References for Restoration and Conservation

My passion for the science of Ecology and the practices of ecological restoration and conservation arose largely from time I spent on small, “postage stamp”, Iowa prairies. I still struggle to articulate the appeal, but for me there is something of meaning in complexity.

Owens prairie, an unbroken square of land on the five-figure per acre black soils of Iowa.

Owens prairie, an unbroken square of land on the five-figure per acre black soils of Iowa.

Having just defended a dissertation dedicated to restoration, I have been thinking about the remaining natural (or relatively natural) places many of us seek to conserve, and the degraded places we might wish to restore. I have been thinking about reference conditions, goals, and how much we really know about what we’re doing or would like to do.

We often use what remains as a reference for what we should conserve or restore. The prairie in the above picture is beautiful, a place where I would (and have) merrily strode about seeking to witness new and unfamiliar flora and fauna, but is this prairie like it used to be, and if it isn’t, should it be? Should our attempts to restore native vegetation nearby defer to the little square of land where this prairie clings to existence and its attendant environmental and landscape configuration? Unlike the prairies Willa Cather knew, so much of what we have left, regardless of how many open blossoms scream richness and beauty, is changed. It is changed by the deposition of nitrogen from surrounding fields and feed lots, the loss of native herbivores, the loss of the effects of predators on herbivore behavior, altered fire regimes, the population effects of isolation, increased atmospheric carbon dioxide, and on and on. Unfortunately, only rarely can we approach an understanding of how much things have changed. Are there more showy forbs than there should be (says a Kansan), or are there fewer (says an Iowan)? Some might argue to use more western prairies for reference, because they have been consistently grazed and more often burned, but others might argue that Iowa prairies have not been sprayed with broad-leaf herbicides at large scales or that European burning and grazing regimes are every bit as foreign as their omission. Not only have so many things changed, but conditions are changing, and they will change.

So we might look to the past for a reference. We might look to what we have now, even if it has changed, because it represents the evolution (in more than one sense of the word) of the historic system in response to change. We might take this further and consider how such change might be limited by isolation and the pace at which change occurs.

I tend to come down thinking about the future. I found myself defending species richness this last Monday, and the future is the primary reason why. In Iowa, there are still prairies. The species in the photograph above are attractive, and maybe change has inflated their richness at small scales, but what would be growing on Owens Prairie had those species not been there when the surrounding sod was turned over and the prairie was isolated? Would native plant species dominate and some of their rarer consumers (regal fritillaries can be found on this prairie) find adequate resources, or would this square of land more resemble the surrounding corn fields in terms of its complexity?

Richness originally called to me in a human way. It appeals to my sense of beauty and need to live in a textured world. I value sharing the story of a flower or bird with another person, and for someone like me, it forms the nucleus of human interaction.

But when it comes to the science, I’m with Loreau. As a species, we are full tilt ahead on a dark and winding course. Richness is our insurance.

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