees in and around prairies can negatively impact habitat quality for many grassland plant and animal species and provide points of introduction for invasive species.  Encroachment by trees has become a major threat to prairie conservation in many landscapes.  

A few months ago, I cut across the courthouse lawn on my way home from the office (I was walking – it’s a small town).  On the west side of the courthouse, there are a number of statues and other monuments memorializing veterans of various wars.  In the midst of those, however, is a very different kind of memorial (pictured below).  This plaque-on-concrete memorial got me thinking – yet again – about our relationships with trees, our desire to plant and care for them, and how that affects our former, current, and future relationship with prairie.

We love trees so much, we use them to memorialize important events and people in our lives.  Sometimes, we then create memorials to honor people who plant trees!

We love trees so much, we use them to memorialize important events and people in our lives. Sometimes, we even create memorials to honor the trees and the people who planted them!

I live in Nebraska, home of Arbor Day.  Early European settlers of Nebraska were enthusiastic tree planters for both practical and aesthetic reasons; our legislature even designated us as “The Tree Planters State” back in 1895.  There were good reason for all that tree planting.  It’s certainly nice to have shade around one’s house and yard, and a grove of trees provides a valuable shield from strong winter winds for both homes and livestock.  In addition, early settlers found the open prairie lacked adequate wood for fuel and building materials.  However, despite the numerous practical uses for trees, I think most tree planting was and is done primarily as a way to make the landscape more visually appealing.  People just like trees.

This brings me to my contemplation of tree planting and prairie conservation.  Research has shown that when given a choice, people seem most attracted to the aesthetics of a savanna-like landscape – one with scattered trees and short grass.  That mindset is evident in the way we design our yards and parks.  Not only do we enjoy having trees, we really like to plant them ourselves.  We gain immense satisfaction from the simple act of digging a hole and plopping a seed or small seedling in the ground, knowing that we and future generations will be able to watch that tree grow skyward.  The trees we plant often become almost family members in the way we celebrate their growth and mark time by how big the trees were when such and such happened.

The landscaping around the Hamilton County, Nebraska courthouse (where the above plaque is located) is a great example of the kind of scattered trees/short vegetation landscape humans find aesthetically appealing.

The landscaping around the Hamilton County, Nebraska courthouse (where the above plaque is located) is a great example of the kind of scattered trees/short vegetation landscape humans find aesthetically appealing.

This brings up two issues for those of us working to conserve prairies.  First, we’re starting from a handicapped position when we advocate for prairie conservation because prairies are not what most people visualize when they think of natural beauty.  Given the choice between a treeless grassland and a park-like landscape dotted with trees, most people would choose the wooded park as a site to photograph, hike or picnic, or build a house.  In fact, there are countless examples in which people buy a small patch of prairie for a recreational property and immediately plant numerous trees to make it “look nicer.”  We really haven’t changed much from our European settler predecessors in that regard.

Second, we haven’t yet found a prairie-related analog to tree planting; a simple activity that creates something people can take ownership of, love and nurture.  Planting trees is so easy a child can do it, and with very little investment of time or money, someone can establish a couple trees that become treasured landmarks or memorials – – which further reinforces people’s love of trees and wooded areas.  In contrast, planting prairies is fairly complicated and requires more space.  It also takes a few years for a planting to grow out of its weedy phase and start to look like a prairie.  Prairie planting can certainly be rewarding, but it’s not nearly as simple, accessible, and instantly gratifying as tree planting.

Many people find wide expanses of open prairie impressive, but not alluring.  How do we get people to care about and nurture landscapes and ecosystems they have to work to appreciate?

Many people find wide expanses of open prairie impressive but not alluring. How do we get people to care about and nurture landscapes and ecosystems they have to work to appreciate?

So how can we help people connect with prairies in the same way they connect with trees and wooded landscapes?  I don’t have all the answers, but here are a few ideas.

1) We need to encourage more people to spend time in prairies and make sure they enjoy themselves when they go. It can be a definite challenge to convince someone to take a walk in a prairie.  Even worse, when people do step foot in a prairie, many are unimpressed because they don’t really know what to look for or how to appreciate what they’re seeing.  As a result, they often walk away with an even less favorable opinion than before they came.  “It was just a lot of grass!  And I was pulling ticks off myself all night!”

