Undark Podcast #14: America’s Broken Prairie

Join our podcast host and former NYT Science Times editor David Corcoran as he discusses Undark’s latest Case Study on the fast-disappearing American prairie, with writer David J. Unger. Also: Seth Mnookin on the media and the March for Science, and audio reporter Katrin Redfern on a surprising conflict over human rights and natural resources in Tanzania.

A full transcript of the podcast follows.

David Corcoran: This is Undark. We’re a magazine devoted to exploring the intersection of science and society and we’re this podcast. Hello again. Welcome to episode 14. I’m David Corcoran.

For our cover story, a journey to the American Heartland to visit a place that Americans seldom think about and that’s the problem. Joining us to talk about it, is reporter David Unger. David, welcome to the podcast.

David Unger: Thanks for having me.

David Corcoran: Your story opens in a part of North Dakota that doesn’t look like much to the untrained eye. Can you describe it for us?

David Unger: It’s a very beautiful landscape but it’s in a very understated and quiet way. Everything is very flat and open. It kind of feels like the land goes on forever in sort of a disorienting way, actually. At the heart of it really is a lot of grass, which from far away kind of just looks the same. It’s that same shade of green or sort of brown depending on the season, but the interesting thing is when you get up closer, when you start to engage with the landscape. You begin to learn that it’s a very diverse mixture of funny looking plants with very funny names, too. Blazing Star, Purple Prairie Clover, Smooth Brome, some of these almost alien sounding words that really do the plant’s justice, so it’s a simple landscape but also rich and diverse on closer inspection.

David Corcoran: This is the prairie and, of course, it’s not just North Dakota. You call it in your piece, I’m going to quote, “A complex, highly altered and highly threatened ecosystem that stretches some 1.4 million square miles down Central Canada and through the US Heartland, all the way down to Mexico.”

David, let’s take those adjectives one at a time. How is the prairie system complex?

David Unger: The prairie is home to hundreds of species. We have mammals, amphibians, reptiles, birds. Home to a lot of the pollinators, butterflies and bees that we not only enjoy visually but who also play an integral role in the food supply and agriculture, quite frankly. Then, at the smaller level there’s all sort of algae and fungi, bacteria, these microscopic life forms. Oftentimes, people will say that there’s more microscopic life forms in a teaspoon of soil then there are people on Earth, so it’s a very, again, rich and complex … There’s a lot going on, in a way that you wouldn’t necessary think about if you just looked at this flat landscape from a distance.

David Corcoran: How did it come to be this way?

David Unger: A few billion years of geological history to bring it to where it is now, but really the majority of it happened within the past 10,000 years, after the last glaciers retreated from North America. Especially in North Dakota and the region I was in. We were in a spot called The Prairie Pothole region, which is essentially this series of potholes, right, small indentations and rocky grooves in the landscape that were left behind as the icebergs retreated and brought with them a whole lot of rich, nutrient plant life, animal life that had died and been regenerated in the land over thousands of years, quite literally, so it’s been this process over a long amount of time of plants and animals dying and then decomposing and then absorbing, giving life to new animals, which then absorb some life through the plants and it’s this circle of life that has just been making and building rich, futile soil over thousands of years.

David Corcoran: At one time, wasn’t the prairie home to herds and herds of American buffalo?

David Unger: Correct. Yeah. Numbering its peak in the tens of millions and they’re these kind of almost mythical creatures now. Sometimes I almost confuse them with the wooly mammoth in the sense of, is it even really around anymore and it is. The bison was hunted nearly to extinction. I think by the early 19th Century there was only about 1,000 of them left in North America but really the intervention of President Theodore Roosevelt, along with other conservationists and decades of work by Native American tribal leaders have really resulted in bringing the species back from what looked like complete obliteration.

David Corcoran: Many fewer buffalo, no doubt. You say in your piece that the prairie is highly altered. It doesn’t necessarily look that way to the untrained observer. If you fly over it or drive on the interstate, it kind of looks intact. In what sense has it been so altered?

