Russ Roberts

Pete Geddes on the American Prairie Reserve

EconTalk Episode with Pete Geddes
Hosted by Russ Roberts
Being Wrong... Amber Waves of Grain...

Dollarphotoclub_68878163.jpg When Lewis and Clark crossed through Montana, they encountered an extraordinary cornucopia of wildlife. Most of that ecosystem and the animals that once thrived there are gone. But a non-profit wants to bring it all back. Pete Geddes, Managing Director of the American Prairie Reserve talks with EconTalk host Russ Roberts about creating the Serengeti of the Americas--a 3.3 million acre prairie that would allow bison, pronghorn antelope, prairie dogs and their friends to inhabit a Wildlife Reserve in Montana, the size of Connecticut. Geddes discusses the goals of the American Prairie Reserve and how they're using a for-profit company, Wild Sky Beef, to gather support and help from local ranchers for the project.

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Podcast Episode Highlights
0:33Intro. [Recording date: September 17, 2015.] Russ: Now, I mentioned the American Prairie Reserve earlier this year in the episode with Summer Brennan. I was talking about National Parks and wilderness and, it's a very different model. Tell us about it. Guest: It is a very different model. What we are trying to do in Northeastern Montana, in one of the last four places of the world where tempered[?] grasslands still exist in an intact state--meaning they haven't been plowed, been converted into agricultural crops and there's still a lot of it--there are big landscapes--is put together some semblance of what Lewis and Clark witnessed some 200 years ago when they came through the place. And what they saw, as they paddled their boats up the Missouri River, was a wildlife, a cornucopia of wildlife that they say nowhere else on their 4000 mile round trip from St. Louis to the Pacific and back. And the reason we are working in Northeastern Montana is because there is a large amount of land already in Federal public ownership. This is the result of the failure of homesteaders early in mid-20th century. Late 19th, early, mid-20th century they tried to settle this land, which is very remote and rugged. And couldn't. So the land reverted back into the Federal, state. And also we're working in a place where people have been leaving for a very, very long time. About 10% population decline per decade since the first World War. So, our job is to buy half a million--500,000--private acres that knit together this complex of land already in Federal ownership. Russ: And the goal is--what size, when you are done? Guest: The goal is to be about one and a half times larger than Yellowstone National Park. So, our charge is to try to put together a complex of land that's 3 and a half million acres in size. That will be a mix of private lands that we own outright, of lands that we lease from the Federal Government--the Bureau of Land Management--of lands that are right up against the Charlie Russell National Wildlife Refuge, which is managed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and some State of Montana sections, which we also lease. Russ: And those who are not acreage-friendly: 3 and a half, it's about 3 and a third billion acres, which I understand is about the size of the state of Connecticut. Guest: Roughly the size of the state of Connecticut. And the idea over time is this landscape becomes blended. What we mean by that is: fences go down and animals and people move across it without regard to what property they are on. So, they move from Fish & Wildlife Service land to private land to our leased land to the Federal lands managed by the Bureau of Land Management. And it becomes one seamless landscape where you can get some semblance of the great animal migrations that happened about 200 years ago. So, bison, pronghorn, antelope, elk are all moving around like they used to do. Currently the numbers of animals are quite low, as compared to their historic abundance. Russ: And in theory, an animal will not--because those fences will be down, and also, ideally I assume because of the way it will be managed--a migrating elk will not say, 'Well, I'm on Bureau of Land Management land; now I've got to be careful.' In theory there will be no visual or management difference for the--certainly for the animals. Possibly, though, for the people--[?] we'll talk about that. Guest: You're right. Russ: But the animals it should be--the seamless part is that animals can move freely in this area the way they in theory can move freely in, say, Yellowstone National Park: they don't have to worry about being shot or fenced or whatever. Guest: Yeah. That's exactly right. And we can do that now; in fact a group of us just finished a 250 transect from the west of our properties to the east, moving entirely from our private land through the various public land ownerships. So, even today you can get out on this landscape and experience this sense of openness that you can't get in very many other places. And as we add more properties and knit them together over time, that feeling of continuity on the landscape just increases. Russ: And describe what it's like, a little bit, on that 250-mile trip. I've seen a lot of videos; they are really beautiful. I have to say: one of the things that strikes me about the videos is that most of the land, being a prairie, is pretty flat. Which is not necessarily the most interesting visual space. So, tell me what was exciting or pleasant or boring about walking 250 miles through this region. Guest: Yeah. This is a landscape that is not anything like iconic Western landscapes most of your listeners are going to be familiar with. So it's not like Yellowstone or Yosemite or Glacier National Park. Those protected areas were put aside basically for their geologic value. They were incredibly beautiful to the first people who saw them. So there's a real aesthetic sense for why we should protect these areas. The prairie, on the other hand, is a place capable of supporting a huge amount of biodiversity. These grasslands are incredibly rich in their ability to provide forage for all sorts of animals. Unlike the prairies people may be thinking of in Iowa and Kansas and Nebraska, our prairies are classified as sage brush steppes--they are very high and cold. The grasses grow very low. Nothing much above your ankle boots except for the sage brush. And it's a mix of flat, high plateau-lands. And we're in the Missouri River Breaks country. It's a very highly-eroded in size, creek drainages with timber at the higher elevations. Very hot in the summertime. Quite cold and windy in the winter. Not a lot of snow that sticks in the snowpack, but a lot of snow that blows around. This is--Montana is one of the most remote states in the Lower 48 in terms of its isolation from major markets, and this is one of the remote places in the most remote states. So it's way out there. It's a 5 and a half hour drive from where I live in Bozeman. And about an hour and a half in a Cessna 180 going 150 miles an hour or so.
7:03Russ: The videos have lots of really cool animals in them. I'm a big fan of animals. I have to say, when you started talking about Louis and Clark and trying to create the experience, something like they had when they saw the abundance, I got goose bumps. And that's partly from reading Stephen Ambrose's book on it, on the Louis and Clark trip, which does capture that spectacular--the cornucopia you mentioned. But you said right now there's not much there. Or there's relatively--it's certainly not close to what it could hold. Why is that? And give us a flavor of the size, say, of the bison herd now, or the elk population, and what you hope to have. Guest: Yeah, that's a very good question and a little bit complicated. So just interrupt me if I'm not making it clear to your listeners how this all works. We have a bison herd of 600 animals right now on our deeded property. They are classified by the State of Montana as domestic cattle. So, we can continue to grow that herd as large as we want, and making sure that we have enough grass for them so we are not doing damage to the resource. The rest of the wildlife, the rest of the animals in the State of Montana, including grizzly bears and wolves, are classified as wildlife by the state, and are managed by the state's Fish, Wildlife, and Parks. The tolerance for increasing wildlife numbers is completely a sociological phenomenon; it has very little to do in our area with biology or ecology. It has everything to do with tolerance, from ranchers, to have wildlife on their land. Currently most ranchers view wildlife only as a cost. So, for example, elk herds run through their fences, get into their alfalfa hay fields. It's nothing but a nuisance. It hits their bottom line. So one of our challenges is that we started with this Wild Sky Beef program that we'll talk about a little bit later is to address the sociology of this and to increase what we call the social caring capacity for wildlife. We need to flip that incentive around so that our neighbors, who are going to be within and around the reserve for a very long time because they want to be cattle ranchers and they have no interest in selling land to us. We need them to see wildlife as a benefit--to receive an economic benefit from our conservation project. That really is the ultimate lever that will allow us to raise wildlife numbers to some semblance of what they were 200 years ago. Russ: So, give us some kind of--maybe you don't have these numbers, you don't know what they are going to be. But the bison herd--600 now--and how many antelope on the lands you think we are talking about right now? Is it 1000? 