Habitat & Conservation  |  10/15/2020

Thunder on the Prairie


We now know what some have always known, which is that one cannot destroy just a part of a landscape

This Rooster Road Trip guest blog was written by Dave Simonett. Dave is the lead singer for Trampled by Turtles, a Pheasants Forever member, and a new upland bird hunter. Dave is joining the Rooster Road Trip for the back-half of the trip.

Before Europeans reached this continent, tallgrass prairie covered somewhere in the neighborhood of 40% of what is now the United States.  Reaching from the Rocky Mountains to the west all the way over to the Mississippi River to the east, this great sea of grass supported an intricate and diverse biome, not least of which was the American Bison herd which many estimate to have numbered over 60 million.  As is the case in a landscape untouched by modern human development, the prairie worked in a delicate balance, with each species of plant, animal, and native human working together in a dance of life and death that produced one of the most unique landscapes ever to grace the surface of our planet.  The European farmers that crossed into this land could never have imagined such a large area of immaculate, relatively flat, and un-tilled soil and, as these things tend to go, they promptly dug it all up.  Fast forward a couple hundred years and today we are left with approximately 1% of the once seemingly endless American prairie.  

However, it seems that American conservationist thinking has finally caught up with the native tribes that have been this land’s caretakers for centuries.  Conservationists in our nation now realizes, hopefully in the nick of time, that all life depends on all life.  We now know what some have always known, which is that one cannot destroy just a part of a landscape.  Take away one piece of nature’s chess board, and the game eventually becomes unplayable.  As conservationist and author Aldo Leopold put it, “If the land mechanism as a whole is good then every part is good, whether we understand it or not…To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.”

Thanks to the work of many concerned and dedicated conservationists, pieces of the prairie are starting to make a comeback.  Thanks to the generosity of many responsible and forward-thinking farmers, land that was once under hoof and plow is now bursting forth with the many building blocks needed to restore balance to the landscape.  The mission to spread this gospel in an industry where profit margins are thin and each inch of land is accounted for is a difficult one to say the least.  Thankfully, organizations such as Pheasants Forever have put their backs into it and have come up with programs that help the land as well as the farmers and have educated many in the art of responsible land management.  The size and scope of the old American Prairie is not coming back.  But, we can definitely work towards a future in which as much of it as possible is allowed to flourish, thus bringing back some of the natural balance to our home.  When the land is healthy we all may thrive.  

The prevailing attitude in modern civilization seems to be that we are somehow separated from the rest of nature; That we may chop, dig, and burn with impunity and that the resources on which we all depend will somehow magically re-stock themselves.  It is my contention that humans are also the cogs and wheels of which Mr. Leopold wrote.  We are part of the balance just as much as an oak savannah or a caterpillar.  I think more of us are seeing this now and are realizing that conservation, being more crucial than ever, is not just a simple romantic notion.  Industry is realizing that conservation is necessary for its continued success.  Hunters are realizing the same.  In my young hunting career, almost all of my time in the field has been on public land.  These places, brought back to glory by many concerned cogs and wheels, are so integral not only to our lives as hunters, but to all the farms and landscapes which surround them.  They bring in pollinators and the many creatures that follow. They furnish rest and food for our migratory birds. Their impact cannot be overstated or probably even calculated.  In our society, I know that the practicality and even profitability of a thing must be established before it is considered worthy of saving.  That’s just the way it is.  

However, there is another side of this whole argument that is nearer and dearer to me than trying to convince people that they will make more money if the land isn’t destroyed.  For me it is simply the fact that I love the outdoors.  Nothing in human creation can replace the feeling of any experience I’ve had in the woods or fields.  I’m not in the mood to make a list of sunrises and bird flushes and groups of friends around campfires.  There shouldn’t be a need for my romantic drivel about the beauty of a river or a range of mountains.  Most of you reading this already know these things.  You’ve already had these experiences and hopefully you’ve already furnished some of them for your kids as well.  

My experience as an upland hunter has shown me a whole new beauty to be found in the prairie.  Not just the opportunity to hunt there, though that is something very special, but the opportunity to simply be there. To see with my own eyes and feel with my own feet the wonder that is the American prairie.  How anyone who’s seen or smelled or touched that place could feel anything but reverence and childish wonder is beyond me.  I know not everyone shares this attitude about the land.  Conversely, I know farmers, who have a deeper relationship with the land than I’ll ever know, must also make a living. I’m happy there are conservation organizations out there that can address those concerns.  For the rest of us, however, I believe experience is the best teacher.  I have seen with my own eyes the light turned on in my kids regarding the outdoors.  I don’t spoil it for them yet with tales of greed and destruction, but when they do eventually confront the foes of conservation, they will do so with a base of love and respect for the land (and the knowledge of a few hidden trout streams and campsites).  Getting inexperienced adults out there, which can be harder for some reason even though they tend to own their own vehicles, is equally important. Hunting is a great activity to share but even less involved experiences such as a simple walk through a public place can be a wonderful start and can really have an impact on someone not used to the more remote places on (and off) the map.  It may sound overly simple and maybe even a bit innocent, but I believe the more people experience our natural places, the more they will want a hand in saving them and, hopefully, expanding them.  In the end, we as a species do not live as close to the land around us as we did even a century ago.  Even though that connection is hardwired into our DNA there will always be some of us who have forgotten it or are uninterested in finding it once again.  

Thankfully we have scientific and financial benefits to fall back on in regards to conservation in those cases.  For the rest of us, the ones who would like to preserve Mother Nature simply for the infinite rewards we perceive from her every day, we have experiences.  We have memories of fields and forests and water and of the times shared with those closest to us that are set with those backdrops. We also have the opportunity to help create those memories for others which is conservation work on a very personal scale.  

Nowadays it seems like one cannot even say “I’m going to the store” without it being perceived as a political statement. Sadly, many times even our great natural world is looked upon as having a left and a right.  Let’s be done with that garbage.  There exists not one human on this planet who wouldn’t benefit from a healthier environment.  Whether you want to go into the woods and shoot a bear with a bow or you want to put on some expensive waders and release a trout, there is so much more that connects us than divides us when we get outside.  

However we approach the outdoors, we all have a vested interest in its survival.  Even if you want to live in Midtown Manhattan and never set foot in a tent, you and your children will reap the benefits of cleaner air and water which results from work done many miles from your home.  Sadly, our politicians seem to have gotten it in our heads that we must agree with someone on everything or else we cannot tolerate that person’s existence. You and I can smell the stink in that pile of shit.  A true community finds its areas of connection and thrives upon those.  The American outdoors community is wide and diverse, and how could it be any other way in such a large place with so many different landscapes? And, as will follow, the organizations that represent this community are equally diverse.  There is so much potential for all of our outdoor organizations, whether they be perceived as “left” or “right” or “neutral” to work together on the real conservation issues in which they all share interest.  United we stand for the outdoors. 

This week I will be walking in a remnant of our prairie in search of brother pheasant.  Pheasants or no, rain or shine, it will be an adventure and a damn fine walk nonetheless.  I will likely look past the boundaries of the yellow Wildlife Management Area signs and imagine an endless sea of tallgrass with a million buffalo moving from west to east.  I will be a cog in the great machine and in that place, I will find a lasting peace.

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