Out here in the Plains prairie resotoration is a sort of buzz phrase for people like me. Suddenly, visions of a horizon to horizon ocean of grass and wildflowers, dotted by herds of bison, rush like irish coffee to the brain. I swoon with warmth and alcohol. Oh, prairie. Marry me.
Yet prairie restoration in such terms is self defeating—perhaps any restoration, just given the name “restoration—” is doomed to failure; not for a lack of imagination, but for too much. In a recent post by Chris Helzer, who manages prairie along the Platte River in central Nebraska for The Nature Conservancy—he says the following about our expectations for recreating what was once here:
“Where this kind of prairie restoration falls flat is when we expect too much from it. It’s really easy to find glaring differences between the restored prairie and what we know or think used to be there – soil characteristics are different, insect and wildlife species are missing, plant species are too common or too rare, etc. These “failures” have led some people in conservation and academia to become disillusioned with the whole concept of prairie restoration.”
Helzer goes on to say that restoration of prairie—and perhaps any ecosystem, small or large—should not be seen as creating historically-accurate environment, but a landscape that provides for the natural systems to do what they do. Pollinate. Raise young. Provide food for other species. Et cetera. He looks at it as when a city is flattened—the new buildings can’t be historically accurate, they just need to go up; the focus is on making sure people can get back to their daily lives, that the city provides them with what they need to live.
As I think about my small 1,500′ of native plants, I suppose I never tried to recreate anything historically accurate, but it was in the back of my mind as I used natives. In the end what I have is a garden. A garden by its very definition is something artistic, it is a vision, an interpretation, it has a human hand in it to some degree. Of course, a wildlife garden may have a bit less of human influece, but it’s still very much there. I don’t have a prairie in my backyard (I wish!), but I do have a thriving ecosystem providing pollen, nectar, insects for young birds, cover, and so much more for the many life stages for tons of species. I’m at the end of a small forested flyway near a catch pond, as well, so I know the importance of my space. I know the importance of native plants in a desert of lawns and corn fields.
Helzer ends this way: “if we’re going to successfully restore the viability of fragmented prairies, we can’t afford to waste time and effort worrying about whether or not we’ve matched pre-European settlement condition, or any other historical benchmark. Instead, we need to focus on patching the essential systems back together. After all, we’re not building for the past, we’re building for the future.”
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