10,000? Because I have no idea. Guest: Right. So, I'll just turn to three big animals that a lot of your listeners are going to be familiar with. So, the bison herd is currently at 600. Those are out bison; we own them. Our goal is to get to 10,000. Historically, we think, in the 3.5 million acres in which we're operating there were probably 50-70,000 animals on a permanent basis moving around these grasslands. Remember, they were hugely migratory animals. Pronghorn antelope in the area are currently in the low- to mid-hundreds. Our goal is to have tens of thousands of them. Elk number currently about 3500 animals. And again, our goal is to get them up into the 10-15,000 range. Historically you had many tens of thousands of those two animals out on the prairie moving around. Pronghorn antelope, just for your listeners, have the largest land migration in North America. They start out in the fall, right about now, moving down from the Canadian prairie provinces. They'll get, come right through the America Prairie Reserve. And by late fall, early winter, they'll be down south of the Missouri River and to southern Montana and parts of northern Wyoming--a migration of some 400 miles that comes squarely through the land that we have managed. So, these animals are capable of moving great distances. And again, the reason why we are going so big from a land perspective is, those animals need that much space to move around in some sort of semblance of a natural state. Russ: Is it enough? I mean, it's big, but is it big enough? Guest: It is. What the conservation biologists have told us we need is a minimum size, and then all this of course is overlaid with what you can actually do practically. There are places in the country where conservation at this kind of scale is just frankly impossible. So, you've been out to the Bozeman area and know how popular and how fast-growing it is. The cost of getting the land is just too great. So, again, Northeastern Montana is a place that has had fewer people today than when Frederick Jackson Turner wrote The Closing of the American Frontier back in 1876. Way fewer than, less than 1 person per square mile. So you've got to pick places for conservation where: a). you have the right habitat conditions; b). you have the right sociology, the right demographics, I guess, so that it's not a place that is getting an influx of people but rather an outflux of people; and c). where you can actually afford to buy the land. Russ: So, you mentioned three relatively friendly animals. I'm a little bit unclear about bison. But pronghorn antelope and elk don't do a lot of--can't do a lot of damage to people. Guest: They don't have incisors. Russ: Exactly. They can be tough on the grass, as maybe we'll talk about in other places. But what a lot more visceral animals? Wolves or bear? What do you expect? And fox, and coyote? What do you expect in those areas? Guest: Yes. So, our project is all about the entire suite of native biodiversity. So, we would like everything back on our lands. That includes the top predators--grizzly bears, wolves. We already have a lot of coyotes out on the land. Swiss[?] fox, which is a small-order predator about the size of a lapdog. Which we are working actually to reintroduce. What's important for your listeners to understand is we do not control those animals. They are the property of the State. And we can't go down to Yellowstone, for example, and load a bunch of wolves, and back the pickup truck and drive them up to our area. So, our job is to make sure that this landscape is put together, big enough, and that we've done enough good work on the sociology such that when wolves do appear--and there's a pack about 120 miles away--and wolves are fantastic dispersers--they'll be there in our area soon, in the next 3-5 years. Grizzly bears are coming out of the Rocky Mountain front down the Plains where they used to be in ever-greater numbers. They're a little bit further away, and that's a harder journey for them to make, because they are big animals and have to get across an Interstate highway. But really the key is for us to get ahead of the sociology so that when our neighbors in 5 or 7 years see a wolf running across their pasture, they are reaching for binoculars rather than a 30-30. Russ: Yeah, I hear you.
14:25Russ: So, let's talk about that sociology. And let's talk about Wild Sky Beef, which you mentioned briefly a minute ago. It's a very creative idea. And you are also involved with that directly. Talk about what it is, what's your role, and how's it doing. Guest: Yes, so again, the key thing to growing wildlife numbers, and this is not unique to our project, in fact happens all around the world, is to minimize human conflict. And in most places, people view wildlife as a cost rather than an economic benefit. Six or seven years ago members of our team were over in Africa and they were travelling around to various camps, and they came to one in Namibia where the wildlife park, their parks over there, game parks, had figured out a way to live with cheetahs, and make the local communities, the beneficiaries of having cheetahs on their land rather than the enemies of that. This is not a particularly new or original story. There are all sorts of work that's been done in Africa for the last 20 years to try to flip this dynamic. So, we imported those ideas back to the American Prairie Reserve; and we bought a beef company. Some of our critics think we are anti-cows, but we actually own a cattle company. And the idea is: Neighboring ranchers who want to participate in our Wild Sky Beef program, in exchange for operating their livestock in a more wildlife-friendly way--and we have a whole list of things they have to do and third party audits and all that kind of stuff--we've paid them a premium for their cattle when we buy them in fall or in the spring. And it's kind of like a frequent flier program at Delta or United. You can be silver, gold, diamond, platinum, medallion, whatever it is. And as you move up that frequent-flier status, that means you are more tolerant of wildlife. So that the top of the food chain is you agree to have grizzly bears on your property. And the amount of money that you get for going ever higher in your frequent flier status increases over time. And again, this is an attempt to--first, it recognizes that we are going to have holdouts in the American Prairie Reserve, for a very long time. We are going to have people on the periphery who are going to be cattle ranchers. Indeed, we are going to be surrounded by about a half million head of cows when we are completely finished. We've got to make things go well for those people. So we need to figure out a way where we don't compromise on the biodiversity values that we want; and again, so that people see our wildlife, our wildlife that's spilling over from the reserve onto their land, as a benefit rather than a cost. While it's just the first of what will likely be very many things that we come up with. And again, instead of selling soap or shampoo or coffee, we've tried to--we've picked a business that fits with the local culture, that recognizes that there are picking people who love being cowboys and cowgirls, and they will for a very, very long time. So, trying to figure out a way to make, saying, 'Stick with the local culture.' And for these ranchers to see economic benefit.
17:29Russ: So, give me the logistics again. So, let's say I'm a rancher on the edge of the American Prairie Reserve. And, so, I've committed, let's say--you said, at the top I might be willing to let grizzly bears go across my property. I assume there are certain restrictions on how much fencing I can have, if any? What's keeping my cows in? What's the fencing issue, if I'm going to be conservation friendly? Guest: Yeah. Very good question. Fencing is a huge, huge issue. And we have something we call 'Wildlife-Friendly Fencing.' So, in our neck of the woods, everything, our barbed wire, force-[?] fences--our wildlife-friendly fences have smooth wire on the top that's quite low--42 inches, so elk and deer can go over. And on the bottom it has another smooth wire that's 18 inches off the ground, because pronghorn antelope don't jump over fences. They go underneath them. And if you have a low wire that's barbed, it rips up their back, and they are prone to infection. And worse in the winter when they get blown by the storms, they can't get through these fences. They just--they just really stand there and starve to death on the landscape. So, if you are a Wild Sky rancher, you're in the program, there are three things that you have to do to comply. One is, you've got to allow us reasonable access to inspect your property, to see if you do what you say you are going to do. Two, you can't shoot prairie dogs. Prairie dogs are a 'keystone species' and we're trying to get them back in quite large numbers. And three, you can't plow native prairie. You may come to us, as one of our team goes up there and we are having coffee, talking about what you'd like to do in the next year, and you say, 'I've got 6 miles of fence that needs replacing.' So, the Wild Sky program would immediately offer to help you replace that fence with wildlife-friendly fencing. So that you are not burdened with the cost of putting up a new fence; and you are not putting up a new fence that may last for a very long time--decades in some cases--that's not very friendly to wildlife moving through it. Russ: So, I think I've mentioned on this program before--I live in suburban Maryland, we have deer that run around and eat everything. Some of us think they are kind of charming and beautiful. I saw a deer in my front yard in the last week, actually, with a nice set of antlers. I kind of got a thrill out of it. But for a lot of people it's an enormous--they see them as vermin. And I think about--we have a beautiful botanical garden nearby, about 5, 10 miles--and they have a special, enormous fence. And where the cars come in, there's a special grating on the road to keep animals from coming--deer--from coming in. This is sort of the opposite. This is like a freeway. We're trying to encourage traffic and travel. So, I'm a rancher. I may have some--I have some affection for the land. But I also care about my pocketbook. And I don't like to see my cattle killed. Or my grass eaten up. So, how am I going to--what's in it for me? Explain that. Guest: So, again, so, you are a Wild Sky rancher, Russ; and immediately you are going to receive a premium--something like 3 cents a pound for just being in the program and doing the bare minimum. And as you decide to do more. So, for example, we have one rancher who said, or we said to him--his ranch is in a particularly important wildlife corridor, 'How about we stick a bunch of camera traps on your fences and for every picture of a cougar or a bear or a coyote or even a wolf that we find, we'll pay you $250 a photo?' And I sent you two of those photos that we just got, in these camera traps-- Russ: Yeah. Beautiful-- Guest: You can post them online. Yeah, just fantastic. He said, 'Sure, I'd love to do that. He was--this rancher was just over-the-top thrilled to know that these animals were on his land--he runs a cattle operation--and not bothering his cows. So, once you get an appreciation as landowners that these predators--which they are, for sure--can be on your landscape and you can operate not from a fear[?] perspective, but one where you can value and appreciate the wildlife that is on your property that you may never, ever see, it sort of changes the psychology and the dynamic. Important for your listeners to know: If that mountain lion went and killed one of his cows, we wouldn't pay him compensation for that. They are already getting compensation up front in terms of a premium for their beef that we buy and then we sell to, you know, places like Whole Foods and very high-end restaurants all over the country. Russ: So, that's good. I just wanted to make that clear. So, that's going on right now. So, if I'm a rancher in the program, right now, you are buying my cattle. And I have to raise it in a certain way, also--not just a fencing. Guest: No hormones. You have no hormones, and none of that kind of stuff. Clean cattle. We have four ranchers in the program right now, and again, the idea about starting this company is that all this stuff that happens, all the wildlife incentive programs like the cameras and the wildlife-friendly fences and the guard dogs we buy for people and all those kinds of things, is supported by this independent company. So, I'm in charge of the fundraising for the organization. I don't have to get on an airplane and fundraise for this program. We