A Hopeful Metaphor for Prairie Managers

Recently, I listened to a conference presentation by Doug Ladd, the Director of Conservation for The Nature Conservancy in Missouri, and one of the smartest people I know.  Doug talked about the importance of conserving biodiversity, habitat diversity, essential ecological processes, and irreplaceable habitats and species, and stressed the need to better connect people with nature.  It was an excellent talk, and I could spin many of his points into entire blog posts.  For now, however, I want to focus on one short phrase he uttered, which relates to something I often think about.  The phrase was “There is no endgame in conservation.”

The importance of that phrase might not strike you immediately, but for those of us who dedicate much of our lives to prairie conservation, it’s an idea we need desperately to come to terms with.  No matter how much time and effort we put into restoring or managing prairies, we won’t ever reach a place where we can stop and just let nature handle the rest.  Many people harbor the romantic notion that if we could make prairies big enough and provide them with their full complement of species – including everything from soil microbes to bison, we could step away and the system would run itself without human intervention.  Unfortunately, that’s just not the way it works.  Nature relies on people just as much as we rely on nature, and it’s really not even fair to mention nature and people as if they are two distinct entities.

Even in places like the Nebraska Sandhills, with roughly 12 million mostly contiguous acres of prairie, the role of humans is still critically important and necessary.

Because there is no endgame in prairie conservation, we need to develop an appropriate mindset. Most importantly, we have to be able to look at the future without despair.  As an example, it’s easy to look at many grasslands and wonder how we can possibly deal with all the invasive species threatening the site today, let alone all the new ones that will inevitably join them.  It can feel like trying to hold back a river with a garden hoe.  Issues like habitat loss and fragmentation, nitrogen deposition, and climate change just make the picture even more bleak.  Knowing that our prairies won’t ever be able to stand on their own might seem the same as knowing that we can never win.  All we can do is stave off loss for as long as possible.  That’s seriously depressing.

Since this is the life I’ve chosen for myself, I’ve thought a lot about the idea that there is no endgame in conservation, and I’ve come up with a metaphor that makes me feel a lot better about it.  I don’t see myself as a hopeless defender of prairies, trying to stave off inevitable destruction.  Instead, I see myself as part of a long series of mechanics.  I inherited the prairies I work with from prior mechanics, and someday I’ll hand those prairies off to future mechanics.  As such, my job isn’t to save the prairie, it’s to keep it running until the next mechanic takes over.  The metaphor applies to an individual manager and a single prairie, but it also applies to each generation of conservationists and the earth we’re all working to maintain.  Success is being able to hand off a functioning prairie, biome, or earth to the next generation of mechanics.

To understand my metaphor, you have to move away from the idea that most mechanics are only able to keep a particular car, for example, running for a certain period of time before it inevitably dies and goes to the scrap heap. While that is the way it usually works, it doesn’t necessarily have to be.  Imagine starting out in 1908 with a brand new Ford Model T automobile and giving a series of mechanics the charge to keep the vehicle functional forever.  For a while, keeping the car running just means replacing fluids and parts that break or wear out.  Eventually, however, there will be needed updates to parts, and even changes to the overall design of the car, so it can be adapted to keep up with a changing world.  Over time, because of changes in road design, safety and fuel efficiency rules, and needs of drivers, the car will have to be made to drive faster, brake more efficiently, use different fuel, and evolve in numerous other ways.  As each generation of mechanic finds innovative ways to keep the vehicle on the road and running well, the vehicle will be continually and repeatedly transformed.  Today’s version of the vehicle would be nearly unrecognizable to the mechanic who first worked on the Model T.  Very few original parts would remain, but today’s version of the vehicle would still perform the same essential function of transporting people and/or goods from place to place.

Prairies and other ecosystems are both easier and harder than cars to maintain over time.  On the one hand, prairies are infinitely more complex than cars, and come with many more challenges (though auto mechanics might argue that last point).  On the other hand, prairies consist of networks of living organisms, which can adapt as individuals and as communities to evolving challenges.  That inherent adaptability means that the prairie manager’s job is really to help the prairie maintain its resilience – its ability to retain its essential functions – as the world changes around it.

