Hubbard Fellowship Blog – The Nature of Human Intervention

This post is written by Eric Chien, one of our Hubbard Fellows.  Eric has a solid background in land management and apparently thinks quite a bit while he’s doing stewardship work.  Here are some of his latest thoughts – I think you’ll find them thought-provoking.

What if I told you our most resilient prairies will likely experience burning, mowing, cutting, shredding, chemical spraying, and fencing for decades to come? Among splendidly diverse native wildflowers and grasses, and a rich assemblage of insects, birds, herps, and mammals, there will be the consistent imprints of boot tread in the soil. The sounds of wind-blown grass, and meadowlarks will be occasionally interrupted by the clamor of metal and engines. We will know resilience not only by the existence of a vibrant prairie pulsing with life, but also by the presence of a sturdy 4-strand barb wire fence, and a two-track road worn to mineral soil.

Managers know that maintaining the function and diversity of prairies is highly involved work. I think the image of that monumental work is viewed somewhat quizzically by much of the public that has not had an opportunity or guide to understand prairies. The notion of conservation as the process of removing human presence and intervention is still widely circulated. Once removed from the yoke of human imposition, the natural world is supposed to largely perpetuate itself; growing more abundant, diverse, and resilient in its respite. That is the idea at least. My experience on prairies tells me that conservation landscapes characterized by little human presence is a mold not applicable to prairies. It probably has not been for 150 years. Considering the long history of Native American land management, it may never have been. What’s more, the intensive management in prairie conservation is representative of what many of the world’s ecosystems will require to maintain their functions into the future. Decades of prairie management suggest that we consider ourselves and our presence not as obstacles or crutches to the diversity of life, but as integral drivers of the processes and forces that maintain integrity and functioning of ecosystems.

The author cuts down a cottonwood tree on the edge of one of our Platte River Prairies. Photo by Katharine Hogan.

On the prairie, we light the fires, control the grazers, and suppress the invasive plants. In doing so we drive species composition and distribution, habitat heterogeneity, and the presence or absence of ecosystem functions; the most fundamental ecological attributes. Our involvement is not out of hubris, nor does it make prairies an artifice. Science and experience tells us that without our involvement prairies nearly always slip into measurably degraded states, or entirely disappear. Chris has written thoroughly on the science and implications around the myth of the self-sustaining prairie and the reasons why management is necessary. Seeing our new role with clear eyes has important implications for our approach to conservation.

Rather than thinking of ourselves as prairie doctors, we should see ourselves as prairie organs. Organs are not optional, and cannot be removed from the whole when the budget it tight. When we set up prairie conservation complexes we need to consider humans with the same gravity we consider plant diversity. Whether it is land management professionals, volunteer cohorts, or farming and ranching families, thoughtful and capable human managers are as important as the native grass community.

People have been lighting North American prairies on fire since the last glaciers retreated and grasslands emerged as the dominant ecosystem in the Great Plains.

What does recognition of that human importance look like at The Nature Conservancy? Since 1994, standard operating procedure in TNC has mandated setting aside an endowment for every new land acquisition with the principal set at minimum 20% of the fair market value of the land. It is a small but key step in maintaining essential human capacity in our conservation lands. We also strive to recognize human importance by making our conservation work relevant to ranching families. The ecological and management knowledge we seek out strives to reconcile economic and conservation needs. The gold standard in our work are solutions that allow people and nature to thrive. This is not just because supporting human communities is important, but because prairies with deep human presence are healthy, resilient prairies.

If at this point you’re thinking- “This sounds like an overly involved prairie person issue.” I say this- Prairies are likely a vanguard for where many of our natural systems are headed. Our ability to find success as drivers of ecosystem integrity and resilience through active management have implications for the future integrity of countless ecosystem types. Resilience processes in forests, reefs, tundra, and countless other systems are being broken down by ongoing fragmentation, and novel disturbances. There is already a need for us to step in and play a key role in the ecology that reinforces the biodiversity, functions, and services those systems provide. That need is only growing. North American Prairies are a proving ground for our ability to do that effectively.

I hope you consider sharing your thoughts.