have a business that we hope is ever more profitably, year after year-- Russ: For profit. Guest: For profit. An LLC (Limited Liability Company) that the American Prairie Reserve owns. So that's out there running. We've got what we call the 'meatheads' for people in one corner office, in our larger office in Bozeman. And that's what they do all day, is they sell beef all around the country. So, you can find the product pretty soon, in the Washington, D.C. area we'll have a distributor there. But in New York, San Francisco, LA (Los Angeles), Seattle, Portland--all over the country. And again the story that comes to the product, by your purchase of this Wild Sky Beef, you are supporting this wildlife-friendly ranching and this fantastic conservation project in northern Montana. Russ: So, give me an idea of the scope right now. I have four ranchers--doesn't sound like a lot. Guest: No, it's not a lot. Russ: But [?] they can have a lot of cows. Guest: Yeah. Indeed, what we have to do is be really, really careful that the business works. So, we can't grown the number of ranchers ahead of the profitability of the business. And we are really in the, just finishing up our first year of getting this up and off the ground. We hope in 3-5 years to have 15 or 20 ranchers, just for example, in the last month that closed, we sold $240,000 worth of beef, about 11% growth margin. So, this is stuff that--the business is going and we are trying to grow it as fast as we can. Hugely complicated. Hugely competitive business. It's been fantastic for me. As you know, I spent 15 years doing academic think-tank kind of stuff. Being involved in a day-to-day business operation I knew absolutely zero about till two years ago has been fascinating. And that's one of the reasons why we bought a beef company--we bought the people that came along with it. Because I like my beef medium rare. That's about as much as I know about it.
25:05Russ: So, for ranchers--but I've looked at the maps. We are talking about a 3 million acre project that, the way it's described in one of the videos I saw, it's surrounded by ranchers. So, do we need to get to 40? 400? 4000? Ultimately, to make this friendly? Because the issue is, just to come back to what you said earlier, make sure I got this right. The issue is, if these migrating antelope end up attracting a much larger population or grizzly population, then there is going to be more--some of them are going to stray into the ranching parts-- Guest: Absolutely-- Russ: they are going to kill cattle. Guest: Absolutely. Russ: The ranchers are going to go to the state house, complain, and threaten the viability of the program. Guest: Yeah. Absolutely. That's the key again. It's the sociology problem. And maybe for your listeners, if they can all get a mental map of Yellowstone, which is a rectilinear park, mostly in Wyoming and a little bit in Montana, it's got very hard borders. It's essentially a big square. And what happens now--I'm sure many of your listeners are aware every spring, bison wander out of that park. And it's a very, very hard boundary. And what I mean by that is one of two things happen to bison and wolves, as they move out of Yellowstone. They either get hazed back in--people on horseback or ATVs (All Terrain Vehicles), or even helicopters--or they get shot. What we want, when our project is completed--and it's a little bit hard to know exactly how many numbers of WildSky ranchers we're going to need because we don't know exactly what the project is going to look like at this stage, because remember we are buying properties that come on the market, so that's never clear exactly where those properties come up. We want a soft boundary. Exactly the opposite of what you get in Yellowstone. So that when those animals do spill over the boundaries, again, they are met with some level of tolerance. Now, we are not Pollyannaish about this. We know that there are people who are never going to tolerate large carnivores on their property. And we are not suggesting that, you know, people should have their children out in the back yard playing if grizzly bears or wolves are running around. Of course not. But what we are trying to do, where we can, at the margins, is to increase the tolerance for wildlife, which would let those wildlife numbers grow. And in Montana, your voice as a landowner is extremely important with the Fish, Wildlife, and Parks Department, who manages wildlife. So as we've become an ever-bigger landowner, all these meetings, we stick our hand up and say, 'You know, your target for elk in this area is 3500; we'd really like it to be 7, 8, 9, 10,000. And we've got no problem with elk on our land.' We do this right now, and in those meetings, our reserve team, after the meetings, goes and talks to Fish, Wildlife, and Parks. And they say, 'Well, you've got a neighboring landowner who is really giving us a hard time about elk. Can you help us with this landowner?' And we say, 'Of course.' And so immediately we'd go over and we start to talk with this landowner and we say, 'What exactly is your problem?' Turns out his problem is, he's got a couple hundred head of elk in his alfalfa in late August. So, we say, 'So, how about you let those elk eat your alfalfa hay; and we'll buy you hay all winter long?' So, those are the conversations that we are just starting to have, that again try to flip this dynamic from wildlife as cost to wildlife as a benefit. Thereby allowing us to grow these numbers back up. Russ: And ideally you are going to try to buy as much of this land directly as you can. Guest: Yeah. That's the private property model--willing seller, willing buyer--obviously, and that just gives us a fantastic degree of control. So, fire is a force that's been absent from most Western ecosystems for a long time--well, this summer it's reasserting itself in states. But particularly on the prairie, fire was a very important dynamic force for ecosystem rejuvenation. And on our deeded land, we can reintroduce fire and burn some of the acres to generate a real heterogeneity of the landscape we want--short grass, taller grass, all sorts of very shaggy landscape. And 3 years ago we burned just under a thousand acres. And we have a fire management plan. And we can do that where we own property. We need to be responsible about it, of course, and work with agencies and neighbors to let them know what's going on; and we can't burn down people's fences. But the private property aspect just allows us to move very quickly and very creatively across a whole host of issues.
29:41Russ: Two quick questions, and I want to shift gears a little bit. One is: How if you are going to know if someone is shooting prairie dogs? Guest: You're not. I guess essentially, you know, we can see if the prairie dog towns are growing over time. If a rancher has a prairie dog town, we'll go out and map it with GPS (Global Positioning System), and if we see shrinkage over time rather than growth over time, we'll pay more attention to that. But, you know, this is a huge landscape that we operate on. Several are properties, maybe you can throw that map up on the website as well, are the size of national park units. So, for example, Wind Cave National Park, we have 3 or 4 properties that are larger than that. So this is an area where you need to have trust and cooperation, and really, really solid strong relationships to make this go. Russ: My other question, which is: You say, you have some very large property already. And if you look at the map, it's a patchwork. Some of it is contiguous. You are building off of some wildlife refuge that is already, you know, somewhat pristine presumably. How far along are you toward your 3.3 million goal? Guest: Let's see. So, a better way to measure that is 500,000 private acres is a goal. And those 500,000 acres are going to come with leases on the surrounding Federal public lands. So, on that map, which you've done on the website, your listeners are going to see dark blue, which we own and deed[?] simple title, linked to a light blue, which are lands that we lease from the Federal government. We have just over 65,000 of those deeded acres out of the 500,000 goal so far. And I would say we are very early in the project. We have that map that everybody will see, represent 17 land deals that we've done over time. There's no shortage of land to buy. There's a shortage of money to buy it with. So that's really the critical factor. There's no reason to think that the pace of land acquisition is going to drop off. And again, we'll buy properties that may look sort of disparate and outlying, and sell them at a later time to buy something that's closer in. And that matrix that you see that looks fragmented, over time is going to invert and you will see it as a much more blended, contiguous landscape. And again, already, it's hard for people to get a sense of scale out here. That some of these properties are as big as national park units. It's just amazing to get out on this land and experience the size and the scale of what we've got going on.
32:25Russ: So, I want to turn to some of the management issues that are going to arise. And in particular, I want to try to--it's not so easy because in many ways this is a hybrid project, a public/private--it's private in parts, public-private, it's fascinating. But I want to read an excerpt from a book that I've mentioned many, many times over the course of the last few months. And those of you who are listening, or probably, some of you may be playing a drinking game every time I say the word 'prairie.' You drink because I've become so fascinated by the prairie as a metaphor for emergent order. And some things have to emerge and grow in an organic way. And I've referenced this book--it's by Shona Brown and Kathleen Eisenhardt; it's called Competing on the Edge. It's actually a management book. It's not about emergent order per se, and it's not about wildlife or prairies literally. But they use the prairie as a metaphor, and I find it provocative. So I'm going to read a somewhat lengthy excerpt, and I want to try to talk to Kathleen Eisenhardt about this, try to get a pdf of this up on the web so you can read it at your leisure, but I want to read part of it. Because I think at it highlights--besides the fact that I think it's an intellectually wonderful--I think it's also, it raises obvious issues for your project. So, this is, again, from Competing on the Edge. And it starts off--they are talking about O'Hare Airport. And then they say the following--O'Hare Airport is a very busy airport. Here's the quote:
Imagine yourself at O'Hare at a far different time, not in 1998 but in 1898, or even in 1798, before the patchwork quilt of roads, fences, and farms had changed the Midwestern landscape forever. Around you would be an abundance of plants, long grasses of various colors, a pallette of flowers, some trees. You'd see the original "amber waves of grain." If waited a little while, you'd also see a variety of animals going about their daily ritual. You would be enjoying a living, breathing prairie that stretched a thousand miles to the Rocky Mountains. It's an ecological system that today is virtually extinct.

