“The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States”
Author: Chris Helzer
Publisher: The University of Iowa Press (Bur Oak Books)
The last decade or so has seen a modest proliferation of guides, manuals and handbooks dedicated to the prairies of the American mid-continent. By and large these books work from a similar set of premises: defining (and defending) the prairie grasslands as a unique and complex ecosystem; advocating for small- and large-scale prairie restoration projects throughout the region, as well as preserving the few remaining undisturbed prairie remnants; challenging—in varying increments of severity—current land-use practices of industrialized agriculture; and illuminating the scope and diversity of prairie grasses, forbs and legumes through the use of photographic and hand-drawn illustrations After reading a handful of such books, a certain amount of redundancy is unavoidable—yet this isn’t entirely a bad thing, as most of the recent publications in this burgeoning genre of memoiristic restoration guides are more compact, more personal and generally more accessible to a wider readership.
Chris Helzer’s recent publication, “The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States,” both benefits from similar work that precedes it, such as Connie Mutel’s “The Emerald Horizon: The History of Nature in Iowa,” and adds its own unique contribution to the genre. Coming in at just over 200 pages, Helzer’s work is immediately more manageable than some earlier, bulkier restoration guides, without sacrificing much in the way of content. Ample space is given in the opening pages for explanation of Helzer’s rationale and methodology—first defining the prairie ecosystem and then laying out practical steps for restoration and management—as well as some reflection on his own personal investment. Indeed, one of the book’s main strengths is Helzer’s confident, authoritative voice. As program director for the Eastern Nebraska Project Office of the Nature Conservancy, this book leaves little doubt of Helzer’s own commitment or expertise in the area of prairie restoration.
Throughout the work Helzer addresses his reader as “grassland manager,” insinuating a professionally oriented readership. This should not discourage those with a more recreational interest in prairie restoration—or those looking for a place to begin—from digging into Helzer’s work. “The Ecology and Management of Prairies” is an accessible text that is full of colorful, often astonishing photographs (taken by Helzer himself) of wildflowers, insects, animals and prairie fires. The opening section on “Prairie Ecology” is particularly suited to a reader looking to better familiarize herself with this often elusive ecosystem. Yet the text does have much to offer the professional “grassland manager,” as well as those with an academic interest in landscape ecology as a field of study. In addition to Helzer’s photographs, the text also features a number of charts, figures and computer models that allow for a deeper understanding of the ecological impact of issues like growth seasons, heterogeneity and connectivity. Furthermore, the vocabulary employed by Helzer in places—terms like “habitat patch,” “edge effects” and “corridors”—while not a jargon wholly exclusive to an academic readership, would make the text suitable for use in a college-level course on landscape ecology.
As the book unfolds, those familiar with this type of writing will recognize certain requisite features: a map outlining the extent of prairie ecosystems on the North American continent; a long digression extolling the importance of fire as a management tool; and arguments favoring heterogeneity and diversity over homogeneity and monoculture. Yet this book also adds depth to some aspects of the field that have been underexplored in similar works. The section on “Animal Communities,” for example, includes substantial exposition on the role played by insects (or invertebrates more generally) in sustaining a healthy prairie. That over 300 species of grasshopper reside in places like Konza Prairie in the Kansas Flint Hills comes across as vital information, in some ways having as much ecological impact on the prairie as megafauna like bison or elk, a fact that Helzer backs up: “Grasshoppers and other leaf-eating insects consume enormous amounts of vegetation, rivaling the amount eaten by bison in any particular place” (p. 18). Small vignettes like this are part of the book’s success, as Helzer does not just tell the reader about the prairie’s infinite, and sometimes paradoxical, complexity, but shows it with numerous anecdotes and examples that deepen the prairie’s triumvirate of grass, fire and bison.
This is not to say that Helzer does not address the importance of megafauna species—bison certainly have their place in this text as well. Many see the bison as the prairie’s keystone species, and Helzer gives the large mammal its due. What’s new here, however, is the choice to weigh the pros and cons of cattle grazing as part of prairie restoration projects in addition to more familiar discourse about bison. Helzer acknowledges the almost universally negative image cattle have in the eyes of most prairie enthusiasts—they are, after all, a nonnative and sometimes invasive species—but the book’s commitment to practical-mindedness makes the inclusion of cattle a necessity that many others have simply ignored. In no way is “The Ecology and Management of Prairies” a defense of feedlot production practices; rather, it offers an open-minded look at how to make raising cattle—a way of life in Nebraska and other prairie states for going on two centuries—work sustainably with more traditional techniques of prairie restoration. In that sense, the discourse on cattle is both refreshing and enlightening, not to mention an encouragement for those with hopes of assuaging some of the antagonism that exists between restoration ecologists and the cattle industry.
Prairie restoration does not yet play a large role in mainstream environmental discourse, as global warming, deforestation and—especially now—coastal deterioration remain the most hotly debated issues. Those interested in making the revitalization of native grasslands something more than a niche concern need to begin connecting the dots among these environmental crises, by showing how large and connected stretches of untrammeled prairie offer limitless benefits to soil preservation, water purification, wildlife conservation and many other related issues. Helzer’s book offers a first step in this direction by way of a concluding “Note on Climate Change.” Though brief, this section of “The Ecology and Management of Prairies” works to encourage the “grassland manager” to stick with her project even in the face of rising temperatures, mercurial weather patterns and perpetual threats from invasive species. Perhaps most important is Helzer’s closing statement of how a restored prairie can help limit some of the impacts of climate change:
a healthy, diverse prairie will be a strong contributor to the fight against global warming. Prairies are very effective at sequestering carbon and, in contrast to trees, which store most of their carbon in their trunks where it can be released when the tree dies, grasslands store the bulk of their carbon below ground. That belowground carbon will remain there unless it is released by future plowing. (p. 175)
This final section on climate change only skims the surface of what could potentially be said about this topic and its political implications—but delving deeply into these issues is beyond the scope of “The Ecology and Management of Prairies.” One can only hope that Helzer and likeminded thinkers will continue the work of substantiating claims of the prairie’s place in our ongoing environmental debates.