David Unger: Yeah. I think that’s a great point and I think there’s really two major reasons for that, right? The first is that we don’t have a sense of the scope of what’s changed, right? We have never seen a North Dakota or an Iowa or an Illinois that is an ocean of grass in the sense that Europeans who arrived here 200 years ago described it. We only know the landscape we know now and how it’s looked over the past few decades or so and really the science shows us that 79% of grasslands of Central North America have basically been plowed over or developed roughly between when the Europeans arrived here and now, essentially. In some places that number is even higher.

The other sense that I think we don’t think that it’s altered, is that in many cases, it’s being replaced by agriculture, right? It’s not the typical development we might think of in terms of strip malls and the exurbs. These are plants being replaced with other plants but just much more monoculture plants as opposed to a diverse polyculture.

David Corcoran: Right, so plants being replaced by other plants but very different kinds of plants. You say that the prairie is highly threatened. In what sense is it highly threatened?

David Unger: There’s a wide range of different factors that play into this here. Some of the economic, some of the policy, some of them just environmental components. I think the core threat that I think a lot of people are thinking about, at least in the region, is really the decline of government programs that have protected some of these grasslands, chief among them the Conservation Reserve Program, which is a program that essentially pays farmers or ranchers or landowners to set aside grasslands or wetlands to take them out of production, essentially, to not plow them. There are other things they can do with them in terms of grazing and things like that but to essentially set them aside so that we can preserve some of these lands and they can act as buffers for various runoff of different potential pollutants.

In that program, enrollment in it has been steadily declining for roughly the past decade or so and in 2014, when Congress enacted its latest farm bill, the enrollment cap in that program was reduced and it’s already butting up against its maximum, so fewer and fewer farmers are going to be able to take advantage of that.

Then, really it’s economics. If commodity prices are high, there’s a lot of incentive for farmers to plow up land that might otherwise just be pristine grassland and there are factors that drive that, right? Biofuel policy is a huge part for a lot of people in the sense that it incentivizes farmers to grow corn that they can then sell to biofuel producers.

David Corcoran: And turn it into ethanol, which as we know from our gas stations is often blended into gasoline.

David Unger: Ethanol. Right. Yeah. It’s about 10% of the nation’s gasoline supply at this time and there’s a lot of benefits to that that people argue for but it’s been a controversial program in a lot of different ways. Then there’s oil production, there are wind farms creeping into North Dakota and we haven’t even talked about climate change, which is a whole other vulnerability and I think really the biggest probably vulnerability is just the lack of awareness about the prairie. People don’t necessarily think about it so much as an ecosystem that is in need of saving or even worth saving.

David Corcoran: Let’s talk a little bit more about that. As the prairie gets plowed under, what is being lost to the environment and to those of us who depend on the environment?

David Unger: Well, the irony here is that in a lot of ways when prairie is plowed over and replaced with food, right, corn or soybean or some other crop, a lot of times what’s lost is the agricultural productivity of that land, in the long term at least, right, because it’s that rich, complexity and diversity and all those different organisms and life forms cycling through the land that makes the soil so productive. It’s the reason why the Heartland was the breadbasket of the world for so long, right? It’s because we have this rich resource and when we lose that, we lose the productivity of that soil.

Then, there are other cultural and historic elements there too of the prairie being ingrained in our cultural DNA and our heritage and it’s part of the story of America settling that land and not to mention the people who lived there beforehand and the importance of the bison to Native populations and just the land itself of being a holy, sacred place. That holy, sacredness, religious component of it, still exists there too for a lot of people who work on this land today. What does it say about humans as a species if we plow through 100% of our grassland without looking back?

David Corcoran: I’m glad you mentioned the human species because for a big part of your story are some of the people who are engaged in this struggle to either preserve the prairie and protect it or to benefit from the land as people has for centuries. Can you talk about some of these characters that you met?

