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Rangelands produce important ecosystem services

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While participating in high school FFA and even more so during college, my perception of the landscape around me was transformed. Initially, I perceived the outdoor environment as a little grass, a few weeds and some trees. I eventually came to see the world as composed of many different species little bluestem, sideoats grama, western ragweed, prairie coneflower, post oak and Eastern red-cedar just to name a few. In reality, nothing had changed; but the way I saw it and thought about it had changed. I observed that landscape variation was typically not random it exhibited patterns. These patterns were largely related to soil, management and climate.

Observation of these patterns leads to expectations about where certain plants should be found. For example, native pecans grow in deep soils, especially beside streams and rivers. In the trans-Pecos of Texas, south-facing slopes have plants more tolerant of hot, dry conditions than do the north-facing slopes. Suddenly, the introduced smooth brome I saw waving on the prairie in Dances with Wolves was just as out of place to me as a contrail in the sky of an old Western. It was learning about plants that had allowed me to actually see individual species and their patterns. This helped me develop intuition about where the species would occur.

There is a principle of linguistic relativity that holds that the way we conceptualize our world is influenced by the structure of our language. I'm not sure this principle was intended to apply to the effects of our vocabulary, but, for me, expanding my vocabulary by learning about plant species enabled me to conceptualize my world differently. In 2005, the United Nations Millennium Ecosystem Assessment popularized the term "ecosystem services" and defined four categories of these services: provisioning, regulating, supporting and cultural services. About 35 percent of U.S. lands are classified as rangeland, and they provide our society with a variety of goods and services that support our standard of living and quality of life. Just like the incomplete landscape I saw as simply grass, weeds and trees, I wonder if our understanding of the services provided by our rangelands is not also a bit incomplete.

I suspect many people when asked, "What 'services' are derived from rangelands?" would simply answer "Raising cattle." Cattle are certainly one of the provisioning services rangelands provide, but would they also know that genetic resources, fresh water, deer and other wildlife species are also provisioning services derived from rangelands? What about the regulating services provided to air, water and erosion regulation as well as climate regulation via carbon sequestration? What about supporting services for nutrient cycling, water cycling and soil formation? What about the non-material cultural services such as aesthetic experience or recreation?

Would learning about all the ecosystem services our rangelands produce result in broader thinking about the state of our rangelands? Could we better communicate with our urban neighbors about both the market and non-market services that we provide? Would it open dialog about other services that are important and provide an opportunity to critically assess how well our rangelands are providing these services? Would this then encourage us to seek solutions where these services are being produced below expectation?

Ecosystem services have always been with us, but in some cases we just hadn't put names to them. Learning more about what ecosystem services are and what impact our management has on them will give us a more complete picture of what rangelands really produce. It will also provide an opportunity for greater dialogue about the way we manage these rangelands and the tradeoffs that exist among various ecosystem services so that we can produce the best combination of benefits for society.