[permaculture] Prairies and Forests

Mark mpludwig at facstaff.wisc.edu
Mon Jul 8 14:04:25 EDT 2002

At 09:06 AM 7/8/02 -0500, you wrote:
>Hi Mark,
>I see you're from Madison, Wisconsin the home of the oldest prairie
>restoration program in the U.S.A. initially run by Aldo Leopold himself.  It
>just so happens that my friend who got me going on all of this just returned
>from a two week long educators course on prairie restoration.  She had
>nothing good to say about woodlands upon her return to Texas and everything
>to say about prescribed burning and "prairies."
>Recall, that Leopold lived to regret his wolf eradication efforts in New
>Mexico.  I believe that he might have similar regrets if he saw the chronic,
>progressive use of fire as a management tool for maintaining prairies.

I doubt it.  Compared to the amount of CO2 from fossil fuels the controlled 
burns we do these days are insignificant.  On top of that we sequester 
carbon deep in the root zone.  if you add a grazing component the effect is 
even grater.

> > I tend to side with the prairie promoters, as much as anything because so
>much of it was wiped out by plow happy settlers.
>I'm all in favor of prairie restoration as long as it doesn't include
>clearing trees and prescribed burning.  If it does include burning and
>clearing then there neads to be an equal amount of land reforested and set
>on a path of high succession.  I believe that there are enough dunuded lands
>in North America to restore so that clearing sites is totally unnecessary.I

Plenty of trees being planted in the midwest, more than we have going into 

>Furthermore, there may have been wildfires once upon a time, the frequency
>of which I believe to still be disputed, but fire is too dangerous and
>destructive of a tool to RELY on for prairie maintenance.

Total bunk.  Fire is easy to manage if you know what you're doing, plus 
there are plenty of roads, pastures and crop fields to stop most fires.

>   I feel its time
>to steer the fire loving plant communities back into their original niches
>and aim for a less fire adapted plant community.  The main tools missing in
>most resoration projects are the bison.

Cattle are much easier to manage and have a nearly identical function if 
they are managed properly.  Bison are far more likely to get you killed or 
injured than a grass fire will.

>One could also argue that just as much forest has been degraded as prairie.
>Another thing to consider is that prairies at least in Texas are an infusion
>of woodlands and grasslands.  Around Elgin, Texas where we live the ratio of
>trees to grass is 50:50.  Yet the prairie restorers don't seem to want to
>include trees in the equation.  In other words they can't see the prairie
>because of the grasses in the way.  Our prairie in Texas is different than
>that of the Central US, because it is an ecotone or edge between the Great
>Eastern Forest and the Great Plains / Grasslands of the Central U.S.A.

Same situation in WI.  I'm really in what is referred to as a Savannah zone 
where fire adapted trees such as oak, hickory and hazel are found inter 
spaced with grasses.

> >>  You might try the  following web sites www.grassland.unl.edu/ Nebraska
>state grassland institute.  <<
>Thanks for the lead.  I'll check it out.
> >>  The other nice thing about prairie restoration IMO is the relatively
>rapid establishment of a good functioning ecosystem compared to forest
>restoration and the relative ease of establishment if you know what you're
>doing.  <<
>By a good functioning ecosystem are you referring to something that has to
>be burned very seven years or so?  If so I would contend that a fire adapted
>plant community is probably not where we need to be headed in this day of
>global warming and trends towards aridity.  What happens when budgets and
>enthusiasm wain and the required disturbace management regimes are

Prairie is much more stable in a drought than forests are.  Trees can't 
shed above ground bio-mass and go dormant nearly as effectively as 
grasslands.  This is why forest peters out as the landscape gets more 
droughty.  About half the burning that takes place in WI is done by private 
citizens who think it's fun.  Our biggest problem is getting them to limit 
the size of burns to provide insect refuges.  Want to stop global 
warming?  Promote good grass land development with large grazers, give them 
ionophores to knock out rumen methane production (I'm only half serious 
here) and get people to stop burning oil.

>Also, a prairie project that relies on fire for maintenance rather than the
>bison cannot be anything close to authentic.  The pairies and bison are
>virtually one inseparable entity.  Without the bison as a part of a prairie
>ecosystem I personally have a hard time admitting that we're performing
>prairie restoration at all.  Rather, we are doing nothng but playing with
>fire and promoting a fire loving plant community which, IMO, is a dangerous
>trend.  Why the emphasis on fire and not the bison? because fire is cheap
>and easy and yields a nice short term response and bison carry the disease
>brucelosis.  So we've developed this whole management regime around
>econmoics and the political will of the ranchers, which is an awfully
>familiar and dangerous trend.

I agree the fear of brucellosis is absurd, but think that both fire and 
macro grazers are necessary for good restoration of prairie.  Fire is 
preferred in may cases exactly for the reasons you site but I think you 
worry too much about it.  It's neither dangerous or significant in as a co2 

> >>  The root mass and insect life underground is pretty phenomenal, goes
>down 5 meters, where as I understand it most of the action in forest systems
>is in the leaf litter.  <<
>Ah, now we're talking.  Where did you hear this information?  Is there a
>specific study you could direct me to?  I'll be sure to check out the
>sources you posted above for more info.

Try the Konza folks.  the 5 meter root depth is well documented in the 
prairie restoration lit.

>I've always heard that trees have just as much going on below ground as
>above ground, that the root system has as much biomass as the trunk and
>crown above ground.  Now prairie restorationists are reducing the
>underground role of trees to something almost insignificant and drawing this
>comparison as justification for clearing woodlands in order to "restore"
>fire loving plant communities.

I do not speak for this tree hating community you imagine.  I don't think 
it really exists as some great and influential mass.  I saw down box 
elders, buck thorns, red ceders etc in restorations and remnants because 
they are of limited value compared to the grasslands they invade.  I 
protect Oaks and hickory in the same situations.  This isn't black and 
white.  One of my favorite spots in WI is a steep hill, the south side is 
dry prairie, the north is birch forest.  Truly a site to behold on the 
crest.  I just wish it was mine so I could burn the south side a bit before 
the brambles choke it out.

Not trying to piss you off here Kirby, you just need to get out on a burn 
some time and get comfortable with it.

Mark P. Ludwig
Poultry Research Lab
University of Wisconsin -Madison
608-262-1730 WK
608-846-7125 HM

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