At the time of settlement, southern Wisconsin was a mosaic of prairies, savannas, wetlands and woodlands. These habitats were utilized and maintained by Native Americans for thousands of years. They used fire regularly, often burning thousands or even millions of acres across the North American continent every year. This created wonderful habitat for the major herbivores: deer, bison, and elk. These animals occurred in abundance throughout the Midwest, including southern Wisconsin. They grazed, browed, and transported seeds for miles. In turn, the activities of these large animals further modified the landscape and encouraged the development of ecosystems that were extraordinary in their productivity and diversity
It is only in the past decade or so that anthropologists have come to understand the profound effect that Native American land management practices had on North American ecosystems. It is now theorized that a very large portion of the Native American population perished from disease before settlers arrived. This “new” theory is based on archival records that have been recently found, translated and studied as well as a growing body of archaeological evidence (read “1491” by Charles Mann for more information). The result of all this was that settlers encountered a sparsely populated landscape teeming with game – a land rich, bountiful, beautiful and infinitely varied. They concluded that the land was largely “natural” and untouched by humans. But they were wrong.
In addition to their copious use of fire, Native Americans managed the landscape with many techniques and great skill. They encouraged and even planted fruit and nut bearing trees and shrubs. While their farming plots were generally limited to corn, beans, and squash, much of their activities in the surrounding prairies, forests, wetlands and savannas could be considered farming in all but name. They carefully monitored their lands, even to the point of knowing when individual shrubs would benefit from burning or thinning. They made use of a wide variety of plants for food, fiber, fuel, and building material. By their use and husbandry of the species they valued, they created a far more rich and varied landscape than would have existed without the influence of humans.
Ironically, the first settlers brought many of these same practices with them from Europe. But in Europe, they were constrained by the feudal system. The great majority of them had never owned land of their own, although they had gathered nuts, fruits, and herbs in local forests. But, they were looking for a new life, not more of the same drudgery that their masters had imposed on them. Collecting nuts in the forest was for peasants too poor to grow enough food on their land. These settlers saw the land in terms of its potential for agriculture and much of it was drained, plowed and logged in the last decades of the 19th century for that purpose. Luckily, we have much information about the original condition of the land so we can understand what was lost even as we have benefitted so much from what was gained.
Still, the earliest settlers used old-world methods of farming which in many ways were friendlier to the environment than modern industrial systems. The early dairy farmers had areas to grow crops, areas for pasture, and typically kept a woodlot. Woodlots were frequently grazed by cattle which kept them in excellent condition as long as animals were not kept in one place too long. Throughout southern Wisconsin today you can find woodlots scattered everywhere. But unfortunately many have suffered from neglect and invasion by exotic species.
In a sense we are lucky that the changes to the North American continent brought on by the first settlers happened so quickly. Similar changes have occurred around the world, but often over many generations so that the net change was largely invisible. The changes to the Wisconsin lands occurred in a matter of a few decades. The first of the settler’s offspring lived well into the twentieth century. Their children and grandchildren heard stories of how the land used to be and as their affluence and educational underpinnings grew, they began to ask questions.
The University of Wisconsin was founded in the same year that Wisconsin became a state, 1848. In 1933 the University acquired the property that is now the UW arboretum. It was botanist Norman C. Fassett who had the idea of restoring prairie and he engaged his student John Thompson to begin experimenting with various techniques. Later, professor John Curtis took over the job and worked on the restoration for several decades thereafter. Today, this first-ever prairie restoration is known as the Curtis Prairie and is open to the public. Those of us engaged in this work are in debt to these men as well as to the men and women who continue to carry on their work.
The concept of restoring prairies became more widespread through the 70s and 80s as environmental awareness grew and a genuine interest in ecology on the part of many individual land owners took hold. The concepts develop by Curtis and many others began to expand as researchers came to understand that savannas, forests, and wetlands also needed to be managed to maintain ecological health. It was during these decades that the concept began to reach commercial scale. Today, there are several nurseries in southern Wisconsin specializing in native plants and many contractors. However, the success or failure of a prairie restoration project has many parents and the practice itself is as much art as science. While many of the individual tasks can be broken down into a contract for services, this alone does not guarantee success. The concept of adaptive management and a commitment on the part of the land owner in perpetuity is essential.
Much of the impetus for learning how to get a habitat restored in the early days was driven by nostalgia. People wanted to experience what the prairie of old looked like, smelled like, and felt like. They thought they could recreate what once was. While the element of nostalgia still has a powerful hold, today we are much more realistic about what can be achieved regarding restoration of an ecosystem. In the modern concept of restoration, we are not restoring an ecosystem from the past. We are more likely to consider the concept of ecological health as a measuring stick for success rather than the re-creation of something that is gone for good. Ecological health is defined by a unit of land, air and water that is diverse in species and age classes, is not dominated by invasive species, and has the inherent resiliency of a system in balance.
By focusing on health, we can begin to think about the land in a way similar to that of the Native Americans who came before us. Native Americans encouraged diversity and resiliency in their lands not simply because their forefathers taught them to and certainly not simply because it was “the right thing to do.” They did it because it was in their interest to do so. A diverse landscape is not dependent on one crop of say, walnuts, which might fail in any given year. There are so many options in a health ecosystem that food can always be found even when several crops failed. They did not harvest all the trees at once, because they knew they would need more in years to come. A healthy ecosystem then, does not happen on its own; it does not result from good intentions; it does not benefit particularly from nostalgic impulses; and it does not depend on human disengagement. On the contrary, it depends on its human caretakers to find a balance between the needs of the natural community and their own needs. We should not be ashamed to consider our own needs as some are. And we should not ignore the needs of nature as some do. But as the great philosopher, writer and naturalist Aldo Leopold said, “A thing is right when it tends to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. It is wrong when it tends otherwise.”