I’ve finally settled into the sage-steppe grasslands of Eastern Oregon. In many ways, my new home is a world apart from the tallgrass prairies of the Midwest, having few ticks, no chiggers, no poison ivy, and no thorny or prickly vegetation above shin height. It essentially doesn’t rain in the summer. There are NO C4 grasses (frankly, good riddance to them). If the system is healthy, it doesn’t burn very often (and vice versa). There are landscapes on the sage-steppe. People call the Flint Hills of Kansas a “landscape-scale” prairie. From a Great Basin perspective, the Flint Hills prairies are like the postage stamp prairies of Iowa and Illinois. Elk and Antelope roam here. A nighttime drive reveals no lit bulbs for miles or tens of miles to the horizon.
That said, there are many commonalities. In both places, altered fire regimes threaten biodiversity, although in sage-steppe grasslands it is mostly fire too often, whereas in tallgrass prairie both too frequent and too infrequent fire can starkly achieve biodiversity loss. Both grasslands are threatened by the encroachment of Juniper species. Both face threats from exotic species, especially in temporal or spatial proximity to human activity. Both inspire wonder. Both are worthy of conservation and restoration. Efforts for conservation and restoration in both are often justified and underwritten over concerns for particular, charismatic grouses.
On the sage-steppe the barriers to successful restoration are initially abiotic, although they develop a biotic component if exotic, annual grasses are given time to dominate after disturbance. Dry periods and fine soils lead to the formation of crusts that germinated seedlings often fail to emerge through. Soils after fires are often hydrophopic, preventing moisture from penetrating and sustaining young vegetation. Seeds often germinate in fall and die over the winter before they can emerge. Summer brings drought. Generally, abiotic conditions favorable for the establishment of plants from seeds are unpredictable…a year’s efforts may be a waste or they may not. A fifty-million dollar effort (i.e. BLM recovery plans following large fires in 2012) to revegetate a huge tract devastated by an unusually large and intense series of wildfires may succeed, or it may fail utterly.
When I was searching for graduate programs, I was initially interested with the idea of restoration in arid systems. I was told quite bluntly by a well-known faculty at the University of New Mexico, that restoration in arid grasslands didn’t work.
Luckily, there are people with an imagination out there, who have been asking whether or not barriers to the restoration of arid grasslands are insurmountable. If we lump seeds together, so their collective turgor can break through soil crusts, if we coat seeds with surfactants to punch holes in hydrophobic soils, if we coat seeds with hydrophobic substances to delay their germination until spring, if we engineer “pillows” so broadcast seeds tend to fall seed-down with a cap of soil over them, can we make the results of restoration more predictable? Maybe.
A huge problem with restoration and the expectations surrounding it has always been that we are trying to recover characteristics of a system from a new starting point, over a different trajectory, and over a truncated time period compared to the context that led to the formation of the system in the first place. We are working with something with great and perhaps irreducible complexity, and our approaches have been very limited…prescribed disturbances, and, in a few cases, tinkering with spatial arrangements. This research is exciting to me, because these are new tools, and they are targeted tools. At the rate we are turning up and simplifying the world we live in, we have to both increase our efforts and our abilities in order to achieve noticeable progress.