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Larkin Powell: The Best of Intentions

Searching for Memories on an Altered Landscape

By Jon Augustine

If you’re old enough to have childhood memories, chances are you’re old enough to have witnessed a land use change. Maybe the woods behind your parents’ home has morphed into rows of new houses. Maybe the creek where you caught your first fish now boasts a parking lot for a big box store. Maybe a particularly picturesque farmstead is now a collection of crumbling structures engulfed by overgrown weeds.

These landscape changes come big and small, and often so gradually that they go unnoticed. That said, many long-time residents of the Great Plains can and will tell you this much: where they once saw diverse prairie habitats, they now see cropland.

Studies examining recent rates of grassland, wetland, and shrubland loss in the country’s midsection have revealed head-turning statistics. A research report published by the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) in March 2013 concluded that grassland-to-cropland conversion rates across “significant portions of the US Western Corn Belt” from 2001 to 2011 were similar to rates of rainforest conversion in Brazil, Malaysia, and Indonesia during the 1980s and 1990s (1.0 to 5.4 percent annually).

The report also suggested that, especially in Nebraska, a noticeable fraction of the conversion occurs on marginal lands that are poorly suited for crop production.

Culprits, victims, and beneficiaries of this habitat loss are somewhat debatable, but what is uncontestable is the reality that the Great Plains’ landscapes have been drastically altered over the last century and a half. What was once a grassy wilderness is now a vast agro-industrial zone -- a place where the landscape struggles to support both biodiversity and the crop-based commodities that our times demand.

This is not news to Larkin Powell, a professor of conservation biology and wildlife ecology at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Since his childhood days on a family farm in rural Iowa, Powell has been taking notice of the landscape changes around him -- and how easy it is to forget how things used to be.

“We drive around on our landscapes today and we’re only familiar with what we see today,” said Powell, who added, “We can kind of remember what was there last week. There’s this ‘landscape perception’ field of study that suggests that people don’t do well -- in our brains -- of keeping track of little changes that happen.”

According to Powell these often forgettable landscape changes have resulted in big impacts on everything from local biodiversity to human diets to cultural and societal features like architecture, hobbies, and rural populations.

Most of Powell’s professional research is focused on the behaviors and what he calls the “life history” of prairie wildlife in changing landscapes. And while the data he gathers are useful from a scientific perspective, they don’t always help the public visualize -- or care about -- the tangible impacts of human activities on natural landscapes.

So, more recently, Powell has set off on an effort to gather something else: the collective memories of prairie life. Specifically, he scours county historical societies and the Nebraska State Historical Museum archives for photographs and articles from relatively recent but nonetheless forgotten times. The end result will be a book that “makes people reflect a little bit, at least,” he said.

A portrait of homesteaders showing off a stack of elk antlers where elk no longer exist; a photo of a butcher selling pronghorn for Christmas dinners; an image of a farmer installing an irrigation system with his sons; aerial photographs of farmsteads morphing into fields of row crops over time -- together these images become a biography of the landscape over the last 150 years, a recorded history of human pursuits and the way in which they have affected other species on the prairie. The goal is to fill in the gaps of memory loss, to “make cross-connections,” said Powell, between our behaviors and some of their unnoticed repercussions.

“We’ve slowly been converting grasslands to cropland or modifying the way we farm, slowly over time,” he said. “So the question right now is, if that speed of conversion has gone up like statistics suggest, are we close to a tipping point with some of these species?”

On a recent flight to the Sandhills of western Nebraska, Powell said he looked out the window of the plane and wondered, “If I were a pheasant or a meadowlark…where would I go?”

Powell’s project is coming together under the working title “The Best of Intentions,” which he said he chose because it’s important to acknowledge that people don’t alter the landscape because they have ill intentions for wildlife. It happens, he said, “out of the necessity to meet demands, and out of the desire to support a family.”

“I really think that sometimes -- as people who are interested in conservation -- we have a tendency to kind of point fingers and say, ‘Why don’t they get it?’” Powell said. “The point of it is, it just happens. It’s not a pointing-fingers book. This is what we’ve done as a society, and there are things that will happen, and this is how our landscape changes.”

Powell believes that the photographs and stories he has found could help landowners to recall the slow progression of changes that have impacted their land. “You can sit down with somebody and look at what the land looked like on their place and they’ll be like, ‘Yeah, I guess it really has changed more than I thought it did.’”

“Will it alter the course of the future? I’m not sure,” said Powell. “But I think it makes us think, at least a little bit, about the impact we can have on the landscape. Learning from the past, learning from our history, looking at our landscape in a new way helps us see a future we might not have thought of."