Update on the (Modified) North American Prairie Conference for 2022

Well, I have bad news and good news.

About a month ago, I wrote about a modified version of The North American Prairie Conference planned for this summer. It was going to contain a weekend of prairie events in Lincoln, a two day workshop on the conservation of fragmented prairies, and some field trips to eastern Nebraska prairies. The bad news is that I was notified this week that the workshop has been cancelled.

Don’t walk away yet, though! The good news is that a few of us have scrambled to put together the same basic workshop on the same days and have just moved it an hour or so west. The weekend of prairie events is still in play, but I’ll let others talk about whether and how that will happen. This won’t be officially linked to the North American Prairie Conference so we’ll come up with a good snappy title for it.

Here’s what’s going to happen with the workshop (July 25-26, 2022). Two organizations, The Nature Conservancy and Prairie Plains Resource Institute, will host the workshop at their respective locations west of Lincoln. We’re going to make it as streamlined as we can to get all the good out of it without making the logistics challenging for either hosts or participants. People will be on their own for lodging and food and we’re not going to have a keynote speaker or formal presentations from participants.

Instead, we’ll have a series of topics we think will be relevant and we’ll have field-based discussions of those topics at a variety of sites. We’ll record the key points and ideas from those conversations and share them with a broader audience through this blog and other means. If you’ve ever attended a workshop of the Grassland Restoration Network, this will have a similar vibe. (I’m planning to attend both this year!) Both meetings are a great way to get to know other conservation folks and to share ideas while looking at sites and projects. You’ll learn from both the site hosts and other participants who chime in with what they’ve experienced and learned from their own projects.

Part of the workshop will be at Gjerloff Prairie, owned by Prairie Plains Resource Institute – a beautiful loess bluff prairie along the Platte River near Marquette, Nebraska.

The topics will be within the same theme as the earlier-planned workshop. Here’s how I described it before, which will remain accurate: “It will focus on the many challenges facing tallgrass prairies across the Midwest and eastern Great Plains of North America. Those challenges include daunting grassland stewardship issues that are exacerbated by habitat fragmentation, climate change, and more. However, the workshop will also include discussions about the need to engage the public in prairie conservation and find ways to bring both people and prairies into the future together.”

Habitat fragmentation makes prairie conservation exponentially more difficult. The Platte River Prairies is embedded within a landscape full of row crops, trees, roads, and other non-prairie habitat.

I want to acknowledge that the Natural Areas Association is hosting a very similarly-themed workshop in Minnesota a week prior to the one we’ll be hosting. The two were developed independently, so it’s clearly subject matter people care about. We don’t want to compete with that workshop, so please visit their website to learn about and sign up for theirs if you like – if nothing else, it looks like it will cover a much broader array of geography than ours. Maybe there will be a way to pull together some lessons from both workshops and build upon each others’ discussions.

Watch this space for the specific details of our workshop within the next few weeks, including an RSVP process, but here’s what you need to know for sure:

July 25, 2022: 12:30pm – 5:30pm at the Prairie Plains Resource Institute’s Whitney Education Center and Gjerloff Prairie near Marquette, Nebraska. Optional evening hikes at other nearby prairies.

July 26, 2022: 8am to 3pm (approximately) at The Nature Conservancy’s Platte River Prairies south of Wood River, Nebraska. Bring your own lunch.

Gjerloff Prairie has terrific plant diversity, maintained by fire, grazing, and invasive species management.

We will have indoor space (including bathrooms) at both locations but will spend most of our time outdoors, so be prepared for that. Everyone will be responsible for their own lodging and food. There are numerous hotel options in Grand Island, which is located between the two main sites. Hotels, bed & breakfasts, and other options are also available in Aurora and other nearby communities. There are some good restaurant options in Aurora for the evening of the 25th, as well as many more options to the west in Grand Island.

The workshop will focus on a number of topics, including fire, grazing, shrub invasion, restoration, and more. This photo shows a prairie restoration with invading shrubs that was burned last summer and grazed with cattle. So much to talk about…
This restored prairie was burned and intensively grazed for the full season before this photo was taken. It responded with a flush of wildflowers, including species like entire-leaf rosinweed.

I know there were people already planning to attend the workshop in Lincoln. I hope you’ll be willing to slightly adjust your target location and join us a little to the west. I’m excited about this workshop and look forward to some robust conversations about the shared issues we all face as we work to conserve prairies in fragmented landscapes. Both Prairie Plains and the Conservancy have long experience with conservation in Nebraska prairies and have sites that showcase both some big challenges and some innovative solutions.

The earlier plan for the North American Prairie Conference had also included field trips around eastern Nebraska on Wednesday July 27. We will be reaching out to organizations to see if they’d still like to host field trips on that day and, if so, will provide contact information in our next update. If you’re reading this and are at a site that wants to be included on that list of potential field trips, please reach out to me!

Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Emma Waxes Poetic about Weeds

This post is written by Emma Greenlee, one of our 2022 Hubbard Fellows. Emma is an excellent ecologist from Minnesota who is quickly coming up to speed on our Nebraska prairies. This spring, she’s having the experience many of us have had when we look out across diverse prairies that are (temporarily) visually-dominated by smooth brome or other invasives. As our prairies are getting started each spring, the first plants out of the gate tend to be invasive species like smooth brome and Kentucky bluegrass, and where we haven’t burned or grazed, recently, to suppress them, it can look like they’ve taken over the world. However, because we don’t let them do that every year, there are still lots of other players in the prairie too, and they express themselves as the season progresses. Even knowing that, it can be hard to look at prairies when the invaders are partying. A month from now, that brome and bluegrass won’t look nearly so impressive when it’s the nearly-dormant understory of a rich and complex plant community full of wildflowers.