David Unger: Neil Shook stands out in my mind. He manages a wildlife refuge for the US Fish and Wildlife Service in North Dakota. He’s just one of these people who, he’s got sort of an infectious passion for the prairie and he’s all about getting your hands dirty and literally sticking plant species up your nose to get the full brunt force of this landscape and yeah, he’s kind of one of these quiet people who have a labor of love out there, doing what they can to protect this land but what’s interesting about Neil, and I think about some of these other people in the story, is that while there is obviously, a lot standing historical tension between conservationists or environmentalists versus farmers or agriculture or whoever, that line is blurry.

People like Neil, who obviously has a strong conservationist streak in him but understands the economic realities of the situation and he’s sympathetic toward these farmer families who ultimately decide to burn up a piece of prairie and plant corn there because they have to put food on the table and whatever.

I think about on the other end of that, there’s a person like Darrell Oswald Jr, who’s a rancher also in North Dakota and he’s, I think, fourth generation. He’s been doing it his whole life and his family has too and again, there you have somebody who, you know, he’s a rancher. He’s working the land but he’s also an incredible evangelist almost for some of these more forward thinking sustainable agriculture and ranching processes and he’s kind of soil health first approaches to his work that for some others in North Dakota, might sound totally weird and not like how their grandparents did it so they’re not interested but, I don’t know and I think that’s one of the things that’s kind of optimistic about all this, is some of that interbreeding and some of that dialogue that I think is occurring in some ways out on this landscape.

David Corcoran: You write about a really interesting contrast between the areas in North Dakota, where they’re trying to, well some people anyway, are trying to protect prairie that has not yet been lost and then, down in Illinois, there’s an effort to actually bring back prairie where it no longer exists. Can you talk about that a little?

David Unger: They choose the grasslands as this fascinating little piece of tall grass prairie about a couple hours west of Chicago. They’re part of the Nature Conservancy, which is this broad global environmental organization but it’s this scrappy crew of one or two staff members but then a whole family of volunteers who work that land and they’re really excited because they’ve been so successful with the lands that they’ve been tending to that they’ve been able to grow that preserve and they’re, as I write in the piece, whereas I think Shook is, Neil Shook out in North Dakota is just trying to hold on to what he has.

The folks at Nachusa are really kind of eyeing the corn fields across the street as, “Can we raise enough funds to buy this and restore it to what it once was?” They, a couple years ago, were the first to reintroduce essentially free range bison onto the land in Illinois for the first time since the 1830s maybe and there are other places too. You’ve got Madewin, which is a government run preserve that’s south of Chicago and all sorts of these places. These little islands of … You can kind of go there and look around and get at least a little bit of a sense of what the landscape looked like 200 years ago.

David Corcoran: In your reporting, did you get any sense of what the long-term outlook is for these grasslands, especially now that we have an administration in Washington that seems to have priorities other than land conservation?

David Unger: It’s hard to know. My sense is the outlook overall is probably not the greatest and really it comes down to the population. What Americans ultimately find important, as you sort of alluded to. When’s the last time you went to a Save the Prairie rally, right? I mean, it doesn’t exist in the American consciousness today in the same way that maybe the rainforest does or the oceans do, right, so in that sense, I think the outlook isn’t so great because that does not translate then to this being a high priority policy-wise. Again, you don’t … There’s a lot you don’t see debated in presidential debates but certainly one among them is whether or not to preserve our grasslands or not but that may sound pessimistic.

I think on the flip side, as I said, it does seem like there’s little inklings of understanding in terms of folks of both sides of this argument or this debate or whatever, trying to find a middle ground and these a lot of excitement around some of these farming practices, which aren’t anything new. Crop covers, rotating your crops, and there’s hope that there can be this balance found between growing the productive food that we need to grow while also maintaining this landscape in at least some sort of form that would be recognizable to our ancestors.

David Corcoran: David J Unger is a Chicago based writer and reporter who has written for Midwest Energy News, the Christian Science Monitor, the Atlantic and now Undark. His reporting for this story was made possible in part by a fellowship from the Institute For Journalism and Natural Resources.

David, many thanks for joining us.

David Unger: Thanks for having me.

David Corcoran: Joining us now is Seth Mnookin, our commentator on science in the media. Hello Seth.

Seth Mnookin: Hello. How are you?

David Corcoran: I’m good, thank you. The March for Science. It happened.

