Prairies as Placeholders

Ecologically speaking, grasslands might be considered a “transitional community”.  In the absence of fire and/or drought, grasslands tend to progress toward a shrubby, and eventually woody ecological community.  For as long as prairies have existed in central North America, they have been restrained from making that transition to woodland by periodic drought and frequent fires ignited by both lightning and people.  While I consider prairies to be their own distinct ecological community, the fact remains that they are always trying to turn into something else.

Flint hills prairie in Kansas is constantly moving toward shrubland, held back largely by frequent prescribed fire.

Maybe it’s not surprising, then, that modern human society also seems to view grasslands as transitional.  During a lecture here in Nebraska this week, Dr. David Briske, professor of rangeland ecology at Texas A&M University,  highlighted this phenomenon as part of his (much broader, and excellent) presentation.  If you think about it, humans are always trying to turn prairies into something else.

Prairies tend to be a placeholder until we can come up with something more useful to do with land.  We can plow up the prairie and raise crops in the soil.  We can cover the prairie with asphalt and concrete and create places to live and travel.  We can plant trees in the prairie to make it look better and provide better habitat for the wildlife species we most value.  We can come up with all kinds of replacements for prairie.

Mentzelia and Sandhills prairie.  The Sandhills is a great example of the subtle beauty of prairies, but also a landscape with a strong emotional pull for those of us who appreciate grassland.

There is certainly a need for cropland, and for houses, roads, and other developments that allow us to inhabit prairie landscapes.  I guess it’s even ok to plant a few trees around those developments to provide shade, shelter, and fruits/nuts (though we tend to take that WAY too far.)  However, I think it’s clear that the reason most prairies are “transitioned” to something else is that we don’t really see them as important in their own right.  “Surely,” we say, “we can come up with something better than THAT.”

So how do we change people’s minds about prairie?  We can make lots of arguments about carbon sequestration, water filtration, and pollinators, but we’ve been making those arguments for a long time and haven’t made much progress.  In fact, we continue to lose prairie at an alarming rate – not just here, but around the world.  Helping people understand the functional value of prairie is one thing, but we’re always going to be competing against the functional values of the alternatives (cropland, housing, roads, woodland, etc.) and so far, those alternatives are clearly more popular.  We’ve got to get people to appreciate prairies for what they are.

Bison are charismatic creatures and can be great ambassadors for prairie.  Unfortunately, only a small percentage of publicly-accessible prairies have bison, and they aren’t creatures you can easily (safely) get close to.

Katydids are easy to find in prairies, but lack some of the overt charisma of bison – at least until you get to know them a little better.

Sharing photos that highlight the beauty of prairie is a great tactic (feel free to use these), but those photos are most valuable as the first component of a longer process that ends with people hiking out into actual prairies to learn about them personally. It’s easy to dismiss grasslands as unimportant when you only see them as wastelands of grass that stand between you and the mountains or forests you really want to see.  It’s harder to dismiss them once you’ve gotten to know them a little better.

If we’re going to save the prairie we have left, we’ve got to move beyond purely functional/utilitarian arguments and get people to also see the cultural and aesthetic values of prairie.  Because the beauty of prairies can be subtle, it often takes a while for those unfamiliar with it to understand and appreciate that beauty.  As a result, those of us that know and love prairies have a deep responsibility to spread that appreciation to as many people as we can.  I’m not saying we have to go door to door, though maybe that wouldn’t hurt…  (“Have you heard the good news?”)

This entry was posted in Prairie Animals, Prairie Insects, Prairie Natural History, Prairie Photography 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.

24 thoughts on “Prairies as Placeholders

  1. Nicely written, Chris. We need to plug the prairies every chance we get, show photos, etc. I don’t have a lot of photos, because I live in the Sonoran Desert, but do have some prairie plants.