Just as the vehicle in my mechanic metaphor is constantly transforming, prairies and other ecosystems have to do the same, and land stewards have difficult choices to make as those changes occur.  As an example, many of today’s prairies have numerous and abundant species that weren’t even on the continent a few hundred years ago.  A profusion of introduced plants have entered the scene, some of which are apparently innocuous, and others that have dramatically changed the balance of power within plant communities.  In addition, white-tailed deer have become superabundant across most prairie regions, pollinator populations are crashing, and many other changes to animal communities have severe impacts on ecological processes.  Belowground, non-native earthworms and pill bugs are just two examples of species that have fundamentally altered the soil fauna in ways we don’t really understand.  Habitat fragmentation, high levels of nitrogen deposition, and a rapidly changing climate all combine to further drive important transformations in prairie species composition.

Yellow bedstraw (Galium verum) is a yellow flowered plant that seems to be invading low meadows in portions of the Nebraska Sandhills.  Making decisions about whether and how to address invaders like this can cause a lot of anxiety for land managers.

Fortunately, our job as land stewards is not to prevent our prairies from changing; our job is to help prairies preserve their character and function as they change, and then hand those prairies off to the next generation of stewards.  How do we do that?  We can manage for plant diversity and habitat heterogeneity to maintain ecological resilience.  We can prevent or suppress invasive species that have serious negative impacts on that resilience and diversity.  We can enhance the viability of small isolated prairies by restoring adjacent habitats and making those prairies larger and more connected.  As time goes by and conditions change, prairies will transform in ways that might make them nearly unrecognizable to land stewards of previous generations.  Rather than a sign of failure, those transformations are a sign of success, as long as they preserve the components and processes that are characteristic* of prairies.  After all, a 2017 Tesla Model 3 is a far cry from the 1908 Ford Model T, but which would you rather drive through today’s world?

*Defining the essential characteristics of prairies is something we don’t discuss nearly enough.  It seems like a simple enough exercise to outline what makes a prairie a prairie, but if you believe that, give it a shot…

Prairies like this are surely very different today than they were in the past or than they will be in the future. Change is good and healthy, as long as we can preserve the essential components and processes that define and sustain prairies and prairie communities.


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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14 Responses to A Hopeful Metaphor for Prairie Managers

  1. Mike Saxton says:

    Thanks for yet another thoughtful post. I’m reminded of Theseus’s paradox…a concept that has engaged thinkers and philosophers for ages.

  2. Patrick says:

    I might also add a slightly more spiritual spin on this and say that all of your efforts have provided you with a unique opportunity to feel what it means to be steward of creation, and part of the journey is creating a path for others to follow to make their own discoveries about what that means for them.

  3. anastaciast says:

    Exactly, Patrick. We are stewards. Thanks for the interesting article, Chris. An excellent analogy. I will be sharing this article on several gardening FB pages.

  4. anastaciast says:

    Oh, I have a question. You may not want to answer it. If not, would you please direct me to someone who would be willing. What do you think of wind farms in the Sandhills. I am rabidly against them.

  5. James McGee says:

    “Plant-People Connection

    South Africa has been continuously populated by humans from our very origins as a species: the San (or !Kung) and Khoi peoples are believed to be descended from the original inhabitants of the region.

    Since the history of human occupation goes back millions of years in South Africa, it is impossible to imagine what the flora might have been — or might be — without human impacts.
    Is South Africa therefore perhaps closer to a “pristine” state than the other continents as a consequence of this coevolution? Most researchers believe the reason grassland is so prevalent in Africa (less than 5 percent of South Africa is naturally wooded) is likely down to the enormous grazing pressures of once-vast herds of ungulates, in combination with frequent grassfires set by thunderstorms (and likely by primitive humans as well) — the same pair of circumstances that drove the tallgrass prairie of the U.S. Midwest into being.

    I suspect the ‘natural’ appearance of much of South Africa today could well be a result of a landscape that has developed enormous resilience to humans over millions of years, and to the constant hammering of herbivores — wild or domesticated.”

    “Steppes: The plants and ecology of the world’s semi-arid regions”, Michael Bone, Dan Johnson, Panayoti Kelaidis, Mike Kintgen, Larry G. Vickerman, pp. 289-290

  6. Rick Champeau says:

    I finished but won’t delete Chris’s post yet.. I wait for more of these interesting and heartfelt comments.

  7. I enjoyed the philosophical musings, Chris. It left me wondering though, if part of your conclusion is that prairies are always changing as “parts” are added and removed, and if even the basic way they function changes, what exactly are we trying to maintain, and why? If the prairies we have now are fundamentally different from what they were 300 years ago, and if they now are human creations, what moral obligation to we have to maintain them?

    It also reminded me of the Theseus’s paradox: if you replace every piece of wood on a ship one piece at a time, at the end is it a different ship? If so, at what point did it become a different ship?