Seth Mnookin: It happened.

David Corcoran: Actually, a big march in Washington and then many smaller ones around the country and even the world. I think the big debate going in was that ordinary people who don’t pay that much attention to science, might see this march as just part of the big anti-Trump resistance movement and therefore just more politics. How do you think all that played out at the march?

Seth Mnookin: Well, I think there are a couple of interesting issues contained within that tension and one is how much it matters what “ordinary people” think about the march and whether it will have any positive or negative affect, whether the public at large sees the march or the actions of the marchers as being part of the anti-Trump movement.

In terms of what the marchers, to the extent that you can speak about a group that large with any sort of broad strokes, in terms of what they were hoping to accomplish, I think emphasizing the importance and need to fund science and take science seriously were two the big things that they set out to accomplish and to that end, if they were able to mobilize people to call representatives, to mobilize people to talk to local officials I think that’s going to be perceived as a positive impact regardless of whether or not some of this Trump diehards view this as part of the overall opposition to Trump.

David Corcoran: I went on the March for Science website and I see that one of the big hashtags that they’re using is #NoSidesinScience and then, further to what you were talking about, there’s a postcard that you can print out and send to your legislature that just says, “Science is essential. Support science funding,” so obviously there’s a concerted effort on the part of the organizers to make this as inclusive as possible.

Seth Mnookin: Yeah. Although, I mean, in some ways that rings a little bit false to me. I mean, clearly the march would not have occurred had Trump not been elected. The reason it’s occurring is because Trump, in words and actions and appointments, has showed a flagrant and shocking disregard really for reality and all of its various forms, so I understand why there is a need and a push to present this as nonpartisan and I’ve heard people say that Republicans get cancer just as Democrats do but I think that the fact of the matter is, and you can see this in the signs that were at the march, that the reason that the science community felt that this was something that was important and necessary to do is because, at the moment we have a President who really has shown a shocking disregard for science, so whereas in the past you might have heard conversations about how important it was that elected officials understand the importance of basic research, the discussions really shifted to just making sure that people understand the importance of facts as they are established by science.

David Corcoran: I was chatting with a producer for the great public radio show, Science Friday and she told me that NPR reporters were told that they could cover the science march but couldn’t march in the science march, which goes to a conundrum that we’ve talked about on this podcast, which is science is supposed to be about facts and science is clearly supposed to be non-partisan but for the media, for mainstream reporters, there is still a wall, if you will, between covering something and actively participating in it.

Seth Mnookin: Yeah. You know, I think it’s something that is still being navigated, not just among science journalists, but among journalists in general and we’re in an unprecedented period where you have an elected leader who has made essentially the cornerstone of his brand and his governing approach, a break with reality and it presents challenges to reporters because regardless of where you fall on the political spectrum, a reporter should be an advocate for reality, so you see what is going on right now in the science media taking place in, I think all different realms of media. Certainly taking place in business, obviously taking place in politics and different outlets are handling that in different ways.

You have someone like David Fahrenthold who just won the Pulitzer Prize for the Washington Post for investigative reporting on Trumps charities or lack of charitable giving therein and I think during the election, a lot of people probably viewed that as sort of partisan reporting but at the same time, it was just awarded the highest prize in journalism, so obviously there is a sentiment within the industry as a whole that that is not partisan journalism but necessary journalism.

That’s exactly what you see happening in science. From a personal standpoint, I wasn’t at the march but if I was there, I would’ve been more comfortable as a reporter than as a marcher. That’s just how I’m wired but I think that the approach that NPR took, this sort of cut and dried, you are either there as an observer or you cannot be there at all. I think it’s going to be harder and harder to navigate that line and that question the way that we have traditionally because of the different ways that Trump is challenging our notions of what it means to be an advocate for reality in 2017.

David Corcoran: One of the big issues they had going in was an internal debate within the main march organization about diversity. Do you see a kind of ongoing tension here between people whose main concern is social justice and those who are more focused on the whole question of scientific integrity?