A good naturalist and interpreter can lead someone on their first prairie excursion and make it a positive and thought-provoking experience.  There is no substitute for the expertise and enthusiasm of a good leader, but there aren’t enough of those people to go around.  Several Nebraska Master Naturalists approached me last year with an idea to create a “Prairie Exploration Guide” – a pamphlet/booklet designed to help newcomers to prairie see the beauty and complexity they might otherwise miss.  The guide is still in the development stage, but I have high hopes that it will be a useful tool when it’s done.

2) Using native prairie plants in landscaping is becoming increasingly popular. The public’s concern over population declines of bees and monarch butterflies is helping to spur the movement, as are issues such as water conservation.  There is no question that getting the public to buy, plant, and appreciate native prairie plants in their backyards is a major step toward building a prairie conservation constituency – and backyard prairie gardens also make real conservation contributions on their own.  Significant obstacles still hinder the movement, especially our cultural norms about what yards and gardens are “supposed” to look like, but I am optimistic about the future.

3) One successful method for engaging people in prairie conservation at our Platte River Prairies has been through seed harvesting. People identify with both the value of seeds and the idea of restoring lost habitats.  Harvesting seed is a tangible way people can contribute toward something important; they can measure that contribution by the amount of seed piling up in their buckets.  Ideally, harvesters come back and help plant the seed they picked, and then visit regularly to watch the prairie planting develop over time.

I hope that helping me harvest and plant seeds at our family prairie will help my kids develop a love for grasslands.

I hope that helping to harvest and plant seeds at our family prairie will help my kids develop a love for grasslands.

Along those lines, one of the most inspired strategies I’ve seen to engage people in prairie restoration was being done by Wayne Pauly in Dane County, Wisconsin.  I went on a tour of some of his prairie restorations back in 2004 and was very impressed with both his plantings and his involvement of volunteers. Most particularly I liked Wayne’s strategy of having volunteers “paint the prairie” with seeds during prairie plantings.  He’d give each volunteer a bucket of seeds of one prairie wildflower species and let them decide how and where to plant those seeds – allowing them to create a pattern or design of their choice (thus the idea of “painting”).  That is a brilliant idea, and one that should not only be fun on planting day, but should also draw those volunteers back in subsequent years to view the results of their work.

Humans have a long and strong relationship with trees, one that is likely embedded within our DNA.  Tree planting is an easy, accessible, and tangible way to contribute something to the natural world.  Unfortunately, tree planting doesn’t do anything to help prairies, and can sometimes be counterproductive if trees are planted in or near open grassland.  If prairie conservation is to succeed, we need to get the public excited about grasslands and combat the perception that prairies would look a lot prettier if they just had some trees growing in them.  More importantly, we need more strategies that actively connect people with prairies and give them the same sense of fulfilment they get from planting trees.  I think we’re getting better, but we have a long way to go.

27 thoughts on “Ruminations on Tree Planting and Prairie Conservation

  1. Tree planting in prairies is a major issue in western Oregon. We have trained people so well that you can save the planet by planting trees, especially with the local issue of old growth forest clear cutting in the Pacific Northwest. Our prairies are being divided into smaller and smaller chunks as private landowners plant trees along their field boundaries or convert entire fields. Our grassland birds such as meadowlarks are declining because of this partitioning of prairies by trees across the entire region. On top of that, there are many government sponsored programs that incentivize tree planting, often at the cost to prairies. These employees get mad when you tell them they are harming our most endangered habitat, prairies. This post gives some good suggestions on how we can still make people feel good about helping the environment, while pulling the tree seedling out of their hand!

  2. Enjoyed this post. Harvesting and nature walks have been good lures on our SE MN prairies. Volunteers created a prairie guide here as well, but it’s hard to tell how often they’re utilized (they’re a ‘return to box when finished’ deal). Another big draw has been a 3-season plant ID trail – a bit time consuming to keep updated, but a lot of great feedback from visitors.

  3. I believe there was something published in Nebraskland ten or so years ago entitled “Kill a Tree for Arbor Day.” Humorous and to the point.

    But on a more serious note, planting projects have proven to be excellent projects for involving youth with prairies, especially school prairie gardens. On my most recent project the kids even got to pet some bumblebees as they were gathering nectar on some earlier planted flowers. Having them smell bergamot, mountain mint, and anise hyssop also went over really well. I don’t know if the bias toward trees is so as much innate as it is learned. I’ve met people from the Dakotas that get downright claustrophobic if they spend a lot of time in a treed landscape. And there are a lot of folks that like the open ocean (not many trees there). If folks are introduced to prairies that are pretty (those oft mentioned “calendar” prairies) and get to experience a long distance sunset on a prairie landscape they often are hooked. The trouble is we have so few of those today, especially where most of the people live. Just need to keep plugging away on these. While it can be discouraging with so much work, both physically and culturally, left to accomplish, I think it’s important to remember its not the final tally of acres of visitors, but the fight for prairies, that defines a prairie conservationist. Keep up the blogging and keep fighting the good fight!