This entry was posted in Hubbard Fellowship, Prairie Management and tagged , , , , by Chris Helzer. Bookmark the permalink.

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.

14 thoughts on “Hubbard Fellowship Blog – The Nature of Human Intervention

  1. Looking at your chainsaw cut it appears that you’re not using the safest felling methods. Check out the “Game of Logging” techniques for some pointers on hinge making, relief cuts and trigger sections. Be safe out there!

    • I appreciate you sending along that resource. I hope to take a look at it soon, and hopefully learn some more techniques for safety and effectiveness. No one has a greater interest in making it home at the end of the day than me after all!
      For more details on this particular tree- After size up, I elected not to plunge cut behind the face cut hinge (taking that cut towards the back of the tree to establish a release point closer to the back of the tree and reduce the likelihood of the trunk delaminating during the release cut). I felt the lean on the tree was not severe enough to warrant that felling technique, and decided to drop it with a quarter back cut (the initial back cut and wedging on the other side cannot be seen in the picture). I will say, looking at it now, my face cut does seem a little small, and could have probably been improved prior to felling the tree.

  2. Chris and Eric, We are facing an almost an impossible challenge with John Deere, Monsanto, Valmont for example having the farmers in Nebraska so brain washed that government programs and insurance is the only way to make profits.

  3. Last weekend I helped with the Boy Scout’s “Introduction to Outdoor Leader Skills” training for Scout Masters. At the beginning of the course instructors read the required “leave no trace” information. After this, I explained that I violated those principles all the time. I then explained that the camp we were at had changed due to invasive species and decades of fire expression. If the camp was to be restored to conditions that were both good for wildlife and campers then trees would have to be eliminated and prescribed burns conducted. I gave the participants more information than the mere plant and animal id required in the course. However, as potential stewards of the camp I told them what they really needed to know.

  4. i think anyone who is in a conservation organization or advocacy group needs to devote some of their time, no matter what their position, to land stewardship activity, if for no other reason than to understand (and remember) what it is they are working to save and how it needs to be managed. This is not something you learn from a book, it is something that you must experience. This is not work to be avoided. It is hard work, but it is work that hones your body and lifts your spirit while benefitting the small voiceless things than enrich our world.

  5. A beautifully written piece. However, that not all natural communities require as much management as prairies do. At the risk of over-simplifying, I would say that most fire-adapted vegetation types will require on-going, intensive management, but that ecosystems with infrequent fire regimes will not. That is not to say that they require no management at all (invasive species are a problem everywhere), but that the frequency and level of intervention will be less. Examples of areas that require less management include mesic eastern deciduous forests, many desert systems, and the oak-juniper woodlands of central Texas.

    • Good point. Fragmentation, and fire suppression has an especially salient and rapidly developing effect on fire adapted -vegetation types, which certainly has boosted the need for more intense management that is qualitatively different than some other ecosystem types. I do not know much about the details of say, eastern deciduous forest, but I do wonder if the longer time scales of vegetative community assembly might mask some some management necessities that could be considered equally intensive down the road. I hope not though!

  6. I would like to add that it is my belief that the needs of nature should come before the desires of people in The Nature Conservancy’s effort. I do think the involvement of people is important. However, the fact that only several acres of the Grand Prairie region, which covered most of Illinois, escaped destruction from plowing or degradation from grazing necessitates that these rarest of the rare places be managed for preservation instead of resilience.

  7. Chris, I’m sorry I’m posting this so late, but I just now saw the article by Eric. I thought it was spot on and totally awesome. Which of our ecosystems has been unaffected by human presence? I would maintain that none have, and that all of them always will be. Therefore, I would agree that what will survive into the future will require human presence. Not only has the Great Plains and prairies suffered at the hands of human development and expansion, but all our main ecosystems have. How much of the Longleaf pine forest survives? What an ecosystem that was. What about our deserts and desert grasslands? Hasn’t development and increased human population taken much of the desert, not to mention destruction by cattle and crop raising? Even the mountain ecosystems are struggling. Mountaintop raising by mining companies doesn’t help much. Global warming will put further pressures on these and other ecosystems. I for one believe in human intervention and constructing of our future world by saving and making better what we can.


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