Suppose you were given the task of recreating that prairie as it was 200 years ago. Assume you have no budget constraints. Also assume you cannot buy the prairie, but rather that you have to create your own. As you think about how you'd approach the problem, jot down the key steps to your solution.

If you are like most people, at least our friends, you probably came up with a list that is something like this:
Step 1. Buy a plot of land where prairie likely thrived in the past. For example, on the outskirts of Chicago--O'Hare.
Step 2. Check the libraries. Look for old photos of the prairie. Obtain the most complete list available of all the plant and animal members of a prairie ecosystem.
Step 3. Collect samples of all the relevant species, e.g., seeds of plants, male and female pairs of animals.
Step 4. Clear the plot of land and plant your seeds, along with a few trees.
Step 5. Release the animals into the plot of land.
Step 6. Watch and wait.

Perhaps you added a few steps with more intervention, like fertilization or watering. But overall, you likely suggested some kind of approach that we will loosely call "Assemble." That is, the steps you listed were to clear out your workspace, get the component plants and animals, lay out the blueprint, follow the directions, and start assembling. You'd then piece together the various components of the prairie and hope that somehow a prairie emerges. The approach is quite reasonable. It seems intuitively correct. If you were assembling a car, house, or a toaster, it would probably work. All you'd have to do is to assemble the components of the desired system on a reasonably attractive plot of land, and eventually a prairie would emerge. It makes sense, right?

Wrong. Assembly doesn't work. At least, not for a prairie. A prairie is something that grows. It has to start small. It has pieces that interact and build on each other. Once it's up and running, the prairie works as a complex system. It is dependent on the intricate interaction of all the components of the system. A prairie cannot be brought to life with one abracadabra, one wave of the magic wand. Ecologists have in fact experimented with trying to grow prairies. Early experimenters took the assemble approach. But they ran into complications. Urban weeds are one such complication. Relative to most prairie species, these noxious weeds are aggressive and fast-growing. Given a chance, these tough weeds will muscle out the more timid prairie species and prohibit them from thriving. Knowing this, early ecologists began their work by clearing their field of weeds and then planting prairie grass seeds. Then the prairie flourished, right? Wrong. The prairie never emerged from these cleared plots. What happened? The problem with this logic is that the first plants to sprout and grow in a freshly cleared field, the most aggressive, fast-growing weeds. So even though the prairie seeds are planted first, the urban weeds that go over the cleared so and the prairie never took hold.