  4. Very interesting bit of history. Here on the Namekagon Barrens Wildlife Area in the northwestern Wisconsin, we have the same problem. That is because the tree planters were very successful and also prevented fires to restore the Barrens. Now 3 human generations out, the landowners are often unaware that there were Barrens here first and our attempt to maintain the Barrens with fire is the natural state! “Why burn the trees?” The human stories are never boring and never ending! Thanks.

    • Mark – I would like to visit the Namekagon Barrens Wildlife Area in July when I’ll be visiting that area. Should I contact you about that?

  5. Great topic and insight. Can’t help but share my favorite (long) passage about the prairie:

    “I had the feeling that the world was left behind, that we had got over the edge of it, and were outside man’s jurisdiction. I had never before looked up at the sky when there was not a familiar mountain ridge against it. But this was the complete dome of heaven, all there was of it. I did not believe that my dead father and mother were watching me from up there; they would still be looking for me at the sheep-fold down by the creek, or along the white road that led to the mountain pastures. I had left even their spirits behind me. The wagon jolted on, carrying me I knew not whither. I don’t think I was homesick. If we never arrived anywhere, it did not matter. Between that earth and that sky I felt erased, blotted out. I did not say my prayers that night: here, I felt, what would be would be.” – from My Ántonia by Willa Cather.

    I grew up in Kentucky and when I moved to Minnesota for college the landscape was a major adjustment. I got an awesome job working on our college’s prairie restoration but it took me about three years before I really came to love the prairie. After two years of collecting seeds I started to recognize the different plants despite myself and that was the huge difference; I was finally able to see the depth of texture and because of that I started to notice and find things on my walks. Beyond that I think the prairie requires a different mindset; if you’re not prepared it can be very overwhelming as Willa Cather captures so well. I think I just needed to spend a certain amount of time out there to internalize it. That, and one particularly adventuresome “controlled” prairie burn helped kick-start my enthusiasm. I think you’re right that involving people in seed collection and sowing (particularly kids) is crucial. Unfortunately I think it will always take longer to get uninitiated people hooked on prairies than on mountains or beaches or what have you, so consistency is key.

  6. I once turned down a donation (*gasp*) when I worked for a land trust. The individual wanted to donate money so we would plant trees – part of her feeling better about her carbon emissions. We didn’t have any sites where we were restoring woodlands – instead cutting trees to restore hill prairies. It would have been unethical to accept the donation. I tried to explain the hows and whys, but she clearly thought I was insane. I think the plant-a-tree-to-‘offset’-your-wasteful-lifestyle rhetoric hasn’t been helpful in this regard, either.

  7. The Future Farmers of America have range judging contests for high school students all across Nebraska. The best range is the most diverse with the most climax species. The kids are evaluated on how accurately they identify the elements of healthy prairie under range conditions and how well they can discuss them. Can we think of something comparable for the far larger number of students who do not have that exposure?

    • Rex – In my view, you’ve touched on a key issue. That being the need to connect the value of diversity in the landscape to something more than the way it makes us feel or its aesthetic appeal. The fact is that landowners are above all businessmen. If we really want to make a significant contribution to prairie conservation, a monetary connection needs to be made between the ecological contribution of a piece of land and the relative value of a commodity produced on it.

      • I fight / suggest that we need to stop looking at landscapes only through an aesthetic lens, and that when we add other lenses (ecology, diversity, helping wildlife) we really do deepen our appreciation for landscape — we truly come home and get empowered. But I get LOTS of push back from this idea, especially since I promote all native plant landscape design (gardens is what I’m talking about), and it’s almost always from designers and architects. We tore up our front lawn and put in 170 prairie plugs last fall, so we’ll we see how my design turns out (and it is designed, not a hodgepodge).

