[permaculture] Prairies and Forests

Mark mpludwig at facstaff.wisc.edu
Tue Jul 9 11:37:14 EDT 2002

I'll try to wrap up here, I think we may have hit the sensible middle...

> >>  Compared to the amount of CO2 from fossil fuels the controlled burns we
>do these days are insignificant.  <<
>Compared to CO2 emissions from fossil fuels around the world, yes controlled
>burns performed for prairie restoration in the U.S.A. would be miniscule.
>Burning as an age old tool of humanity, however, has contributed
>significantly to CO2 in the air, as well as to the degradation of the flora
>which keep the earth's atmosphere stable.  Just look at Australia, which has
>been burned by humans for around 100,000 years.  It's mostly desert now.

Bit of a stretch to blame decertification on burning IMO.  Granted 
vegetation will have an impact on climate, but the macro cycles of global 
climate seem much more influential.

>When we started building dams and irrigating our crops, we had a hard time
>foreseeing any problems with that until the lands started salting up.

Anyone who studied history was not surprised by this.  It's been going on 
since the dawn of recorded history.  Denial or desperation are more likely 
what trumped for site.

>I would even venture to say that fire has historically been our primary tool
>for clearing and degrading the land.  So please excuse me if I'm leery of
>this "new and improved" method of torching the earth.  People will continue
>to burn, I have no doubt, but I'm speaking out to let them know that there
>is opposition to prescribed burning and that there are alternatives for
>ecosystem restoration and maintenance.

Burning is a powerful tool, often misused.  However, those without access 
to cattle or bull dosers may have little choice than to use it, possibly 
over use it.  Like so many of the issues we nibble at, without a decent 
system of economic development to provide better alternatives the tools at 
hand will be used and overused to provide for the days needs.  Hunger and 
poverty do not lead one to good choices.  As to our situations nearer to 
home, I still see burning as a viable and valuable tool when used in the 
proper context.  Blanket condemnation of this method is just as absurd as 
the blanket condemnation of cattle I hear far too often by folks who look 
only at feed lots.  Abuse of a tool is not a reason to give it up entirely, 
it is a reason to consider carefully its place.

> >>  Plenty of trees being planted in the Midwest, more than we have going
>into prairie.  <<
>Glad to hear it.  My friend did mention that in northern WI, there is ample
>woodland restoration.

Its all over the place.  The tree fetish is alive and well and often used 

>   In Texas, my hope is that we can agree that a prairie
>is an infusion of grasslands and woodlands, and that when we're talking
>prairie restoration we're talking trees as well as grasses and forbes.  I
>believe that the trees are what make prairies different from grasslands
>otherwise they would be the same word.  The French coined both the words
>prairie and motte when they came to Texas to describe the emotional edge
>between the Eastern Forest and the Central Grasslands.

This is where we part company fairly decisively.  Prairie is open 
grassland.  Savannah is mixed prairie and trees at low density.  Woods are 
primarily tree dominated.  these are distinct plant community and the need 
for all three is apparent when one looks at the fauna each supports.  We 
are in serious danger of loosing our grassland bird species in the upper 
midwest, many of these animals simply do not tolerate trees, and 
furthermore those that do tolerate a few trees are imperiled by raccoons 
and other edge walking predators.  All of these ecosystems are worthy of 
preservation for their own merits, bending definitions and management 
simply does not make a lot sense to me.

> >>  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.
>I agree, and would like to find out more about the intensive cell grazing of
>cattle and its effects on prairie disturbance.  I've studied with Alan
>Savory and heard a lot about Holistic Management and would like to see it in
>use in lou of fire.  I've also heard of bison tamed enough to be moved
>around in portable electric fencing.

Usually referred to at rotational grazing or management intensive 
grazing.  A fine system indeed, one I promote constantly and believe may be 
the key to a midwest permaculture that can be widely practiced on a 
profitable basis.  It is not however all that easy to do in prairie 
systems, much simpler to use C3 grasses and annual C4's.  Some regions like 
the Flint hills are making a go with native grass grazing, but it is 
tricky.  They also do a little burning in their management.  You should 
look for Hi Stanton's book, "Grasses and Grassland farming"  He agrees with 
you on burning big time.

