Here in Colorado, the mountains are the show. Their dramatic rise out of the landscape has had us humans enthralled for centuries. We hike up them, ski down them and marvel in awe while taking photos of them. However, mountains are only half the story of Colorado. Short-grass prairie lands make up the other half of our state and while they may lack the wonderment of the mountains, these lands are still important to our economy, our environment and even our wellbeing. On Monday, October 27, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science hosted a lecture by The Nature Conservancy about the work the organization is doing to reverse grassland destruction in Patagonia, Argentina, and how those measures can help us here in Colorado and around the world.
Short-grass prairies or grasslands are vast tracts of land where there is not enough rain to sustain a forest, but there is enough rain to keep these lands from turning into desert. In these places, short perennial grasses, flowers and herbs are able to grow thus sustaining a population of native animals as well. These places are also called the world’s “Bread Basket” because these are the areas where farming and ranching happen. While the native plants and animals of Colorado’s grasslands might be different from those of Patagonia, the methods of polluting them as well as sustaining them are the same. Chris Pague, Senior Conservation Ecologist for The Nature Conservancy in Colorado and Carlos Fernandez, Southern Andes Conservation Strategies Manager gave a lecture to members of The Nature Conservancy in the Phillips IMAX Theater inside the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Fernandez, a native Argentinian, will be taking over as the Director of the Colorado Nature Conservancy Chapter in January. What he and Pague learned in Patagonia they will be able to apply here.
Both men say Patagonia is a mythical place to those who haven’t been , but once people see it, they tend to fall in love. Patagonia is a place of stark beauty and similar to Colorado in that the wide open plains of Argentina give way to the towering Andes Mountains in the west. Sheep and cattle ranchers here have been on their land for many generations and are worried about their way of life. Pague points out that in conservation, we often pay more attention to the tropics and forested land, land which often has protected status, instead of grasslands. However, the work of The Nature Conservancy is changing that. According to Pague, 30-40% of Colorado is considered grassland and less than 5% of that land is protected in the form of national parks and reserves. He goes on to say that grasslands are one of the few areas where the Conservancy works directly with private land owners instead of governments which creates a unique situation for the Conservancy.
Pague says there are three major threats to the world’s grasslands. The first is Fire. In the past fire was an important part of growth and recovery to grasslands, but as more and more people build structures on these lands, the use of fire has been greatly reduced. Fires help burn off old plants allowing room for new plants to grow. In the past native cultures set fire to those areas that needed burning, but as our need for permanent housing changed, burning land became less and less frequent.
The second threat to grasslands is Conversion, the changing of grasslands over to agriculture and housing development. This constitutes a loss of habitat for the animals that live in these areas and they either move to smaller tracts of land or die off. The third threat is Degradation, which is the overuse of grasslands by livestock. If left alone without management, livestock will simply eat an area bare of grasses. When grass disappears, it is more difficult for the land to hold water and for new plants to grow. Areas of overgrazing quickly turn to desert if left unattended.
Pague says that grasslands are important to our water supply. In the Andes, rain and snow from the mountains flow across the plains of Patagonia to the Atlantic Ocean. The grasslands help to purify this water as it heads to the coast. The same is true in Colorado as water on the eastern side of the Continental Divide makes its way across the Great Plains to the Mississippi River and on to the Gulf of Mexico. Issues like damming rivers for energy, irrigation for farmers and recreational use by fisherman are all affected by how the water flows through grasslands.
In research by The Nature Conservancy, Pague presented three benefits of grasslands that have been identified. The first is Culture. Tens of thousands of years ago, man evolved from the grasslands of Africa to cover the globe. Now that we live in cities and towns, we tend to forget that grasslands were once our home and some of the greatest civilizations come from grasslands. Tribes like the Maasai in Africa, the Sioux in North America and the Tehuelche of Patagonia. Pague also says that the traditional lifestyle of the Gauchos or cowboys of Patagonia are also suffering. Protecting grasslands protects these ways of life.
The second benefit is to our Economy. If ranchers and farmers cannot earn a living, there is no reason for them to protect the land they own. It also affects the price of food and goods that we here in cities buy. The third benefit of grasslands is the diversity of wildlife in these places. The creatures who live in our grasslands are just as unique as in the oceans and in forests and need to be protected. In Patagonia these animals include the Andean Condor, which can weigh up to 70 pounds (“Imagine an animal the size of a Labrador flying above your head,” Pague says to the chuckling crowd). The South American puma or mountain lion is one of many large cats that are on the brink of extinction and the Guanaco, small creatures similar to Llamas, that can only be found in Patagonia.
Pague then showed a short video to the audience about Patagonia grasslands so guests could see what the area was like. Vistas of empty spaces giving way to giant mountains in the distance reminded many of Colorado. If it weren’t for the occasional Guanaco roaming in some of the footage, one could easily mistake the film for being in Colorado.
Carlos Fernandez then took the podium to talk about how the Nature Conservancy has helped Patagonia recover from the three threats. The first and most important way to help the land is for ranchers to actively manage their lands. When the first sheep were brought over from England and Scotland more than 100 years ago, the area was considered so large that ranchers simply turned their sheep loose and let them graze wherever they wanted. The only fencing was a boundary fence to separate land holdings. As a result, the sheep would overgraze an area and then move on to the next and overgraze that spot. After 100 years, that took a toll. Now the Conservancy calls for ranchers to separate their land into paddocks with additional fencing and allowing only temporary grazing in each paddock. However, there some challenges to this. One is the manpower and money to build additional fencing on such large properties and the other is the ranchers’ need to move water to the sheep. To overcome these challenges the Nature Conservancy has gone into partnership with Patagonia, Inc. Clothing Company and a ranching cooperative in Argentina called Orvis XXI (21). In this partnership, Patagonia, Inc., will purchase premium wool for all of their products from the cooperative. The Nature Conservancy over the next five years will provide grants and funding to help ranchers build additional fences for paddocks and pipes and trucks for moving water. In exchange, Orvis XXI will manage the land and report on any progress and/or issues to the Conservancy for research. While all three organizations benefit from this partnership, the biggest beneficiary is the land itself.
Fernandez then presented another short video, this one by Patagonia, Inc., to show how this partnership is working. A representative from company talks about how factories tend to provide negatives to the environment in terms of energy use and pollution. However, through this partnership, the company not only hopes to lessen its impact on the environment, but to improve the environment in a positive way.
After the video, Pague and Fernandez took questions from the audience, mostly about how the partnership is progressing. Questions about water issues and predator control came up and while these are ongoing issues and challenges for Patagonia, Pague and Fernandez say positive change is taking place and even showed a photo of a rancher’s land. The land was split down the middle by a fence with land on the right side showing degradation and the other side showing considerable growth. The degraded land looked like a desert with small sand dunes rising up near the fence. Pague says the entire land in the photo was once degraded and that the change on left side of the fence took only two years to turn around. That bodes well for areas around the world.
Fernandez also showed a graphic of the world’s four great grassland landscapes and that the things the Conservancy is learning in Patagonia can be applied around the world. These places include a huge chunk of African, areas of Australia and the country of Mongolia as well as Colorado’s own Eastern Plains. As Pague and Fernandez concluded the lecture, Pague reminded the audience that Denver was located on what was once short-grass prairie land. With the mountains right next to us, it was easy to forget that.
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