  8. When I was a boyscout our local conservation agency suggested a project. They had been given a tract of land that was between a ditch and two roads which was too small to be worth farming. The former owner planted walnut trees on this property. However, the walnut trees did not take well to the prairie soil. These walnut trees were more like walnut bushes. The local conservation agency wanted me to cut all the lateral branches to make these walnut bushes into respectable trees. I do not think they truly understood why the former owner donated the land to them. The walnut bushes were never going to be respectable trees. The previous owner decided it would be better to take the tax write off than pay taxes on an investment that would never yield a return. Needless to say, I did not take the conservation agency up on their proposal.

  9. One way to appreciate an open prairie: become a stargazer. Trying to view meteor showers through tree leaves and branches gets old very quickly! :)

  10. I wonder if part of the reason we relate to trees more than grasslands has to do with the sense that a tree provides a living landmark that we can identify as an individual over time. Very few prairie plants have the ability to serve as landmarks, because most prairie plants are, by their nature, temporal in the growing season, so we can’t easily identify them as individuals when we visit the prairie through the year. Perhaps for newcomers we need to pay extra homage to the long-lived prairie plants that grow in the same place year after year and are particularly striking as individuals through the whole year (compass plant is one example that comes to mind). Get them hooked on these, and it may be easier to build a narrative from that starting point.

    • Patrick, this is something I’ve thought a lot about. I think you’re right about seeing trees as individuals and the importance of that. Many prairie forbs live just as long as most trees – or longer – but I think people have a harder time identifying with them as individuals; partly because they stand out less as individuals in a prairie setting, and partly because they’re just not as physically impressive as trees (even compass plant). Do you know anyone who has planted a tulip as a memorial to a relative or friend? Tulips surely live many decades, but somehow don’t seem to have the same emotional punch or visual power as trees…

      • Agreed. On my prairie, early in the restoration, I found a single specimen of a cut-leaved iron plant and a single compass plant. These I identify as individuals because they are rare on my property, and come up year after year. I look for them as old friends now (going on 8 years). My compass plant has yet to even bloom! Hopefully my patience will be rewarded this year…

    • As a child of the southern Arizona desert I often walked out to see what what was growing. My winter friends from Minnesota, virtually never do that and they do not understand the beauty of what small plants like the tulip you mentioned can be if you GET OUT OF THE CAR AND TAKE A LOOK. I am trying to promote trails to get people to get out of the car. Let me know if that is successful elsewhere!

  11. As always, I enjoyed reading this entry. I am the steward of about 7 acres of coastal prairie which has clusters of sweet gum trees, oak, pine and elm, all “native” but my pride and joy are the emotions I feel when seeing the areas that I work to keep cleared of trees and watching the Gulf Muhly, Ironweed, Mistflower, Little Bluestem and Long Spike Tridens flourish in the fall. It’s a painter’s palette! One of the founders of our chapter of Texas Master Naturalists, told me that I would have to decide what I wanted my property to be, a wood or a prairie. Just like a kid, I want to have my cake and eat it, too. Tough to cut down 60 trees so I’m conflicted. Thanks again for the posting and suggestions, Chris.

  12. Great post Chris! As someone who plants a lot of trees and advocates for them professionally, I must say that I get as much satisfaction out of planting and managing prairie plants in the community landscapes that I’m involved with. We at the Nebraska Statewide Arboretum (NSA) also struggle with how to better spread the desire and appreciation of native plants to a broader audience. We have to get there! I like the idea of the “Prairie Exploration Guide” and NSA would be happy to help in that endeavor. Think about this: NSA, which started out primarily around tree advocacy, now works just as hard if not harder for prairie and native plant advocacy. We are making progress.

  13. What I’m hearing is you want to start a Prairie Day and hand out plants to school children. That is a very good idea. Tell us how it works out.

  14. Really thought provoking. I grew up in mallee country in South Australia – trees but very very short trees in a very arid environment with little relief in the landscape. The strong British influence in my upbringing meant I really couldn’t find the beauty (perhaps – the picturesque?) in that landscape – until I lived in Britain for a decade and came back to arid Australian landscapes with fresh eyes.

    • I grew up in the Sonoran Desert of southern Arizona. Being fascinated by the desert and going out camping and hiking in the desert and the scattered mountain islands, the beauty was stunning and of course seasonal. Most people never witness the beauty because they do not get out of their cars and walk about. You have to look down and go out during each season. Add the mountains which were almost like islands and the scenery changed again quite dramatically. I assume the Australian deserts would be the same, but even more different.

  15. Pingback: The Darker Side of Tree Planting in the Great Plains | The Prairie Ecologist


Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.