Within discussions of environmental issues, there are two broad approaches one can take. On one hand there are those who argue that the goal should be the creation and preservation of wilderness free of human influence. This view can be broadly construed as “preservation.”
The other major strain favor using human management to ensure that the natural systems maintain the state they enjoyed prior to human involvement. That approach is generally referred to as “conservation.”
The differences are instructive. The historic tallgrass prairie was maintained by fire across the broad center of North America. Fires raged across thousands of acres, spurred by lightning strikes (and by native peoples) every few years. These regular burns, like the one photographed by Kansan Jim Richardson for this month’s National Geographic (above), destroyed tree and shrub seedlings before they grew thick enough bark to fend off a fire, and before they shaded and poisoned native plants. The prairie’s natural rhythm was defined by these fires.
Clearly, such uncontrolled fires are inconsistent with human habitation. As fires were suppressed, trees and shrubs invaded. In 1945, the University of Kansas decided to protect some land for use in research and teaching. They bought a farm north of town, and imposed a deed on the land forbidding artificial manipulation: perfect preservation. You can’t kill the animals and you can’t set fires.
That farm, which was bare land in 1945, is now a forest. Before it was farm, that area was prairie – a small patch of native prairie still exists across the road. By keeping the land free of human influence, the farm didn’t return to prairie, it became a forest.
The plot of native prairie is burned regularly by KU. Next to it are four other plots of land, farmland until the 1970s. On one, the university does nothing. On another, they mow regularly, on the third they allow grazing, and the fourth they burn. When we take classes out to those plots, the only one without any shrubs is the burned site. Even with regular mowing, little cedar shoots pop up. Those shrubs have toxic chemicals, so the grazed site has gigantic junipers growing on it, and the unmanaged site is a thicket.
To protect the prairie, it’s necessary for humans to intervene. The fire Jim Richardson photographed was not a naturally occurring blaze, it was set by trained professionals with supervision by a fire department. The fire was contained to a plot of land through careful planning, and the judicious application of meteorology. Without that intervention, it wouldn’t be prairie.
It took a long time to learn that we need to let natural fires burn in some forests, and that controlled burns are necessary in other places where natural fire is too rare or too dangerous to rely on. Humans have changed the environment by fragmenting landscapes, by extinguishing fires, and by removing species from their habitats. Protecting those lands does not mean taking our hands off, it means making careful decisions about the right way to manage the land. Preservation winds up destroying wild places. Conservation may make them less wild, but it means they stay around.