An ecology mentor once told me something along the lines of “ecologists live in a world of wounds.” Recently I was recalling this quote and trying to figure out who to attribute it to­­—my former supervisor in TNC’s Minnesota-Dakotas chapter? My senior thesis advisor in the biology department at Carleton? Well, I googled it and it doesn’t really matter who said it to me because it’s a paraphrase of an Aldo Leopold quote! In A Sand County Almanac, he writes “One of the penalties of an ecological education is that one lives alone in a world of wounds.” There is surely more than one way to “see a world of wounds” depending on how and where your eye is trained, but the way I usually think about this as someone interested in plant communities is in terms of invasive and/or nonnative species and how they’re affecting native plant communities and ecosystems.

At the time I was introduced to this perspective I didn’t really give this woeful way of thinking the time of day, and I still feel that the mere presence of nonnative species isn’t cause for alarm, as long as they don’t become dominant or tend towards monoculture in an invaded ecosystem. On the whole I’d rather try to look for the possible good any green plant in an ecosystem does than lament and try to control its presence—unless it’s showing those tendencies towards monodominance. That level of invasion would be very undesirable, but in the end I’d still rather have an ecosystem taken over by one species than another parking lot.

All that is to say that after a few of the much-needed rains we’ve gotten this spring, I was surprised by my distaste upon seeing the invasive smooth brome (Bromus inermis) grass spreading across the landscape around the Platte River Prairies. I’ve internalized the Leopold-like perspective more than I thought! At a glance, it’s rather discouraging, but (as Chris will be the first to tell you) it’s not as bad as it looks. Smooth brome is a cool-season grass (C3), which means its photosynthetic pathway is adapted for growth in cooler environments, and that’s why we see it growing vigorously now before summer hits with full force. And if you’re able to take the time to walk around a site, you’ll see there’s plenty of other things growing too. At the Platte River Prairies some native grasses have also gotten their start, including cool season species junegrass (Koeleria macrantha) and western wheatgrass (Pascopyrum smithii), and there’s even a little vegetative growth of warm-season species prairie cordgrass (Spartina pectinata). Walking around some of our Platte River Prairies sites (and Gjerloff Prairie by Aurora), I’ve seen some native forbs too, both early-flowering species and some that are still basal (just leaves, no flowers)—see my photos for more about the wildflowers!

Some of the most common flower colors I’m seeing right now are yellow and purple, which I suppose is true of many prairies at any time of year, but right now it’s more subtle and not the brilliant sea of autumn asters and goldenrod that Robin Wall Kimmerer writes about in Braiding Sweetgrass. But the standing dead vegetation from last year tells an encouraging story of what’s to come in the next several months, with dry stalks of verbena, monarda, sunflowers, penstemon, bundleflower, big bluestem, and more promising their eventual return.

Some dried Illinois bundleflower (Desmanthus illinoensis) seedheads that suggest the diversity of growth to come. Photo by Emma Greenlee
Some of the subtle purples and yellows of May on the prairie. Wooly locoweed (Oxytropis lambertii) and prairie dandelion (Nothocalais cuspidata) at the Prairie Plains Resource Institute’s Gjerloff Prairie. Photo by Emma Greenlee
Prairie violet (Viola pedatifida) at Gjerloff Prairie. Photo by Emma Greenlee
Fringed puccoon (Lithospermum incisum) at TNC’s Platte River Prairies. Photo by Emma Greenlee

When I was helping a few relatives clean out my (late) great grandpa’s house in Page, NE a few weeks ago I had the chance to visit my great grandparents’ grave. They have a Theodore Roethke quote inscribed on their stone, from his poem The Waking. In searching out the full poem later, I found that Roethke had also written a poem called “Long Live the Weeds”, and it’s surprisingly relevant to our discussion of the “world of wounds.”

.

Long Live the Weeds

Long live the weeds that overwhelm
My narrow vegetable realm! –
The bitter rock, the barren soil
That force the son of man to toil;
All things unholy, marked by curse,
The ugly of the universe.
The rough, the wicked and the wild
That keep the spirit undefiled.
With these I match my little wit
And earn the right to stand or sit,
Hope, look, create, or drink and die:
These shape the creature that is I.

Theodore Roethke

.

I don’t read a lot of poetry, but it’s not too often that I run across a poem that speaks to ecology and land management in this way. The poem could be interpreted as referring to garden weeds, but to me it speaks of our desire to control unwanted species anywhere they might grow, our prairies included. It acknowledges that in our striving to shape the living world around us, it shapes us too, and that we’ll never completely control it, nor should we expect to. But that’s just my interpretation! If anyone has their own take, or has any other ecology-themed poetry recommendations, I’d love to hear them. I know I’ll be thinking of it during any invasive plant management we undertake on the Platte this spring and beyond.

Roethke said vegetable realm, but what about our fungal realm?? Photo by Emma Greenlee
Another denizen of our vegetable realm. Photo by Emma Greenlee