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.

The Mechanics of Conservation

Years ago, we hired an older mechanic (older than me, anyway) to take care of our equipment so I and other staff could focus more on ecology and land management and less on carburetors and oil changes.  Fred (not his real name) always seemed a little grumpy.  That was completely understandable, given his responsibilities.  Not only was our equipment old and worn out, we tended to be pretty rough on it.

Trained as ecologists, not mechanics, we often used equipment for purposes it was never intended for. (“You know that old Massey combine was built for harvesting soybeans on flat fields, right?  Not for harvesting dense prairie cordgrass in wet meadows or rose hips on steep hills??”)  Even worse, we were pretty cavalier about checking oil, greasing zerks, and other basic maintenance.  When equipment inevitably broke down, Fred would come out with his tools, grumbling under his breath about carelessness and laziness, and fix the problem.  The next time we used that particular piece of equipment, we were likely to see a note scrawled on the equipment in paint marker reminding us to “CHECK OIL BEFORE DRIVING!”, “DRIVE IN LOW GEAR!”, or “BLOW OUT THE RADIATOR!”   We always knew Fred was mad when the paint markers made an appearance.

A paint marker note of "encouragement". Photo by Eric Chien
A paint marker note reminder from “Fred”. Photo by Eric Chien

I’ve often thought that land managers are much like mechanics.  Instead of maintaining machines, we are charged with keeping natural areas working properly.  Sometimes, we’re called upon to fix (restore) land that has been degraded by chronic overgrazing, broadcast herbicide use, or even tillage.  Other times, we just perform minor tune ups to keep things humming along.  There isn’t really an end point to land management, no pinnacle of success to be reached.  Instead, success is being able to hand off a piece of land to the next manager and feel good about it.  “Welp, here’s the keys…”

Because he cared about the equipment he was responsible for, Fred always got justifiably frustrated with us when we would fail to take obvious (to him) steps to help prevent a potential breakdown.  He also felt personally offended when he saw machinery – ours or otherwise – that was obviously neglected and rundown.  We land managers experience the same emotions about land.

We understand the importance of plant and animal diversity in prairies, for example, and know that good management can maintain both that diversity and the ecological function it supports.  It is immensely frustrating to see prairies neglected and over-run by trees or other invasive plants.  It can be even harder to watch a prairie get chronically overgrazed, broadcast with herbicide, or (especially) tilled for row crop production.  We have a deep understanding of what’s lost when prairie is degraded or destroyed, and we appreciate how difficult restoration can be.

Just as Fred got cranky with us because we didn’t take care of the equipment he was invested in, it’s easy for us as land managers to feel the same way about people who neglect or abuse land.  However, whenever Fred would gripe at us about what we were doing, we tended to tune him out (“Oh, that’s just Fred – he’s always cranky about something.”)  Only on the rare occasions did he calmly explain why it was important to do something and how it might affect us personally.  That’s when we actually listened.

I think there is an important lesson here for land managers and anyone involved in conservation.  Being grumpy doesn’t build credibility.  People don’t usually respond well when you lash out at them or make them feel dumb or lazy.  If we want to change the way people treat land, we need to figure out the motivation behind what they’re currently doing and start a conversation there.  Often, they have good intentions but lack the information and larger context that we have.  We can help with that.  Demonstrating what good land management looks like and showing how better habitat helps wildlife, pollinators and humans will go a long way toward improving the world around us.

Land managers
It’s vital that land managers share what we learn with other land managers, land owners, and others.  Looking at management results on site can be the most effective way to trade ideas and strategies, but there are other options as well.  Starting conversations is the first step.

A related lesson is that working in isolation doesn’t change the hearts and minds of others.  Most land managers tend to enjoy working alone, or in small groups of like-minded people.  While that may be comfortable, it doesn’t help inspire action on other lands.  Inviting people to well-managed land for field days, volunteer work days or similar events can show others what great habitat looks like and motivate them to imitate good work.  Sharing effective strategies and important lessons through presentations and publications can reach a broad audience.  All land managers are constantly learning, but unless that knowledge is shared, it isn’t advancing conservation.

There is plenty to shake our heads about these days.  The human race does a lot of silly things, and it’s tempting to just around and grumble to ourselves about it – or to snipe at anyone who offends us.  That doesn’t really get us anywhere, though, does it?  Instead of griping, let’s start conversations.  Let’s find out what others care about and explain what conservation looks like to us and why it matters.  Let’s be proactive about sharing both the lessons we learn and the wonder we gain from our lands.

After all, I think we can all agree that empathy and conversation are more effective than paint markers…