  2. I’ve been thinking about this a little bit, and I’ve been wondering if prairies also appeal more to a certain subset of humans – those who enjoy solitude and quiet and mystery. Not that every person doesn’t have the ability to appreciate those things, but I feel that for some people it is a comfort to be completely alone except for sky and horizon and grass, and the sounds and songs of insects and birds and wind. While for other people, the same expanse might seem threatening. They might have the sense of being overexposed, or isolated without people to communicate with, or things to DO. Part of what I appreciate in prairies, IS the sense of isolation combined with the illusion of limitlessness. How would I feel if I was wandering in a prairie and came upon a horse and tent camp? Or a dirt-bike trail, or a four-wheeler route. Would I value my experience as much? And yet, if we encouraged other uses on a prairie, besides wildlife and cattle production, wouldn’t we be increasing its worth to more people? Would it then be less likely to be converted to crop production? I don’t know. I’m just throwing out thoughts and would love to hear what other people think.

    • Teresa, good thoughts. I think there’s something in what you say, but I also think many people who enjoy hiking through forests or mountains want that same illusion of limitlessness and isolation. And the conundrum of needing more people on the prairie in order to save it is a good and real point to bring up.

    • I agree. I live on the east coast in a very crowded, congested area. I found this blog because I grow some prairie type plants and I thought it would be interesting to see them in their natural environment. This blog with all these photos has me somewhat obsessed. I don’t know why but it just seems so peaceful and free yet so complex in diversity. So unlike anywhere else. But I also know I’m not everyone. I’m the introverted nature loving type not the extreme sports skier or mountain biker. I think if a prairie became a national park and was marketed as the other national parks are many more people like me would visit them.

      • Mara, I don’t know where you are on the east coast, but if you find yourself visiting Maryland or Pennsylvania, be sure to visit some of the serpentine barren prairies in those states (many are TNC sites). Soldiers Delight State Natural Area outside of Baltimore is particularly nice. The pine barrens of New Jersey also harbor many prairie species.

  3. You are preaching to the choir!
    What was a hook for me to love the prairie was to learn about native plants and to learn about a few prairies in my area that had never been plowed. The diversity was amazing. I’m so glad we have these small samples to love.

  4. Having grown up in Nebraska’s panhandle and leaving as an adult, my soul yearns to feel and be in the prairie. I physically miss it. I no longer have family there, so I rarely if ever, get back but I love it with all of my ❤️

  5. Just hoping with climate weirding prairies don’t transition to deserts. Couple more degrees and we won’t be worrying about cedar invasion.

  6. The thing that strikes me is the sheer density of species, floral and faunal, that inhabit native prairies. The complex, almost unknowable, and seasonally changing web of relationships of the creatures that inhabit native prairies make these areas seem more mystical and divine than many other places I’ve visited.

  7. I live in suburban Chicago and am lucky to live close enough to walk to several restored prairies in our local Cook and Lake County forest preserves. They are small parcels of land but they are gorgeous and therapeutic to walk through. Luckily many groups of volunteers work every week restoring these areas. I walk them in every season and nothing to me is quite as dramatic as a hike through a prairie during a raging blizzard!!

  8. Landowners are just like you and me, they want to pay their debts, see their kids succeed in life (e.g. pay for college), and live comfortably. Until conservationists find a way can find a way to connect ecology and economics, we will continue to lose prairie and really every ecosystem on Earth. Capitalism reigns supreme. We need to find a way to economically reward landowners for positive ecological contributions they make to society.

    • As a landowner, I understand what you are saying. But why is it only on conservationists to provide economic support and not on taxpayers more generally? We all benefit from better land stewardship activities. And doesn’t the landowner carry some moral obligations too? The economic model of agriculture carries a lot of socialized costs, including soil, nutrient, and pesticide/herbicide runoff. My feeling is that things like buffer strips that reduce these socialized costs should be mandatory to reflect the true cost of production. Should there be assistance programs to help with this? Absolutely. And they are available. But should we subsidize native prairie conversion? My feeling is absolutely not…just because you own land doesn’t necessarily mean you should be able to do whatever you want with it. I don’t really like the idea of landowners being able to hold society hostage to demand funding to keep them from degrading their land for short term economic gain. There is a balance to be struck. I don’t claim to know precisely where that is, but some mix of incentives, regulations, and moral obligation are probably needed.