[Skipping a little bit here and continuing]... In later experiments, ecologists extended the grow-not-assemble approach. In particular, one successful experiment in Illinois, a college [?] grew a prairie savannah--a prairie with trees--that began by planting a sample of choice prairie savannah weeds, seeds, and wooded weed-filled fields on the outskirts of Chicago.
And then they describe--the authors describe how this started to work. Butterflies came back, with the savannah. And it continues:
As the experiments continued, ecologists learned more lessons about recreating prairies. They learned that order matters. Reversing the introduction of one species and another, e.g., reversing the order of entry of two predators, alters the ecosystem that emerges. Adding or subtracting of species also alters the system, affecting its final states and its resilience to change. Perhaps the most subtle lesson to learn was that not all of the essential ingredients to growing a prairie savannah are visible at the end. Ecologists learned this lesson when they were stymied in their efforts. They were close to creating a prairie, but something was not quite right. Half-breed prairies were being created. A mixture of prairie and non-prairie species. The experiments didn't seem to be capable of evolving into that final step of a pure prairie. Ecologists searched for key components of a prairie that might be missing. But this was the whole problem: they were searching for something that they thought should be there but wasn't. Instead, ecologists should have been looking for something that had been there, but did not stay. In other words, a fleeting member of the prairie system, a missing link.

