Sometimes people ask why we have to do restoration work on prairies and the like. By my (admittedly amateur) account there are several reasons.
One reason which ranks somewhat lower in the estimation of some is history. We want people to know what our region looked like and what lived here before Europeans came and irrevocably altered it. And the best way to do that is to set aside areas that mimic that past. What did the world look like apart from my civilization’s influence on it? How can I gauge my, and my culture’s, own impact? A restored site can be a good answer to that question.
Some can argue against “history” and use all kinds of philosophical arguments, but in some ways we need reminders more than ever of what our influence has been on the planet. We need to see the “other” for what it genuinely is or was.
At one time, long-grass prairies were the dominant habitat here in the Midwest. We need to know that. And the land itself, with all its living apparatus, is an important part of our American historical heritage.
Another reason for doing restoration work is what can simply be called aesthetics. For those “in the know” a golden prairie in the fall season is a beautiful thing, much like the colors of the trees.
But it’s not just landscapes, it’s even insects, for instance. The Hine’s Emerald dragonfly is one of the most rare dragonflies in the world, and it lives not 20 miles from my house. Tiny little workmanship, small and incredibly fragile, these insects are in their own way quite beautiful. Nature’s original beauty should be protected.
Admittedly, aggressive, invasive species can also be beautiful. Purple loosestrife, for instance, is a beautiful flower in our wetlands. But it is non-native and prolific, and takes up space our native plants need, making native species more rare and threatened.
One of the more popular reasons right now for restoration work is ecosystem benefits. Making more wetlands not only helps the animals and plants but it helps us in that it cleans the water, protects against floods, etc. For me, this is not the only reason, even though for some it seems it is. I will say that this is the most motivating reason, for some of us. When the bottom line (i.e., money) is affected, there tends to be action.
The reverse side of ecosystem benefits is ecosystem disruption. How much does disruption of the ecosystem cost us when we are not taking care of nature? For instance, how much does it cost businesses every year to clean out discharge pipes filled with zebra mussels, an aggressive, non-native freshwater species?
Another side of the ecosystem as a reason for doing restoration work is ecosystem maintenance itself. These small areas where we have nature preserves are often hotspots for many species, endangered as well as more common. Maintained areas tend to do this better, and for more species, than non-maintained areas. They usually have more species of plants, and then those plants are able to sustain more kinds of other living things.
Our nature preserves are like island archipelagos for many species. Take them away, or don’t protect the native habitat there, and the whole system can be affected. At some point we are really protecting ourselves from ecosystem breakdown when we restore natural areas.
I want to make one more point with regard to the ecosystem. I saw a program on PBS not long ago – I think it was the “Now” program. It told of a manufacturer who in prior decades had released large amounts of PCB’s, a toxic chemical, into the local waterways. Of course now the government wants the company to clean up all those PCB’s and the company is resisting. The government says the area must be clean enough for people and birds to eat the fish in the waterways. The company says that those areas will never be that clean, and that, in any case, they will not pay to clean the areas up to that level of safety. I’m not making any judgment here about who should or should not pay or even how much they should pay. That is not my point. The point of the matter is that ecosystem viability is the real deal, the genuine criterion for what should be done. In other words, if a heron or an ibis comes to this waterway, eats a fish and dies from it, and the waterway does this to living things on a regular basis, then the waterway has become what is called a natural “sink.” It’s a place that is no longer viable as part of our ecosystem. Ecosystem viability is the criterion we have to go by.
Well, that was a little off-subject, but now we get to some of the bigger reasons we do restoration work for.
Most people do not know it, but native habitats harbor far more species usually than disrupted areas do. I’ve talked about Gensburg Prairie before. It harbors hundreds of insect species on top of the maybe 200 plant species that are there. Gensburg Prairie is a high-quality site, but it’s not uncommon for other good prairies to garner similar results.
One thing I’ve been doing on a site not far from my home is cut an invasive weed called, teasel. It’s an aggressive, non-native species. It can virtually take over a prairie, which is what I fear is happening to “my” site. It creates large stands of itself, not allowing any other plants to grow at all. Teasel does have some allies. Bumblebees, some of my favorite insects, just love teasel, and there are many kinds of beetles that seem to like it, too. The area I’m trying to save has about 200 native plant species along a mostly prairie trail. If the teasel takes over, all of that will be lost. All the native pollinators that like the native flowers will be lost, too. That is what you have to weigh when you make these judgments. That is the gist of what conservationists are talking about when they talk about the need for management or restoration. We are protecting what’s there from invasive species, and we are favoring native species over non-native ones to enhance biodiversity.
Which brings us to another very important reason for what we do.
If you describe what’s happening in the natural world right now as a story, people take a profound place in it no matter how you look at it. At the time when Europeans came to this North American continent, nature was so robust and prolific that they were astounded. Then we cut the trees and plowed the grasslands. We have, to a large extent, domesticized an entire continent in only a few centuries. But our influence on the land has not stopped with agriculture. We are still in the process of mining mountaintops, introducing destructive non-native species, polluting the waters, etc. We haven’t stopped altering the natural world in profound and ubiquitous ways.
What that looks like on a local level naturally centers on the parks and preserves, the last places left for living things. Our introduced species, like buckthorn or teasel, purple loosestrife or reed canary grass, are still playing havoc with our communities’ natural areas.
We are the ones who have done this. We are the ones who, in the end, are responsible.
We are responsible in two ways. One way is that it is what we’ve done, plain and simple. This is the story. The other reason we are responsible is because we are the decision-makers. We are the ones who inevitably will decide what stays and what goes. It makes no sense to deny that this is so, and leave the results up to chance, as if when it comes to nature preserves we have no rights, but if it has to do with natural resources (we use in the economy) we have all the rights. That doesn’t make sense. No, we should make the decisions consciously, based on the best information and the best values. (If something goes extinct on our watch, as inevitably they will, the least we should be able to say is, “we tried.”)
And that brings us pretty close to my last (but not least) reason we should do restoration work.
Along with all the above reasons, the reason we do restoration work is that living things have value. They have value far above what value we can give to them. They have value far above what they can do for us. They have intrinsic value, much like art, you could say. If you can say, “Art for it’s own sake,” you can certainly say, “Life for it’s own sake.” From a religious or spiritual viewpoint you can say that life is sacred. The value life has, it can be said, especially in the aggregate, is close to infinite.
Now you can anticipate that people’s and living things’ interests will at times collide. At such a juncture we have to make a judgment. Which is more valuable? The human gain or the living thing’s right to exist? Is a little fish in the river more important or is a large agri-business’s quarterly earnings goals more valuable? In that case, I think I would decide for the fish. But there may be times when the case is not so clear. Maybe a road in the mountains is needed to get people to the hospital when they are in need of emergency care. Of course, there may be other options – but life and death issues may be one time when we may consider giving way to human needs.
I think it was Stephen Jay Gould in Natural History magazine many years back who proposed the golden rule for such matters – the golden rule in reverse almost. If we were in the place of the species involved what would we want people to do?
Seen from this perspective there might be a lot of things we might be doing differently. We might want ourselves to stop growing at such an exponential rate and give back some of the nature we have taken.
Which, in a way, is exactly what we are trying to do with restoration work.
For all the reasons above, and finally for the love of nature itself, we need to do this work.