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Good questions, though Mike beat you to the Theseus mention… I thought about addressing some of this in the post, but it would have made it too long. I’ll probably write a separate post on it someday. Here are a couple brief thoughts. First, we tend to think about nature from a very North American standpoint, in which we fret greatly about native vs non-native species and try not to mess with what “nature” has wrought. Compare that to most European natural areas – for example, in the Netherlands, where the idea of “native” really doesn’t fit because everything has been either farmed, underwater, or otherwise completely altered and rebuilt. Nature still exists there, and there is still a moral obligation to conserve it, but it is all newly created. Biodiversity and ecological function still matter, there just isn’t the same kind of legacy to be tied to. I’m not saying we should wholly adopt the phlilosophy of “tear it out and start over” – of course we shouldn’t – but it is helpful to remember that nature still exists if that happens. We should absolutely take advantage of the situation that many North American ecosystems have been intact and cohesive (but not static) for thousands of years. Starting over comes with huge risks as we try to rebuild interrelationships that taken thousands of years to coalesce, so the more we can work with the species and communities we already have, the better.

      Second, perhaps the biggest idea in the post is the last one – what, really, is a prairie? What are the characteristic parts and processes that distinguish a prairie from other systems? As part of that question, is a prairie a single parcel of land or is that single parcel just a “part” in a larger “machine” that is the prairie? If the latter, the makeup of the individual prairie might mean less than if we’re talking about the former. Either way, I’m not advocating for actively aiming to remove and replace plant or animal species in order to change a prairie from one thing to another; I’m advocating that our job is to keep managing prairies so that they maintain the resilience and diversity to adapt themselves over time – which is exactly what’s happened for the entire history of the prairies here in central North America. Since they emerged from the ice age and spruce woodlands that followed, the prairies here have been evolving and changing – guided by humans, who have been active here for the entire period – as the conditions around them change. Continuing that process of dynamic adaptation is what I’m talking about, though we have to be more intensive in our actions now because most prairies are split into more separate parcels that require more individual attention than before. If we’re successful, we’d still be able to look at prairies 200 years from now and recognize them as prairies, even if some of our favorite plant or insect species weren’t found in the same abundance, or maybe not even found in the same prairie parcels as before. I would hope all of those species would still exist, however, and play similar roles as they do now – even if they are doing so within communities that have changed. I think if we went back in time 200 years, we’d see the same kind of thing. Even our most “pristine” prairies of today are obviously different than they were 200 years ago – dramatically so, I would guess. Of course they are. And that’s one of the things that make a prairie a prairie – that ability to shapeshift while maintaining its integrity as a prairie and supporting processes such as pollination, seed dispersal, nutrient cycling, and all the species that fill those roles.

      • Patrick says:

        I’m glad you responded Chris. So a way to reframe the question is what makes a prairie NOT a savanna? It would seem the that major determinants that distinguish the two are the amount of light, the lack of an overstory, AND the presence of selected plants adapted to part shade. Of course many plants can be found in both locations, but differing in abundance and probability. Others are more specialized. So I suppose that could be framework for a definition. Note that many of the specialists would probably be natives, since exotics tend to be generalists. Just a thought.

    • James McGee says:

      When I first read Evan’s comment, “… what moral obligation to we have to maintain them?” I must admit to feeling rather offended. The thought then occurred to me that only someone who has children would really understand the importance of leaving the world better than when they arrived in it.

      I hope Chris keeps working on “1908 Ford Model T” land to turn it into “2017 Tesla Model 3” prairie. I am sure his family prairie will be even better when he passes it on to his kids than when he took ownership of it.

  8. Pat says:

    Chris, now you have touched on something that has troubled me. Keeping the prairies, or any natural area, exactly as it is would be unnatural. Change is nature’s way. Yet how do we know which way that is? I look forward to more of your thoughts on this.

  9. Ellen Rathbone says:

    That’s very good – and a good way to look at it.

  10. Randy Rodgers says:

    Every ecologist, conservationist, and land manager must remain hopeful or we’d all go crazy. Chris has done a great job of providing another reason for hope. But I see invasive monocultures of Old World bluestems expanding exponentially in Kansas grasslands (and elsewhere) with most land managers unable to even identify these species, let alone recognize their capacity to destroy prairie biodiversity. And I have experienced firsthand how difficult they are to eliminate from even our small 30-acre pasture. Knowing that few land managers can dedicate the time and effort I have to fighting this stuff, I find optimism for large-scale control hard to come by. There is a big difference between optimism and hope. Still, with hope, we must keep fighting the good fight.


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