Was there a missing link that was not present in the mature prairie but was essential to growing it? Yes--that missing link was fire. Initially, ecologists failed to introduce fire into their experimental prairie systems because its presence is not explicit in the final product. It was not an immediately obvious candidate to be deliberately added. Moreover, although ecologists were trying to mimic nature and minimally manage the fields of emerging prairie, the incidence of wildfires was far lower than it would have been in a true, natural setting. Without fire, ecologists could not create the elusive, pure-bred prairie. Fire triggers certain prairie seeds to sprout and eliminates many fire-intolerant urban plants. Without fire, there is no prairie.
I'm going to stop. There's more. The rest is interesting. I'll try to get a pdf of the whole thing up soon. And I apologize for the length of that. But I think obviously it's important for a lot of topics we talk about here on EconTalk: economic development, education. Many, many times this issue of order and assembly versus emergence and growth comes up.
40:02Russ: So, I want to ask you, Pete--sorry for the long delay, but I want to ask you: How is the American Prairie Reserve going to deal with this issue? It's a mix, it sounds like, of assembly and design along with letting stuff emerge. How are you going to solve that challenge? Guest: Well, there's a couple of differences that give us an advantage. So, first off, the area in which we are working, 95% of the native prairie still exists. It hasn't been tilled, modified, plowed up, etc. So you start out from a much more advantageous position than having to go out and clear land and start to grow things. One very interesting thing about the prairie ecosystem is most of the biomass is 6 or 7 feet underground. So indeed all the stock of the original biomass in our area is still there. It's just been grazed quite intensely. And what that means from an emerging order, biodiversity, ecology perspective is that it's homogeneous. So cattle graze things fairly uniformly, and what we're trying to reintroduce is the heterogeneity that comes from having a grazer like a bison which moves across landscape completely different from cattle--in terms of its preference for individual prairie plants and such--back on this landscape to create that diversity that I think aids in emerging order. Then, there are a couple of species that are still there although almost in ecologically insignificant numbers that are key to the emergence and sustaining of the prairie ecosystem. One are the prairie dogs. So, we have these pieces already in place. We can bring them back where we don't have them. And what we see in our limited experience of relatively short time from an ecological perspective is fairly good results with letting the prairie go back to what it was. Fire, as I mentioned earlier and is referenced quite correctly in that piece that you read, is a critically important dynamic to get back into this ecosystem and we will do that where we can do it responsibly. Russ: But there is this challenge of--how would you know how much fire to bring and how wide it should be. Guest: Yeah; this is a challenge that, you know, every manager of any particular ecosystem faces. You can't get, today, back to what we think the historic frequency is of fires, which on the prairies was frequent--so there were very short intervals between fire. And the fires were responsible for the rejuvenation of the grasses and the creation of these very, very patchy landscapes. So, for example, when we burned a thousand acres three or four years ago, our entire bison herd was just about 150 animals then. Two weeks after the burn were on this burned area eating the shoots and sprouts and going poop on the ground and all that and trampling in their feces and manure, so you get this synergistic effect. And the only honest answer is you can only do this on a very limited scale. We're not talking about going back to the Pleistocene. We have people on this landscape; we have neighbors. We have to be respectful of their property rights. So, you can only do so much, and in any particular ecosystem you do the best you can with what you've got. Russ: Has anybody talked about going back to the Pleistocene? Wooly mammoths? Sabre-tooth tigers? Let's really get some serious predators out there. Guest: Yeah; so, we've found some dinosaur bones on our property. We could extract DNA (deoxyribonucleic acid) , I suppose, do Jurassic Park. Russ: When I was preparing for this interview last night I was telling my wife about what I was going to be talking to you about, and one of my kids overheard us and said, 'Sounds like Jurassic Park.' I said, 'Yeah, could be. Who knows?'
44:01Russ: So, let's talk about the political economy of this in a little more detail. As I said, and I think you talk about on the website: It's a hybrid model. But let's talk about the standard model, which is a national park. As I confessed in a previous episode: I happen to like most national parks in the United States, although we have to be realistic about how they are run. I think we have a romance that they are run to create some sort of pristine natural state. But because of the issues you are talking about, because people wander all over them and because they have neighbors, they really aren't run that way. They are run as political institutions to a large extent; or a better way to say it might be that the political realities interface with the biological imperatives or desires of the people who run it. And so, for example, to take a classic example, Yellowstone National Park, which is considered our jewel--and I think you and I have both been in it together--I'm pretty sure we have. We've hiked there. It's magnificent. It's beautiful. You see elk. But for a long time you didn't see any wolves because they killed them all. And one of the reasons they killed them is that they wanted the elk population to be bigger because elk are really beautiful and they don't hurt anybody. And wolves are scary to some people. And so they ran it a little bit--maybe I'm being unfair, but they kind of Disneyfied it, the way I think of it, the park. They made it more of a theme ride and less of a real, true, nature-ridden tooth-and-claw. As a result, there was terrible damage to the ecosystem: huge erosion and destruction of grass by the elk population, because it went far beyond its natural size. But all that was because it was politically attractive to make it a safer place. At least that's the way I read it. Do you read it that way? Guest: Yeah, generally, I think you've got that right. And again, a critical difference between what we'll try to do and what parks like Yellowstone face is the incentive structure they get from--the lack of feedback from the incentive structure they get--to operate the parks to provide things that people want. So, until very recently, for example, most user fees or gate fees at Yellowstone went back into the Federal Treasury, so there's very little incentive for Yellowstone to respond to its customers--its visitors, if you will. And so the allocation of resources is a political allocation of resources, and you see all sorts of pathologies that flow from that. So, bathrooms don't get fixed, and sewage overflows in places like Glacier National Park and the infrastructure just gets run down because that's not a politically favored thing to do. So, our model, I think, is just a fantastic hybrid of that. We figure we have to raise somewhere around $500 million to buy all the land and create an endowment of about $125 million to make sure this park can run sustainably over time, because we think that we'll be sort of the third big national park--Glacier, Yellowstone, and the American Prairie Reserve--and people will come to it. Certainly people will not come in large enough numbers that we can sustain the operations through gate receipts, if you will. And having a nonprofit entity which is managed by a board, which has to work very collaboratively with these Federal public agencies, but really is a private outfit strikes me as a fantastic alternative to the national parks. And one of the reasons we're so enthusiastic about our project is, I can't imagine the Federal government going out anywhere today and saying, 'We're going to put together a landscape that's one and a half again times the size of Yellowstone, 3.5 million acres, the size of the state of Connecticut'--just doesn't seem to me in this era of huge fiscal constraints and Federal debt that that's going to happen any time soon. Yet here we are out there making this happen well beyond proof of concept. Now the only question for us is how fast till we get to the end: is it 10 years? Is it 25 years? So it's just a fantastic hybrid to be involved in. Russ: Let's talk about the political climate[?] that you're going to face. So, the other issue at Yellowstone, of course, is fire suppression. So, we've talked about this metaphor also, which I think is very powerful, which is: If you suppress every fire, you eventually get such a large buildup of underbrush and growth of smaller kindling that a fire comes along, you can't put out, you can't suppress, and you get a really horrific fire; which is what happened at Yellowstone. How are those incentives going to be different for you, for the American Prairie Reserve? I should mention: wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone in the last, I think--what?--15 years or so. And they've been somewhat successful. They've culled some of the elk herd, the sicker, less healthy animals. How are you going to deal with that, when your wolf population gets bigger? When your grizzly bear population gets bigger? And you've got these people coming through to see this ecosystem? How are you going to respond to those incentives? How are you going to interact with the State of Montana to let things be "more natural" maybe than they would be in a national park? Or is that unrealistic? Guest: No, it's not unrealistic. If we talk about fire and wildlife separately for a moment, I think that's a good way to discuss this. So, again, starting out with wildlife, it's important for listeners to understand that we don't own wildlife; and so de facto we do not control their numbers. The way we influence wildlife to have grizzly bears--and people may never see a grizzly bear on American Prairie Reserve--I just don't know. But wolves, elk, antelope--all these sorts of creatures, is to make sure that we have a big enough landscape that we can tolerate these wildlife numbers and work with the state to make sure that there are, to the extent we can, we reduce the conflicts with neighbors. That's a whole sociology that we talked about, Wild Sky. That's a very nascent, early step. We'll have lots more projects over the next decade to continue to try to change that dynamic and increase the social caring capacity for wildlife. So, again, we won't manage those animals. Grizzly bears, for example, on the public lands that we lease, and wolves, are going to be available for public hunting. And we can influence the hunters on our deeded land, but on the lands we lease from the Federal government and the state, we can't. Our bison herd are growing to 10,000 animals; we think it's totally appropriate to take a few of those animals every year as we get these numbers bigger and bigger and bigger. So, again, in Montana, hunting is a very important part of the culture. It's one way to manage the wildlife numbers: in fact, it's the way the state manages wildlife numbers. And our job, again, will have to have a big enough area so that we reduce potential conflicts between humans and wildlife. Regarding fire, we'll put as much fire on the landscape--we have quite a detailed fire management plan--as we can, without, again, violating the property rights of our neighbors. So, we're going to have acres that are very deep inside the core of the Reserve, that are far away from other property owners, where we can get a considerable amount of fire back on that landscape, and we'll do that as conditions allow over time. And again the idea is to reintroduce a very dynamic force that helps this ecosystem sustain itself and be healthy over time; and it's a force that we know needs to be back on that landscape, and we'll put it back to the extent possible.
