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.
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.
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…