Restorative recreation: One landowner’s restoration experience in Iowa’s Loess Hills

In his latest From Practice article, author and landowner Patrick Swanson describes his experience restoring a native prairie remnant in Iowa’s Loess Hills and introduces a new paradigm that maximizes benefits to personal wellbeing while improving the landscape for other species.

This article is part of the cross-journal, cross-society Special Feature on the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration.

Ecosystems worldwide are under mounting stress from human-induced impacts: conversion, loss of historic grazing and fire regimes, introduction of invasive species, pesticide use, contamination by pollutants, and climate change. Collectively, these impacts have significant adverse effects on habitat quality, quantity and connectivity, biodiversity and resilience, ecosystem services (such as stormwater retention), and the positive health benefits of human interaction with nature.

How are we to reverse this decline? There are certainly policy decisions and financial incentives (or disincentives) that can be used to address these causes, but can individuals really make a difference?

My experience restoring a degraded native prairie remnant suggests the answer is an unequivocal “yes”!  But for this to happen, we need to re-evaluate how we interact with the landscape.

West pano

Restorative recreation

Of the multiple ways we interact with the landscape, one area I feel that deserves some attention and reflection is our use of the outdoors for recreation. The outdoor recreation economy represents a sizeable portion of total GDP in the United States, estimated at 2.1% in 2019. Outdoor recreation and immersion in nature offers many important physical and mental health benefits, but oftentimes the ecosystems where we recreate serve as nothing more than a backdrop to our activities, with little recognition or direct benefit given to the flora and fauna calling that place home. 

Restorative recreation seeks to reimagine the paradigm of outdoor recreation, shifting what is essentially a consumptive activity, where the benefits mostly accrue to the individual, to a productive activity, where the individual and the ecosystem mutually benefit from each other’s presence through efforts to restore native habitat. Thus, ecological restoration activities are viewed as a form of recreation that is also restorative to body, mind and spirit in ways that simply recreating in a natural area (such as hiking through a park) does not fully capture.

Direct participation in ecosystem restoration activities is felt to be integral for maximizing health benefits as it fosters a greater knowledge of local ecology. This in turn increases awareness of one’s connectivity to place, and improves one’s sense of purpose and wellbeing.

The concept of restorative recreation emerged through my efforts to restore a native prairie remnant in Iowa’s Loess Hills that has been overtaken by eastern redcedar. The work mainly involved removing redcedar using a forestry mulcher or a chainsaw, treating for encroaching brush and some invasive species, and conducting prescribed fires.

cedar stand and prairie
Hand clearing cedars using a chain saw has been slower and more methodical, but the recovery of the prairie involved less weediness, with native species rapidly recolonizing to the edge of the clearings

Although the barren landscape left after mulching was jarring to look at, and the early years following cedar removal had abundant weedy species, native grasses and forbs gradually recovered and became dominant, increasing habitat diversity significantly compared to the cedar monoculture that was there when I started this project. 

Crab spider
Prairie wildflowers and their visitors have become much more abundant as a result of the cedar clearing. These ecological relationships have been especially gratifying to witness, such as in this picture of a flower crab spider (Misumena spp.) that has captured a Common Roadside Skipper (Amblyscirtes vialis) nectaring on native Locoweed (Oxytropis lambertii)

In the video below, I show how invasion by eastern redcedars into formerly open prairie has greatly reduced grassland habitat, and how their removal has rejuvenated the ecosystem. I also describe the process by which I remove the cedars for later burning, and how I take time at the end of a day’s work to reflect and appreciate what the ecosystem has offered to me in return.

Read the full article: “Restorative recreation: One landowner’s experience restoring a cedar-infested native prairie remnant in Iowa’s Loess Hills” in Issue 2:2 of Ecological Solutions and Evidence.

Discover more articles from our cross-journal, cross-society Special Feature on the UN Decade on Ecosystem Restoration.

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