52:17Russ: So, another feedback loop that's in the political process is the tourists who come. Obviously benefit other people there in Montana who aren't part of the Prairie Reserve. And those benefits will in turn get some kind of voice in Montana: if you ruin it, if some political decisions start to hurt the Prairie, there can be, we hope, some sort of interest on the ground to speak up on behalf of keeping it as it is. I guess I have a--I want you to react to that. But also I'm thinking in the back of my mind, this beautiful, beautiful idea of the prairie as Lewis and Clark saw it: given that you don't control the wildlife directly across the whole space of it, what are the odds you can get there from here? So, talk about those challenges. Guest: Yeah. Those are real challenges, which we are completely realistic and wide open about. And again, we think that as we become a bigger landowner over time, the possibilities and the opportunities to grow this wildlife just to increase will get easier and easier. We're perhaps at the hardest phase of this right now. When your listeners get a look at our property map, you see that we butt right up against the Charlie Russell National Wildlife Refuge. This is a million acres that is devoted by Congressional mandate to wild life. And it's one of the most wildlife-rich parts of this part of the state. So, there's simpatico landscapes all around us, and Federal land management agencies with a biodiversity imperative, we think we can build on in a very synergistic way. There is no question that when you are dealing with Federal public lands, you are dealing with lands that are in fact political lands. That is a reality of that. And we understand that, and we don't ask for any special favors. And I think that works very well in our favor. Monkeying around with the Bureau of Land Management, which manages some 280 million acres in the lower 48 that excludes Alaska is a tricky thing, because what you do if, let's say, there were an Administration that were out to get us, per se. Then they'd have to do something similar across the rest of these lands. These Federal public lands like [?] ballast that works for you and against you. So I feel fairly confident that we're going to be able to achieve these wildlife and biodiversity goals over time. One area that we haven't talked about that's critically important is the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, which butts right up against some of our lands right now. This is another fantastic opportunity to engage the American Indians, which we do a very good job of. It's very difficult to not only provide some sort of glimmer of economic opportunity to a place that's impoverished beyond which most of your listeners can imagine. But to help those folks achieve some of their cultural goals, particularly vis-a-vis bison restoration. So, the landscape out there is, I think fertile, in the sense that there are lots of constituents that would like to see the wildlife come back in abundance that is not there now but everybody knows could be there. And again, it's about working in the right landscape. So, we're working in a place where people have been moving away from generally for a very long time. So, the opportunities look reasonably good to me, as reasonably good as anywhere else in the world, in fact, to get this project done. Russ: I'd like to ask you a question about the tourism and the opportunity for people to visit at some point down the road. You can visit now. There are places to stay. Guest: You can camp; you can bike ride. Russ: But they are very slim, limited, obviously. And you and I in the past have talked a lot about this issue and national parks. National parks are pristine; but they are full of people who drive cars and--you know, I love when people complain they see other people when they are hiking or something. And I'm thinking, 'Well, that's you. You are other people's other people.' How are you going to control--let me just, one more piece of background. The national park model typically has sort of a central area. In the case of Yosemite, for example, one of my favorite places in the world, you have the Yosemite Valley, which is an unbelievable place to just walk around. You can drive; you can--you don't have to do anything wild when you are there. Just get out of your car and look up and you see some unbelievable waterfalls and granite faces--just an extraordinary landscape. But the truth is, that the Valley of Yosemite National Park is--nothing wild about it at all. It's full of campers and camping and people with stoves and screaming and bicycles. There's nothing wild about it. And most parks have done that. They take a sort of centralish area; they concede that there's nothing wild about it; and they make that sort of the central place. And then, the great thing about Yosemite is, if you are willing to walk, other than Mist Trail, if you walk pretty much lots of other places, you don't many other people. It's pretty wild. And if you get a little farther out, you feel very wild. It looks like it's the way a person would have seen it hundreds of years ago, at least in many of its aspects. How are you going to solve that problem? Or, how are you going to deal with that issue of human interaction with the landscape, when you have a 3 and a half million acre park? Are you going to have--there's no real obvious--there's no Old Faithful; there's no Half Dome; there's no obvious, I don't think-- Guest: There's no selling point. Russ: Exactly. So, how are you going to give people access to this? Guest: Very good question, and again for your listeners to understand: of 3.5 million acres that we've got when we're all done with this thing, only 500,000 are going to be private, where we actually control access. The rest are going to be federal, public, and state lands, which have their own use regulations. Certainly we'll be able to influence what happens on that. But this project is about public access. We want to make sure that we have the infrastructure in place so that people can come out and enjoy and learn about the prairie ecosystem. Since we are so early in the project and we don't even know what the final outline of the American Prairie Reserve looks like, because again it's going to be based on properties that people are willing to sell to us, the infrastructure, the master plan that we have going on right now, what we're doing is we're talking to people like the former superintendents of Yellowstone and Grand Teton and Yosemite. We get them on the phone once a quarter and we talk about these very issues: If you had to do this all over again, what would you do? And what we're--the way we're thinking about it right now, and this will quite frankly be someone else's problem to deal with--the way we're thinking about this right now is sort of in concentric circles. So, you mentioned a camp for, in Yosemite, where there's a convenience store and a 7-11 and that kind of stuff. And it's an urban experience, essentially. Russ: I can get an ice cream. I can play video games if I want. I can get WiFi. It's--yeah. Guest: There is. And then you go out from these concentric circles and you get into ever more layers of wildness. So, when you are 25 miles from the 7-11 in Yosemite, you are pretty much in the back and beyond and you are not seeing people. American Prairie Reserve will likely operate in much the same way. There will be different areas of use. So, in this particular area, on our deeded property, you can drive your RV (Recreational Vehicle); on this particular area it's going to be walk-in only because there are sensitive wildlife species, you know, nesting birds, whatever. There's going to be this blended landscape of blended visitor experiences. The other thing that's very interesting about our place is, it's out there. It's in the middle of nowhere. We're not unlikely to have--Yellowstone, I think, had 3 million visitors this year--unlikely to have those kinds of numbers. It's a geography unlike Yosemite which bottles you up in this great glacial valley. You can disperse people across this landscape in all sorts of different ways. And we'll put in--we are talking about putting in a hut-to-hut system so families can come out and walk, hike, drive part of this, and come to places where they have shelter and cookies and [?] and those sorts of things. And we'll likely have much nicer visitor experiences, where we have concessionaires who are running the equivalent of the Lake Hotel in Yellowstone for us, and then we'll have dispersed, back country recreation where people are out--we don't even know about it--on their mountain bikes with their tents and stuff, and they are going for a very different experience. So, it'll be a real melange of opportunities for people to enjoy this fantastic landscape.
1:01:38Russ: But as you point out, there's no obvious--I mean, Bozeman--what's the closest city right now? Guest: The closest town is Malta, which has an airport--not a commercial airport. But an airport where you can land jets in. That's 50 miles away. It's about, oh, 3500 people or so. And down in the area in which we work, there are probably less than 250 people in a landscape of hundreds of thousands of acres; it's just a very remote, off the grid, no paved roads, gravel kind of experience. And that's one of the reasons why we're working out there--it is so remote and there are very few people. Russ: So, I'm kind of excited about this, for a lot of reasons. I like wildlife. As an economist, I really love the private innovation, the creativity of it, the entrepreneurship of it, and I know you do, too. It must be incredibly exciting to be part of it. But for the average person, you might say, 'Who cares? What's the big deal, if I never go there?' And I like to make a contrast between the San Diego zoo, which is a critically acclaimed zoo, and other zoos: the San Diego zoo is really cool, because the animals, they try to put them in their own habitat. As a result, you often don't seem them. When I went there, I didn't see that many animals. Disney, their zoo, in Orlando--what's it called? I can't remember the name of it; in Disneyworld they have their own--Animal Kingdom, that's what it's called. Their animals are everywhere, because they know that's what you come for. So, in this experience, maybe you might see a wolf; maybe you won't. You'll see some bison. But it won't be maybe as exhilarating as you might hope. So I'm just sitting here thinking, why do I care about this? So, give me your elevator pitch. Why is this project important? Why should I care about it if I'm listening? Guest: That's a very good question. The reason that I'm so excited about this project is this is one of the very few opportunities I think left in the world to put together a large landscape and then have the opportunity to create a semblance of what was. And again, in our fast-moving 21st century, if you come out on the prairie--and I hope you will, and I hope lots of your listeners will, as well--you have an opportunity to be totally unplugged in a landscape that's inspirational and powerful. It's an opportunity to get away and be quiet and reflective. And we hope see wildlife that just quite literally knocks your socks off. Unlike the Animal Kingdom at Disney where you are sitting in your car along this guided track and there pops up a zebra and then there pops up a gazelle-- Russ: And you are pretending that it's wildlife. Guest: Yeah. We don't make those claims. It's an aesthetic experience for some people, the notion that we're putting together a place where an iconic animal like bison which used to roam this country from literally California to Washington, D.C., can operate naturally. We don't manage them; we don't push them around. They run as wildlife across a landscape, again, that provides people an opportunity to see something that's vanishing and ties in with what Ken Burns called, in his National Park series, one of America's best ideas, this whole notion of conservation: Yellowstone, the world's first national park in 1872, which is sort of a mind-blower to think about what America looked like then. And we're putting these large landscapes aside. So it's an American thing; conservation is largely an American phenomenon where we lead the world and provide inspiration. I think what we hope to be is a model for people all over the world to see that you don't need to wait for the Federal government to do things. You don't need to lobby Congress to be able to get these meaningful, not little postage-sized parks, but together with private entrepreneurship and the right people who have a business perspective and can get things done. You get that team together and a landscape where you can do it, and you can make meaningful conservation gains, even in this day and age. So put a little bit of wildlife aside for future generations.

