I was out collecting seed one afternoon in our prairie next to the road. This prairie, named “Debra’s Prairie,” is our best planting with a very high diversity of plant species. I was deeply into my own space, marveling at all the conservative (hard to establish) species that I was finding.
“What ya doin’ in them weeds?” I look up and see one of our neighbors sitting in his pickup truck parked along the edge of the road. I think, here we go again. I am well aware that most of our neighbors refer to me as that “rocket scientist” guy from Indiana who won’t take proper care of his fields. I reluctantly make my way over to him thinking about what lesson is he going to impart on me today? Still sitting in the truck, he eyes the containers hanging on my belt. “What’s in them containers?” I explain they are prairie seeds, and I intend to plant them in other locations. “You going to spread more weeds?” No, they are not weeds. They are prairie seeds. “What’s it good for?” Well, the tallgrass prairie is an endangered ecosystem, and I’m attempting to restore it – to bring some of it back. “What’s it good for?” Prairies provide homes for many endangered and rare species. “What’s it good for?” Many people enjoy all the beautiful prairie flowers. “What’s it good for?” Smell this. Holding out a handful of yellow coneflower seed. “Damn, smells like anise. What’s it good for?” I open up another container, show him the seeds inside, and state that these seeds sell for $80/ounce. “What’s the net yield per acre?”
Now I understood. What’s it good for translates into how much money can I make from it? My neighbor, in his infinite wisdom, did indeed teach me a lesson. We all have been influenced our whole lives by the economic engine we call capitalism. There is no room in capitalism for conservation. What matters is year-on-year economic growth! My neighbor has the mainstream view. I am the outlier!
So how do we bring ecological restoration into the mainstream? I often fantasize about a “Ted Turner” of Wisconsin coming in and providing the resources for a connective corridor among all of the last prairie remnants in the state. This corridor would allow genetic flow of rare plant and animal species, and offer some long-term stability to the very fragile nature of our existing, isolated prairie remnants.
But somehow, some way, I think there does need to be an economic return attached to ecological restoration. Can we find a way to place an economic value on ecological services such as clean water, clean air, and carbon sequestration? Does greater diversity of life provide any economic advantage over monocultures? To date, these topics have not gone anywhere and appear lost in political bickering.
One area that appears promising is eco-tourism. While I’m not aware of any large-scale successes in the USA, other countries such as Canada, Botswana, Zambia, and Zimbabwe have been successful in utilizing commerce from eco-tourism to employ local people, and provide habitat for native flora and fauna. The key is finding ways to provide for people while utilizing and conserving native ecosystems.
Eco-tourism for the tallgrass prairie complex? The scientists say it’s one of the most endangered ecosystems in the world. We have a whole bunch of rare and endangered species that call the prairie home. I bet there are folks who are willing to pay to stand in a sea of autumn grasses undulating in the wind. Or hear the “tsi-lick” of a Henslow’s sparrow call. Would people pay to smell the fragrance of a wild hyacinth, or “feel” the hum of thousands of pollinators on a late July day?
What is ecological restoration good for? Does it have economic value? Can we find a way for folks to earn a living while caring for the ecological health of their land? I believe we can. How about you?