In Conservation, Doing Nothing is Doing Something

Engrained in the American psyche is romanticism of unsettled country, where man seldom trods and wild animals run unimpeded. Many like to think this is they way the Americas were before European settlement. The notion that often follows if we pesky humans were not in the way, then native plant and wildlife would flourish.

The trouble with romanticism is that reality often smacks it right in the face. With the benefit of hindsight over the past 110 years or so with the first national effort at conservation, we can see what has worked and what has not in maximizing native flora and fauna. One miserable failure in that regard is the idea that no management is the best management.

Teddy Roosevelt

Our foremost conservationist wasn’t the shoot ’em with a camera type.

The no management concept comes from the myth that before European explorers, there were few people North America, leaving the environment untouched. The Native people of Mexico, America, and Canada would beg to differ. With estimates between eight and 112 million Native people here in 1492, their impacts altered the plant life on this continent to be more favorable to their survival. The “human-less” wild lands whimsically recorded by the Romantic writers were only empty due to the recent depopulation of native peoples.

Wild raspberries in the pasture

That modification most likely included using fire to promote the growth of these tasty guys.

However, armed with a romantic notion of the wild in mind, certain conservationists in the past few decades have emphasized this fallacious “less is more” principle. The consequences play out differently across environments. For example, the National Wild Turkey Federation (NWTF), which supports habitat restoration for a large number of game and nongame species, reported how the no-touchie principle has led to habitat deficits. By preventing smart logging and controlled burns from occurring, old-growth, mature forest have become predominant in the east. Successional habitats consisting of new and adolescent plant growth have been greatly reduced.

This successional habitat is critical for the majority of native species. The NWTF reported that researchers have found 242 species of interest (species that are threatened, endangered, locally rare, or of public interest) require at least some new growth habitat to complete their life cycle. We can create this habitat through a combination of logging and grazing, as long as both are done with conservation in mind.

Using fire to clear brush from the pasture

Controlled burns are another tool that can be used, in addition to hinge cuts on trees. However, these options do not provide food and fiber for humans, so they don’t pay for the conservation the way logging and grazing do.

On the plains, moving towards less use has had a similar effect on native plants and animals. In particular, summer annual invasive grasses like cheatgrass have overtaken native grass and shrub populations in pastures. Cheatgrass can be grazed off in the fall, which over a few years will reduce its prevalence to the benefit of the native species. However, federal land management regulations in many areas prevent this practice, which limits this conservation technique to private land.

When humans refuse to manage land in a positive manner, nature will take over violently. She has a history of doing so without regard to the consequences. In the book The Biology of Rarity: Causes and Consequences of Rare-Common Differences, the authors note that 99% of all the species that have existed on earth were extinct before humans ever came on the scene.

Nature’s favorite way of hitting the reset button is through fire. The accumulation of fuel in both mature forests and annual covered prairies enhances the dangerous effects of these wildfires. Rather than creating new successional habitat, as occurs in controlled burns, wildfires can leave a wide swath of devastation that severely impacts the survival of native plant and animal life. Add to that the millions of dollars spent controlling fires and the millions lost in property damage. This property isn’t just farms and ranches, but all the homes built by people who want to drink their morning coffee while looking out the window at a pretty view.

In short, doing nothing is doing something, and it is doing the wrong thing. If the goal is wildlife and native plant diversity, then successional habitat is required. The best way to achieve it is to include practices that pay for that habitat creation, such as conservation-minded logging and grazing. Keeping the human touch in our conservation toolbox will allow us to have the kind of biodiversity we enjoy in this country for generations to come.