Eternal Grasslands, Shifting Paradigms


Grass. In Search of Human Habitat . Truett, J. C. 2009 . University of California Press , Berkeley , CA . 217 pp. $34.95 (hardcover). ISBN 978-0-520-25839-6 .
Revolution on the Range. The Rise of a New Ranch in the American West . White, C. 2008 . Island Press , Washington , D.C. 221 pp. $25.96 (hardcover). ISBN 978-1-59726-174-6 .
Wild Rangelands. Conserving Wildlife while Maintaining Livestock in Semi-Arid Ecosystems . Du Toit, J. T., R.Kock, and J. C.Deutsch , editors . 2010 . Wiley-Blackwell , West Sussex , U.K. 424 pp. $69.95 (paperback). ISBN 978-1-4051-7785-6 .
Grasslands in Europe of High Nature Value . Veen, P., R.Jefferson, R.De Smidt, and J.Van Der Straaten , editors . 2009 . KNNV Publishing , Zeist , The Netherlands . 320 pp. €69.95 (hardcover). ISBN 978-90-5011-316-8 .

Grasslands have long been subjected to human use, and this use is influenced by and the demand for food and the degree of poverty in an area. In recent years, climate change and production of biofuels have made conservation of grasslands even more challenging. Despite these threats, a better understanding of humans’ long association and coevolution with grasslands, improved recognition of the forces that shape grasslands, and changes in conservation paradigms improve the possibility of their persistence.

These four books vary greatly in style and audience, but they feature many of the same messages from recent ecological studies and conservation assessments. The front flap of the dust jacket for Grass states, “Part autobiography, part philosophical rumination, this evocative conservation odyssey explores the deep affinities between humans and our original habitat: grasslands.” Although he wrote the book for a broad audience, Truett includes thorough and clear explorations of various technical topics, including the work of ecological pioneer Frederick Clements, patch burning, and Pleistocene rewilding.

Grass is exceptionally well written. Its essay style and blend of autobiographic and philosophical elements may bother those who crave more structure, but I think it is an excellent introduction to the relation between humans and grasslands from the dawn of human prehistory to the present. Truett speculates that humans have a strong genetically based affinity for grasslands and savanna. Grass's primary strength is its exposition of the relation between people and grasslands, including reassessments of the ecological forces that drive grassland systems and the policies that are sometimes out of sync with contemporary science as it relates to grasslands.

The traditional conservation paradigm of passive protection is more directly challenged in Revolution on the Range. This book for a popular audience is upbeat, innovative, and unconventional. Courtney White is cofounder of the nonprofit Quivira Coalition, which is devoted to finding common ground (what he calls the “radical center”) among ranchers, range scientists, environmentalists, and managers of public lands. This common ground is mainly a shared objective of functioning grassland ecosystems and an understanding of how to attain and maintain these functions through ecological restoration.

The first chapters feature case studies of ranchers who practiced alternatives to conventional management practices. Many of the ranchers adopted and then went beyond Allan Savory's holistic resource management approach, using prescribed fire, herding, and other practices to improve the ability of grasslands to support livestock. In one case study from the West Elk Mountains of Colorado, six grazing-allotment holders pooled their cattle and herded them systematically over the combined area of their allotments. Over time, the ranchers found that only two to six riders, accompanied by well-trained border collies, were sufficient to move and maintain the herd over a growing season. The grazing association, the West Elk Pool, received a national award from the U.S. Forest Service.

Part two of Revolution on the Range, “The Working Wilderness,” features cases in which different stakeholder groups recognized and pursued common goals. One example describes environmental activist Dan Dagget's meeting with ranchers, which he expected to be confrontational. The facilitator opened the meeting by asking each participant to describe an ideal rangeland. Dan was disarmed when the first rancher gave a definition with which Dan agreed. Potential confrontation shifted to cooperation.

Part three, “The Big Picture,” focuses on big ideas. For instance, although White believes conservation can succeed on federal lands, he realizes that a critical conservation opportunity exists on private ranches. Furthermore, he discusses how failed ranches often are subdivided into “ranchettes,” typically developments of 2–5 ha individually owned parcels, which fragment grasslands. Although White never intended this to be a technical book, it would have been helpful if he had provided a comprehensive bibliography. Instead, he offers only an annotated “Selected Bibliography” of 10 references, listed by title and in no particular order.

More specialized and technical, Wild Rangelands thoroughly addresses the challenges of maintaining wild animals and livestock on the world's diminishing area of native grasslands. It is well suited for graduate courses and seminars. The first section presents themes that apply broadly to management of grasslands worldwide, such as system resilience, shrub encroachment, infectious diseases of wild and domestic animals, conflicts with large carnivores, and financial incentives for conservation. That last topic may be of particular interest to biologists, who usually lack background in economics. The second section features regional challenges to conservation of grasslands in, for example, Australia, North and South America, and parts of Asia and East Africa. The final chapter presents a synthesis and offers suggestions for directions for conservation of grasslands in the near future. It poses the critical question, “Could conservation efforts based solely on national parks and protected areas preserve the aesthetic and material benefits of grass- and brush-lands?” The author, citing the need for landscape approaches to conservation of grasslands, answers this question with a resounding no, an answer that is consistent with the theme in Revolution on the Range.

Approaches to grassland conservation in Europe and North America differ. Some of the differences result from human influences on European landscapes that have a much longer history than human influences in North and South America, and which create what Europeans call “cultural landscapes.” Despite longstanding anthropogenic influences, such cultural landscapes support high levels of species richness and abundance.

Grasslands in Europe resembles a coffee-table book, heavy and rich with fine color photos and maps. The writing style is aimed at an audience with some technical background and includes tables, figures, and even multivariate analyses and abundant footnotes and references. The authors are academics and managers, and the 24 case-study grasslands presented in the book are from 21 different countries (e.g., Ireland, Turkey, Estonia, Spain). Two of the examples are national parks.

The book's “General Introduction” describes the origins of Europe's grasslands in regions settled since the Neolithic and includes chapters on grasslands as butterfly and bird habitat, lowland grasslands and climate, and identification of agricultural land of high conservation value. Section two opens with color photographs of the featured landscapes, and the 24 case studies follow. Each case study emphasizes the human activities, including agriculture, that help sustain them.

The final section, “Policy Outlook,” devotes one chapter to maintenance by farmers of grasslands of high conservation value in Europe. Europeans rely far more on mowing and fertilizing than on fire, which is not mentioned in the book. This attractive and timely work is an excellent reference and a good introduction to approaches to conservation that are substantially different from North American approaches.

As a group, these books are a refreshing blend of recent scientific advances and the paradigms behind grassland conservation. They address an important set of biomes that are often inadequately appreciated, perhaps due to their deceptively simple structures. Grass and Revolution on the Range are suited to general audiences; Wild Rangelands and Grasslands in Europe are aimed more at professionals.