> >>  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.  <<
>Yes, as the coastal forest belts move further inland they naturally give way
>to grasslands and savannas, and as we clear the forests and begin to
>dessicate the interior of the continent those droughty conditions are
>pushing ever outwards.  As a matter of fact the whole of North America is
>dryer, more brittle (less biological decay) and more tender, therefor more
>susceptable to drought and wild fire.

I believe the Rocky Mountain rain shadow has an awful lot of influence 
here.  Your conclusions are based on faulty premises.

>This is not an argument for introducing more drought tollerant ecosystems,
>however, rather it is an alarm signalling that we need to reforest the
>coastal belts and rehumidify the interior of the continent.

And turn the prevailing continental wind  direction.  Good luck.  You guys 
have a point that there is a need to reforest some of our damaged 
ecosystems, but that only gets you so far.  Re grassing the central plains 
before the ogalala aquifer is blown might be a bit more pragmatic and much 
more stable than trying to grow trees in a desert.

> >>  Our biggest problem is getting them to limit the size of burns to
>provide insect refuges.  <<
>I've been following this topic on the prairie mailing list.  It seems to be
>a double edged sword.


> >>  Want to stop global warming?  Promote good grass land development with
>large grazers  <<
>I'm still looking for credible studies on carbon sequestering and O2
>production.  Prairie enthusiasts, when arguing their case often make it soud
>like we'd be better of with nothing but grasslands - i.e. prairies have more
>diversity, more bio-mass, sequester more carbon, etc., etc.  How could
>forests need protecting when woody brush invasion is such a problem?

I would put myself down as more of a grazing enthusiast.  Most farmers see 
significant rises in organic matter after grazing is implemented and 
tillage largely halted.  That's a far faster method of carbon sequestering 
than foresting and provides faster economic returns.

>As I've mentioned, I'm all for grassland development as long as it's done
>without fire and without systematically removing trees.  Aren't there enough
>degraded ag and pasture lands to work with?

I think your point is well taken, but given the nature of land ownership in 
the USA we don't always get a choice of where we get to do our work.  I 
would love to see more ag land in grass based farming.  I promote it 
constantly.  But if some trash tree is in my way, i will whack it.  That 
for better or worse is the way of farming; we pick what live and dies.

>   North America has been stripped
>of its bio-mass and wildlife.  I feel we've done enough burning and clearing
>for a milinium or so.  It's time to see what we can do for the earth without
>promoting destructive management regimes.  Using the ends to justify the
>means isn't a sell for me.

I would say foresting the whole thing is just as absurd as plowing it all 
up was.  Balance in all things, diversity of landscapes and management 
regimes and a healthy skepticism of all approaches is warranted.

> >> I do not speak for this tree hating community you imagine.  I don't think
>it really exists as some great and influential mass.  <<
>Come to Texas and attend some of the brush management seminars that are
>being put on by the fed and state agencies and you will experience the
>community I'm talking about.  The historical evidence, at least in Texas,
>strongly indicates that cedar and mesquite were quite prominant in the
>landscap and that it was people, not lightning, that started burning Texas.
>So the aggies and restoration and native plant societies have managed to
>implement a management doctrine that is counter to historical records.
>That's influential enough to cause alarm for me.

Yeah, we have plenty of nucklehaeds here too, telling folks to build 1000 
cow dairys and feed corn silage based rations and other insane 
plans.  Fortunately they don't get to dictate to everyone how to run the 
world here and I doubt the get to do it there either.  And equally 
important, most efforts to wipe out anything as tough at trees, brush and 
coyotes tend to fail.

An interesting thread.  Thanks.

>Thanks for all of your in put, Mark.
>Kirby Fry
>For the real scoop on environmental and social justice issues check out the
>archives of Democracy Now!
>permaculture mailing list
>permaculture at lists.ibiblio.org

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

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