Conserving Biodiversity Under Private Land Law

How do we explain the opposition to conservation easements? After all, isn’t an easement merely the expression of a private landowner’s intent as to how land will be used, no different from a decision to plow a field, dig a mine, build a house, hotel or airfield?

The answer is in the laws and customs that support private land ownership.  These land laws evolved over the last several centuries almost exclusively to encourage transformation of land into a human mold.  As Sax says: “A piece of iron becomes an anvil, a tree becomes lumber, and a forest becomes a farm.”  Traditional property law treats undeveloped land as inert and passive, waiting to be put to use; it considers the natural functions of the land, such as providing habitat for biodiversity, as expendable.  Through recent times, land law has been employed, essentially, to end the existence of natural systems.

Dirt road dissects private land in Stanton County, Nebraska. Image Credit: Jamie Bachmann

When  private landowners expand their intentions of how land should be used to include the ecological concept of protecting biodiversity, they move beyond the common interpretations of land use and law.  The ecological perspective views land as a system that performs valuable functions in its natural state, while the conventional perspective encourages the transformation of nature to achieve the goals of the Industrial Revolution.  Herein lies the source of the tension.

 

In the 21st Century, society requires a system of land laws that are equally attuned to protecting the remains of our biological heritage, restoring degraded waters and landscapes, and renewing forests and grasslands to play a positive role in controlling climate change.

Viewed this way, a conservation easement appears as a small but necessary step in the evolution of private land law. Just as land law evolved to support the Industrial Revolution, it now must evolve to support the new requirements of contemporary society.

JHD

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Surprise Violets

Jen Corman, Coordinating Wildlife Biologist

Northern Prairies Land Trust

 

I ask a lot of questions when I walk through prairies and the Nebraska weather this year contributed to that process. The weather in 2017 was a yoyo. An unusually wet spring led to a hot, dry summer. The weather favored cool-season grasses, which do most of their growing in May and June and stunted warm-season grasses that do most of their growing in July and August. With little rain and intense heat, many plants in our prairies went dormant sooner than usual. Then we were treated to a warm, wet fall and we started to

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An (admittedly blurry) prairie violet (Viola pedatifida) blooms on Oct. 9, 2017 in Knox County, Nebraska.

see some fun, weird things start flowering, like violets. Violets are usually one of the first flowers to bloom in spring. Prairie violet generally finishes blooming by late May or early June and then is finished for the year. But in 2017, we were seeing prairie violets break dormancy and bloom again in October, like the one below that I photographed on Oct. 9 in Knox County.

Violets are the required food for caterpillars of regal fritillary butterflies, which have been steadily disappearing from our continent in step with the loss of North America’s violet-rich tallgrass and mixed grass prairies. An estimated 1-4% of our tallgrass prairie remains. Nebraska contains some of the US’s most intact prairie, making our state an important harbor for regal fritillary butterflies.

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Prairie Violet Photo Credit: Fontenelle Nature Association

But our regal fritillary caterpillars are not hatching in October so they were not feeding on the violets that bloomed in October, nor were there many insects at all to pollinate the violets. A little digging into violet biology taught me that while regal fritillaries need prairie violets, prairie violets do not necessarily need pollinators to produce seeds. In addition to the purple flower that is pollinated, a second type of flower with no petals can be found on the plant at ground level. Those ground-level flowers self-fertilize to produce seeds and appear to exist precisely because violets bloom so early in the spring that there may not be many pollinators around. With a second bloom in the fall, maybe we received a second dose of violet seeds to grow next spring, despite the lack of pollinators.

An interesting challenge for an unusual violet bloom in the fall is that the violets will be at a height disadvantage compared to when they bloom in the spring. In the spring, plants are just beginning to grow, so short plants like prairie violets have a chance to compete for sunlight. But in the fall, the 3-6 in. tall violets were blooming in the shade of taller grasses and other tall plants like asters that had had a full growing season to top the violets in height. Which made me ask: could the fall break in dormancy potentially stress the violet plants by using up valuable energy stores to bloom at a time when the shaded plants cannot access sun to store enough energy for next year?  Violets grow from a rhizome root system, so it is unlikely that a single season would affect their long-term energy stores, but what if fall blooms become more common in a changing climate?

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A regal fritillary butterfly drinks nectar on a red clover in June. Regal fritillary caterpillars feed on violets. Photo credit: Kelly Corman, NPLT

Timing is everything. I wonder how climate change may affect regal fritillaries and their host violets. As our climate shifts and the timing of rain and temperature swings change, will the timing of caterpillar hatch and violet bloom change in the same ways in response? Or will they begin to mismatch? What does this mean for our prairie butterflies?

Welcome

Thank you for visiting.  We intend this blog to be a place for NPLT current and former biologists, partners, educators or landowners to compile and document our paths in conserving the ecological life and integrity of the prairie ecosystem.

There are many divergent paths that we take in our professional and personal lives to extend our understanding and connection to this place we dearly love and strive to protect.  Creating legally sound easements for conservation minded landowners, putting management plans to work on the ground or providing prescribed fire training to ensure a deep understanding of fire ecology. But also we find ourselves on paths that stir within us our emotional connections to this land.  The questions we stumble upon while on a hike,  the defeat we feel when we are forced to take ‘two steps back’ and watch years of conservation effort buried in rich farm soil or the inspiration that fills us when we read a passage from A Sand County Almanac.  The pendulum swings across a wide spectrum of knowledge, experience, perceptions, mistakes and unanswered questions.

Northern Prairies Land Trust hopes this blog can be a space to share our stories and interact with our prairie community.  Thanks for stopping by.

If you would like to contribute please contact Jamie Bachmann: Jamie.bachmann@nebraska.gov