COMMENTS (10 to date)
Justin Bowen writes:

Not wanting to wait for the federal government to create a large-scale national park for the American prairie is exactly how many of our national parks got their starts. Maybe my child will get to experience the "Serengeti of the Americas" when he's older.

Jacob Nettnay writes:

I was wondering when Dr. Roberts would interview a person about rebuilding the prairie. It seemed to be on his mind.

Luke J writes:

I was not surprised to learn Geddes was with PERC prior to Managing Director of this reserve. Good stuff.

Greg Linster writes:

What a fantastic interview! Mr. Geddes was an incredibly articulate guest and is a great spokesman for the APR. I'm left to wonder where else in the world this concept (or variations of it) can have success.

Krishna Mahesh writes:

While I thought Mr. Geddes was articulate and humble, isn't it amazingly arrogant to try and recreate a set point in time (e.g. 1800 flora & fauna) which just happened to coincide with certain humans encountering a particular location?

All eco-systems evolve, why do we consider human impact on the ecosystem "unnatural"? Aren't we just another ape? Every animal tries to modify its surroundings to suit its survival. It seems the height of human arrogance to pretend otherwise and try to "reset" to some mythical "pristine" time.

David McGrogan writes:

I don't think the project is arrogant any more than I think the building of the Sistine Chapel was arrogant. We are now in a position where we no longer need to modify our surroundings to suit our survival, but to modify our surroundings to please us. And the existence of this reserve pleases me, and a lot of others, greatly.

As a Brit, I don't believe such a project could succeed in such a small and crowded island as the one I live in, but there are moves underway to re-introduce the lynx and wolf in certain isolated areas - partly to control the deer population. I expect many of the issues that will be confronted on those projects are similar to those discussed in this podcast.

Marc Saegesser writes:

Thank you to Russ and Mr. Geddes for a very interesting interview.

At around 40:02 Mr. Geddes says:

One very interesting thing about the prairie ecosystem is most of the biomass is 6 or 7 feet underground.
I'm curious about what this is? How does something that deep impact the surface? Does it have something to do with Prairie Dogs which seemed to be an important part of the restoration?
Cameron Foster writes:

Another cracking podcast, Russ. I was especially struck by your quote about emergent order and, by inference, the way it can help us see 'how little we know' about how complex systems function and change in ways that make replication tricky.

Although you made the reference in passing, you hinted at the implications of the lesson to education systems. Although much of the education ecosystem is 'designed' with a series of standardised inputs (ie selected courses for teachers, curriculum, approved pedagogies even uniforms!) aimed at producing a positive outcome in the long (20 years!) term, the differences between schools within a small area can be stark and befuddling.

It made me wonder if maybe what we've got in many settings is in fact 'emergent social order' - The decisions of politicians and administrators can seem a distant and impotent compared to the transactions between teacher-student and student-student who are all operating with a much sharper view of the immediate societal and individual impact of 'school'.

I should say that I'm in Canberra, Australia, and I get the impression that the UK and US Governments are a lot more involved in astroturfing the educational prairie (drink!) - but I wonder if a hands-off approach in part explains some of Finland's apparent successes?

Gregory McIsaac writes:

Marc Saegesser,

Most of the biomass in any ecosystem is in the vegetation, and the underground biomass referred to by Mr. Geddes were plant roots. To be clear, he was not referring to a layer of biomass that was 6 to 7 feet underground, but to some of the roots that may extend to a depth of 6 or 7 feet. I am not familiar with the arid systems of eastern Montana, but in more humid regions, root biomass tends to be concentrated in the top few feet of soil, but some plant roots penetrate deeper in the soil (unless there is a restricting layer).These deeper roots can transport water and nutrients to the surface, increase plant productivity and increase accumulation of organic matter at the surface.

In the context of discussing restoration of prairie in cultivated fields, I think he was saying that the prairies that have never been plowed in eastern Montana have the advantage of still having deep rooted perennial plants. Restoring prairie on cultivated fields is more difficult because it takes several years for the perennial plants to develop those deep roots.

Greg McIsaac

Gregory McIsaac writes:

Brown and Eisenhardt’s parable of recreating a prairie seems to be largely informed by Kevin Kelly’s book titled “Out of Control,” but Brown and Eisenhardt appear to conflate two different experiences discussed in the book. The first is the prairie restoration effort at the University of Wisconsin Arboretum which started in the 1930s, and is the first of its kind in the US and perhaps in the world. The initial efforts in Wisconsin focused on bringing in native species into a field that had been used for agricultural production (much of it plowed annually) from 1836 to 1927 and then used as a horse pasture until 1933 when it was purchased by the University of Wisconsin.

In Kelly’s telling of the story, the importance of fire was discovered in the mid 1940s. There had been experiments that employed fire in native prairies in Kansas initiated in 1928, and published in 1934. Also in 1934, Aldo Leopold, who was involved in the Wisconsin prairie restoration, gave a talk at the dedication of the University of Wisconsin Arboretum, in which he stated his suspicion that fire was important to maintaining prairie in Wisconsin. He described the Wisconsin landscape of 1840 as follows: “Our grandparents describe, sometimes with rapture, the beauty of the open orchard-like stands of oaks, interspersed with copses of shrubs and the profusion of prairie grasses, and flowers which grew in between. But just what shrubs, grasses, and flowers were they? We don’t know. Why did they remain open, instead of growing up to solid woods? Probably fire, but we are not sure.”

They were clearly starting with very limited knowledge, but from the beginning of the effort it was suspected that fire would be an important ingredient. According to one history of the project (Blewett and Cottan, 1984) the initial effort focused on comparing methods for introducing prairie species that were not present at the site. One method studied was burning off the existing bluegrass sod before sowing prairie seeds or transplanting. This initial burning of the bluegrass was not entirely effective and an experiment started in 1941 examined repeated burning of the “half breed” prairie plots that contained considerable bluegrass. The repeated burning favored several prairie species to the considerable detriment of the bluegrass. But even after fire was shown to be a helpful element, it did not magically turn the “half breed” prairies into “pure bred” prairies. In 2008, after more than 60 years of using fire to manage the restored prairie, the University of Wisconsin Arboretum asked the following question: “Is Curtis Prairie Restored?” To which they responded: “The term “restored” implies that efforts are complete, but restoration is rarely finished. The increasing abundances of exotic and woody plants… and the paucity of native animals suggests that there is much yet to be done.”

The Illinois portion of the Brown and Eisenhardt’s prairie restoration parable takes place in the 1980s and focuses on Steve Packards’ efforts to restore prairies in forest clearings in and around Chicago. Packard was already well aware of the need for fire, but the prairie plants were being shaded out by shrubs and trees. So he and his collaborators focused on mechanically removing shrubs and trees, but this produced mixed success. According to Kelly, Packard discovered that removal of some the shade led to emergence of rare savanna species. So Packard changed his goal from restoring prairie to restoring savanna (a mixture of trees, shrubs and grass, much like Leopold’s description of the Wisconsin landscape of the 1840s).

In drawing lessons from their parable, Brown and Eisenhardt make a distinction between assembling and growing, but it seems to me that both are frequently needed. If certain native species are absent from a site, you need to bring in those species if restoration is to occur. To me that sounds like some assembly is required in addition to promoting conditions for growth.

I think Brown and Eisenhardt’s other lessons seem reasonable, but I would place more emphasis on the importance of acknowledging ignorance, recognizing local variation, designing relevant experiments and making appropriate observations that can lead to discovery and transformation. This is sometimes called adaptive management in natural resource literature, which recommends treating management decisions as experiments that can advance the managers’ understanding of the complex system as well as attempting to achieve management goals.

Greg McIsaac

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