Seth Mnookin: One of the fascinating things that’s happening right now is that you have this emphasis on the importance of not just science but basic scientific principles at the same time that there’s also a very important and necessary reckoning within all branches of science and all elements of science and science journalism about how inclusive the field and fields have been traditionally. You see that in terms of the revelations about sexual harassment that have come out over the past couple of years, both within science and in science journalism. You see that in the discussions about minority representation within sciences and within science journalism and I mean that across all different types of minorities, not just in terms of race or gender.

One of the things that those of us who love science, I think find appealing about it is that it’s not neat and tidy and easy to contain and I think that that’s going to continue to be something that is going to bubble up to the forefront and I think it’s a good thing that it’s bubbling up to the forefront. I certainly understand why practitioners and supporters of science feel that, “Well, you know, it’s unfortunate that this needs to be happening at the same time that we’re trying to highlight how what we’re doing is good,” but I think it’s really important to point out that the people who are making those arguments, have benefited from it not being diverse and not being as inclusionary as it could be, so I had no problem seeing those tensions come out and I think it actually, if you look at some of the debates leading up to the march and then you look at what happened at the march, it seemed like some of those tensions worked out in ways that worked out pretty well.

I think those voices that are advocating for inclusion, are really important in a micro and a macro sense. They’re really important because it’s important to have more inclusion and it’s also really important because if we as a community want to stress the importance of science, it’s crucial that we do that in a way that includes the entire world and not just those portions of the world that have traditionally benefited from being in positions of authority.

David Corcoran: Seth Mnookin is our media and science commentator. He’s the author of a number of books about science and journalism, including the Panic Virus and he’s director of the graduate program and science writing at MIT.

Hundreds of conservation areas are being created every year as countries commit to meeting the UN’s goal of protecting 17% of land by 2020, but this encouraging news masks a significant defect. Indigenous groups across the world are facing another threat to their traditional way of life as newly established parks make their hunting and gathering lifestyle illegal.

As it turns out, equipping indigenous people with rights to their traditional land, may be the best way to conserve forests. After all, it’s what they’ve been doing for thousands of years. Reporter Katrin Redfern spent time with the Hadza tribe in Tanzania and she tells our next story.

Katrin Redfern: The sun is just beginning to light the valley and we’re on the hunt for honey. Koiyabe and Benja are whistling for someone to lead the way. There’s a response from above. A small brown and white bird swoops down to land in a acacia tree and uses a call it only uses to talk to humans.

The bird is called Tik’iliko the honey guide. The tribe I’m staying with have developed a symbiotic relationship with the bird, which leads them to sources of wild honey. Without the bird, humans cannot find the bees nests, without humans, the birds cannot get into them.

The honey guide and the honey hunter communicate back and forth through a series of whistles and the bird guides them tree by tree to the nest.

We follow the bird to a distant Baobab tree. The honey hunter pounds wooden stakes into the trunk to form a ladder, climbs to the next and smokes it out with burning brush. The honey guide patiently waits and as the honey hunter obtains the honeycomb, the bird is rewarded with its delicious prize, wax and larvae from the bees.

For me, this co-evolved relationship between species, is amazing to witness. For Benja’s people, a tribe called the Hadza, it’s just the start of a normal day on the edge of the Serengeti Plains.

The Savannah’s and Grasslands of Northern Tanzania are one of the world’s most spectacular landscapes and today, these majestic sights create a wildlife corridor for elephants, lions, giraffes, and many other animals. This peaceful landscape is also the backdrop of conflict over who owns rights to the land. The Hadza continue in the lifestyle they’ve been living for tens of thousands of years but all around them, society has modernized.

Now, huge swaths of land have been designated as protected, which sounds great but unfortunately, as things stand currently, conserving this land means the Hadza can no longer live on it.

If the Hadza had not remained nomadic but had instead built structures, villages, they could have more easily secured rights to their ancestral land but since their lifestyle leaves no trace, it’s very difficult for the Hadza to prove what land is theirs.

Edward Lekaita is a lawyer for Ujamaa Community Resource Trust, a local organization in Tanzania working with tribal people.

