Monday, February 1, 2010

An Interview with Cornelia F. Mutel

In the course of your research, what one fact did you find about the natural history of Iowa that surprised you? 
The fact that in addition to our rare natives, even many of our common species (e.g. blue jays, bullsnakes) are slowly declining – an event that signals that Iowa’s natural systems are being pushed to the breaking point. My gut-level depression from this knowledge was fortunately counteracted by seeing restored prairies and oak woodlands that are increasing in diversity, health, and integrity, where native species are increasing. Witnessing nature’s resilience, its willingness to return to Iowa’s overworked landscape, was perhaps my biggest surprise and joy.

What one item about the natural history of Iowa would you most like people to know about?
That restoring the health and integrity of native communities is both possible and necessary. Native species and communities provide ecological services that we cannot survive without. They supply pollinators of flowers and crops and natural pest controls. They cleanse water and air, build and hold soil, moderate weather extremes, and provide many more benefits – sustainably and at no cost. Thus restoring native diversity and our natural landscape will not only bring joy and peace to the heart, it will also foster Iowa’s environmental quality and our economy.

The Iowa River was recently named one of the most endangered waterways in America. Why is that and what can Iowans do to help rectify that?
Prior to Euroamerican settlement, Iowa’s waters ran crystalline clear. The plowing of the tallgrass prairie (which used to cover 80% of Iowa) removed the dense perennial vegetation and complex root systems that filtered precipitation and released water slowly into swales and creeks. Sediment (and, later, agricultural chemicals) then started to wash over the land surface, directly into streams. Returning health to our waterways depends on restoring the upland watersheds – getting a portion of the corn and soybean croplands (which now cover 2/3 of Iowa) back into healthy, preferably native, perennial vegetation. 

What is the impact of ethanol production on the ecosystem of Iowa? As so much of Iowa's economy is agriculturally based, how do we reach a happy medium between this potential economic boon and its ecological fallout?
If ethanol production increases the amount of Iowa’s land in cornfields and leads to the plowing of perennial set-aside lands (such as CRP plantings), it will increase water pollution and erosion and cause other environmental problems. Long-term environmental costs will likely exceed short-term economic gains. However, if techniques can be developed to produce ethanol from prairie plantings, this could increase the expanse of Iowa’s native perennial vegetation and improve our environment in multiple ways.

What do you think of the "greening" of America? Most people are now cognizant of the basics (such as recycling, using mass transit or carpooling, organic farming) but what else can the average American do to make a difference? What's the next step, as it were?
Most types of environmental activism are to be applauded. But I think that people only work for what they know and love, deep in their guts. Thus we need to encourage more Iowans, and especially our children, to fall in love with nature: to spend time outside where they can see and take joy in the returning of neotropical migrants each spring, and celebrate the blooming of native wildflowers in restored oak woodlands, and nurse patches of prairie plants back to health. Recognizing these native species requires a bit of education. I hope that The Emerald Horizon will help provide that education to a broad, diverse audience.

What is your hope and vision for the future of the environment of the Midwest and specifically Iowa? How can it be achieved? Conversely, what will happen to Iowa if we aren't willing to change?
I envision an Iowa where natural communities once again intergrade our working landscape throughout the state – and native species thrive and spread, diversifying and beautifying the landscape and fostering environmental health and stability. This is possible only through the commitment of Iowans and the dedication and support of our government.  Without that commitment, we will continue to lose the species that have provided Iowa with its rich agricultural soils and culture – and we will suffer in multiple ways from that loss.

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