      • Sounds like you are advocating for a societal and individual conservation ethic. Seems like someone argued for that a while ago….But still needed now as then.

        • I think when we use Aldo Leopold as a reference for land stewardship, we are speaking into a conservationist echo chamber. Don’t get me wrong, I love Leopold’s writing. But, how many farm producers do you think have read Leopold and use his land ethic as a guiding principle for their business? I think the polite answer is, certainly not enough. Speaking of morals, one could argue that the farm producer has a moral obligation to “feed the world”. A common refrain. However, with a highly inefficient feed stock animal at the center of our current food economy (cattle), this moral platitude is pretty much bs for now anyway. The reality is that the farm producer is simply supplying a product that the market demands at a reasonable price. Free market capitalism. So, it is a result of consumer choice that the producer supplies fattened cattle. It is in this producer/consumer/price dynamic that I believe there is a solution. I could continue, but this post is already too long…..

          • I think you went a little overboard there. I don’t think if a farmer wants to quit his job and do something else that he’s being immoral. Just sayin’.

    • The situation is more complicated than capitalism reigning supreme. In the beginning of our country what you said may have been true. Some of the most beautiful places became tourist traps. Niagara Falls is an excellent example. However, it has been shown throughout our country’s history that people will organize to save worthy places. To many people prairies are a sacred place worth preserving. I think if more people knew what was happening to prairies then there would be more effort put toward saving them.

  9. One great attraction of prairie to many folks is bird hunting. Sharptails, prairie chickens, pheasants and bobwhites draw many thousands of people out on prairies and grasslands, and those folks might otherwise not even know praires existed. Killing something may seem repugnant to many, but predation is as natural as can be, and we humans have been hunting for a long time. As long as its done while still providing the bird a good chance to escape (and most of the ones I chase do) and respecting the bird (both the individual and the species as a whole) it is the best way I know to spend an autumn day. And it doesn’t hurt to have a good dog, as you find things following a dog you’d never notice on your own (unfortunately that sometimes includes skunks!).And for the species I mentioned, grassland and prairie are absolutely vital, and many hunters know this and are great champions of grassland conservation. I know a lot of folks that like me love prairies but don’t hunt, and I’ve always thought that if they tried it many of them would love it.

    • There are few things more beautiful than watching a good hunting dog work. But my feeling is that if the only time a hunter spends on the grassland is during hunting season, so much of the life of the grassland and their quarry is missed. And because grasslands need a lot of stewardship, it is not enough to believe that purchasing hunting gear and supplies, and donating to the local PF chapter is enough to maintain these areas. Many hunters donate their time to land stewardship activities too, but many do not. I would suggest every hunter give back 10% of the time they spend hunting to land stewardship. I would say the same thing for non-hunters who enjoy the grassland too (indeed any park or wild land), by hiking, biking, running, birdwatching, etc. if we love the outdoors, we have to work on it too.

      • I agree, most hunters don’t spend enough time outside the hunting season taking care of and advocating for prairie. But they are a relatively large, and relatively motivated group. And from experience I know that bird hunting can lead to a greater interest in, and love for, grassland and habitat of all types.
        My true point is that bird hunting (or heck even just working a good bird dog) is something other prairie lovers might consider as another way to appreciate and interact with grasslands. It’s just too satisfying in so many ways to not at least give it a shot. Sorry, couldn’t resist the pun.

  10. I’ve just discovered and subscribed to your posts, because I was referred to this “Prairies as Placeholders” essay. As a ferocious and strident defender of shortgrass prairie, I’m delighted to find support for my work to keep prairies intact, which out here beyond the 16-inch rainfall line means supporting prairies with grazing animals, whether it’s wildlife, bison, or cattle. I’m a rancher, so I lean toward cattle, but try to be open-minded about everything but asphalt and subdivisions. In all 17 of my books to date, I’ve advocated for prairie preservation, and I also provide information for the writers who come to my Windbreak House Retreats. Thanks for your work.


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