Hubbard Fellowship Blog – Alex’s Work Pants

This post was written by Alex Brechbill, one of our Hubbard Fellows this year.  Alex has a great aptitude and personality for environmental law and policy work, but not to the detriment of his outdoor work ethic – as you’ll see here.  Also – Stay tuned for an announcement very soon about the application period for the next round of our Fellowship.

After graduating college with a degree in political science, I was convinced I was going to dive headfirst into a cubicle. There was something very exciting about it. I would have my own desk, the ability to throw on a sweater because the A/C is just a bit too chilly, and maybe, if I’m lucky, two monitors on my computer. This image was so idyllic because most of my work experience includes me being knee-high in mud (and probably not mud, if we are being honest), saturated in sweat, and consistently covered in perma-dirt, no matter how fancy I get with my laundry.

I was convinced I would have that dream cubicle. I wanted to, and still want to, pursue environmental law in some capacity: paralegal, administrative assistant, research, etc. Despite having plenty of outdoors jobs, I’ve had my fair share of indoor positions, slowly building a collection of slacks, khakis, corduroys, and dress pants for the day that I finally get my name on a desk. However, that collection will have to keep gathering dust, because my favorite pants are my workpants.

They are khaki canvas Dickies, with the classic red patch on the right butt cheek. They are size 32×32, but depending on the day, they would ideally be about two inches snugger and two inches longer. I’ve had them for four years. They were originally intended for my dad, but I intercepted them as they were my size.

Are these pants freshly laundered or have I worked in them for three weeks? You can never really tell by just looking at them.

Workpants are the physical manifestation of how much it takes to keep ecosystems in their desired condition. Without a little elbow grease, most of our prairies would be thickets of Siberian elm, a sea of musk thistles, or thatch dense enough you’d have to Bear Grylls your way out. Growing up, I marveled at how beautiful landscapes could regulate themselves without any intervention. However, there is a lot of behind-the-scenes work. It takes folks out in the field every day of the week, not just when it is convenient, but when it’s raining, windy, hot, cold, summer, or winter. It is by no means glamorous work, but it’s rewarding, beautifully messy work. My pants have borne the brunt of that labor, from mud to paint. Every spot, snag, hole, wrinkle, or stain has a story.

In the last seven months, I have conducted a very scientific study regarding the reasons I have washed my workpants. Although the research is ongoing, I have some results that I think are notable for this audience. One might ask, “are most scientific studies done in colored pencil and marker?” The answer is that although it may seem archaic, I assure you it is still very scientific.

Life-long scientific research. Still trying to get it published in Workpants Quarterly.

Some of the preliminary findings are that there has been a lot of poison ivy this year and that I’ve done a lot of chainsaw work, as shown by the lingering smell of two-stroke exhaust. After looking at the raw data and punching some numbers, I found that there is a clear correlation between my pants not fitting and how long I have been chainsawing. On occasion, after I take off my chaps, one may think that I’m wearing a second pair of chaps underneath my chaps, however, that is merely the outline of my sweat from where the chaps were once occupying.

This is the Achilles’ heel of any good pair of pants, the classic backpocket wallet hole. I prefer the hole in my backpocket to be somewhere in between “that’ll be fine” and “I think I lost my wallet in the prairie.
Once upon a time, these pants used to be more of an orange-khaki color, as shown by the color under the cuff. Over the years they’ve been sunbleached and built up a good patina. They get better with time, like a fine wine.
Permadirt and blue stains. Really it’s a match made in heaven.

Although it made a small appearance in the above data, breaking through the ice was one of my favorite experiences. In February, I and the other field staff were preparing for crane season, and one of the objectives was to remove cattails to make a clear view of the roosting cranes on the river. The river was still frozen at this time, but I was still wary of the thickness of ice. From the bank of the river, I removed all the cattails that I could reach. However, there were still cattails out further that were blocking the view of the river from the blind. Thinking of the cranes, I braved the ice. As I reached the outer edge of the cattails, I knew my goose was cooked. I plunged two feet down into the brisk water and got stuck in the muck, the murky water flowing into my boots. Within an instant, the stale winter air became rank with pungent, marinating muck that had not been disturbed for months. The damage was done, my Muck Boots were filled with literal muck, and I wasn’t going anywhere. To my demise, I finished the job, removing the cattails. To exit the icy water, I laid the weedwhacker on ice near the bank and beached-whaled myself out of the mucky water. Like I said, it’s not glamorous work, but it’s rewarding. The science is still ongoing, but if you’d like to contribute to my (very scientific) research, I’d be curious if you have any good stories about your trusty workpants!

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.