Edward Likita: There are people who believe that they have lost lands to conservation because they kept land and [inaudible 00:31:02] and therefore it was prone, prone to be taken for conservation policies.

Katrin Redfern: There are 1300 or so Hadza left. A few hundred of them continuing to live a lifestyle unchanged for tens of thousands of years. They speak a unique click language, preserve their history orally through storytelling and gather and hunt daily, not relying on domesticated animals or crops. They tell me, as we sit around the fire at night, that their culture has never known the starvation that come with crop and cattle failure.

“There’s no record of famine in our history at all,” they say.

Speaker 6: [Foreign language 00:31:37].

Katrin Redfern: The Hadza have very few possessions, no official leaders, no calendar besides the turn of the seasons. They live almost entirely in the present moment, continually hunting and foraging for their next meal but recently, they’ve had to start thinking about the future.

Speaker 6: [Foreign language 00:31:59].

Katrin Redfern: Within the last several decades, the Hadza have lost as much as 90% of their ancestral lands to conservation and the influx of [pastoralist 00:32:09] into the area. The Yaeda Valley, which is recently as 30 years ago, teamed with animals to rival any existing national park, now holds only fragments of past herds.

As the Hadza told me, when the wildlife is gone, so too will be their culture and one of our last links to an example of sustainability. This is an irony of the conservation movement in its current form, which pits indigenous people and habitat protection against each other. Billions of dollars are being poured into creating protected areas, which outlaw the very hunter/gatherers who do the most for conservation efforts.

Daudi Peterson has worked closely with hunter/gatherer tribes in East Africa for over 50 years.

Daudi Peterson: The Hadza, along with other hunter/gatherer groups, are really the only examples we have of sustainable societies. They’re the original conservationists.

Katrin Redfern: In order to preserve what little is left of their ancestral lands, the Hadza have been forced to prove that they have president to use the land. As you can imagine, it’s difficult for a people’s whose lifestyle leaves little trace to legally prove they’ve been living there for tens of thousands of years but in 2013, the Hadza achieved an historic win to hold onto a portion of their ancestral homeland.

This was achieved through an innovative tool. One that gives land titles to communities instead of individuals. Called a Certificate of Customary Right of Occupancy, or CCRO, it provides legal ownership to land held in common. The Hadza were the first to use this legal tool to secure land for a whole community.

Edward Likita’s organization, Ujamaa, helped secure the CCRO.

Edward Likita: You should talk about Hadza lifestyle and their practices and their cultures. Land is not really about a private property. It’s really about a communal property, so we then had to engage in discussions with the government on how to introduce the first group CCRO.

Katrin Redfern: The process involved dozens of community meetings but the effort was worth it. The Hadza gained title to 57,000 acres, a relatively small but critical slice of their original land. Since then, three additional sections have been added. It’s only 10% of their original land but it’s a good start.

Speaker 6: [Foreign language 00:34:31].

Katrin Redfern: Since the land titles were granted, threatened populations of important wildlife species, including Impala, Kudu and buffalo have begun to stabilize or even increase, Kangita, a Hadza tells me. “Some animals we have not seen in years are back,” she says.

These wins provide evidence of the effectiveness of this legal tenure instrument and scaling up this approach could be key to protecting other cultures facing growing threats. Can this be replicated in other parts of Africa and the rest of the world where there is still the need to ensure local people directly benefit for conservation efforts? Edward Lekaita again.

Edward Likita: It depends on the legal set-up of particular countries but one thing for sure is that as long as there are groups who still share this [inaudible 00:35:27] community, I mean, this would be the best model to apply in other countries.

Katrin Redfern: With CCRO’s in place, many Hadza are continuing their traditional way of life. For now, their singing and storytelling around the evening fire will continue to be heard in the Yadea Valley. For Undark, I’m Katrin Redfern.

Speaker 6: [Foreign language 00:35:48].

David Corcoran: That’s all for this episode of Undark, a project of the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT. Our show is produced by Katie Hiler. We’ll be back next month with more news and interviews from the intersection of science and society. Until then, I’m David Corcoran for Undark.

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