Grassland management is like owning a home

Homeowners usually choose a home that aligns with their personal criteria and needs.  Although houses come in all shapes and sizes–fixer-uppers, lemons, or brand new and ultramodern–they all have one thing in common: they need maintenance and attention throughout the year.

An example of operator error that has the potential to require further maintenance.

An example of operator error that has the potential to require further maintenance.

Summer requires yard and A/C work, while winter requires heating, snow and ice removal, and weather proofing. In addition, all homeowners have encountered miscellaneous incidents such as pipe breaks, appliance failures, storm damage, pest infestations, and the inevitable operator errors that lead to stain removals, clogged drains, and the like.

Managing a grassland isn’t so different from owning a home. Grasslands exist in varying states of “naturalness” (and I use that term loosely) and size. They may need differing levels of restoration or maintenance that will require greater or fewer inputs in the short- and long-term.  Attention to grassland maintenance is needed throughout the year: burn seasons and grazing seasons, ecosystem monitoring, mowing, herbiciding, seeding, and a host of other management activities.

Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja coccinea) at Diamond Grove Prairie Conservation Area, MO after a spring burn in 2009.

Indian Paintbrush (Castilleja coccinea) at Diamond Grove Prairie Conservation Area, MO after a spring burn in 2009.

Both prairies and homes need perpetual vigilance.  The moment you find you’ve waited too long to mow your lawn is the moment you realize you need to hire or dust off the brush hog.  Similarly, the moment you realize you put off burning for too long is the moment that you find your burn plan irrelevant and you also call for the brush hog or other aggressive management tools.

It’s never one and done with grasslands, and just like your home, grasslands need regular attention.  Some of the national parks that I work with have been using prescribed fire since the 1970’s, and they will continue to use fire to work towards their goals or maintain them.  The frequency of burns a grassland needs is dependent on a host of factors, but regardless of where in the GP you are, a single burn won’t sustain a prairie for the long haul.

Little bluestem at Wah’Kon-Tah Prairie, MO October 2010.

Little bluestem at Wah’Kon-Tah Prairie, MO October 2010.

                        A downy gentian at Wah’Kon-Tah Prairie, MO

                        A downy gentian at Wah’Kon-Tah Prairie, MO

At the end of the day, we do all these things for grasslands and our homes because they lead to the moments where you can sit back and say “ahhhh.”  The moments of complete contentment as you curl up with your favorite book on the couch or find peace in the sunset over the reddish hues of the little bluestem in the fall.  The moments where you find the regal fritillary or the purple gentian surprises or cheer on your favorite team with friends. These are the moments that make all the hard work and maintenance worthwhile.