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Iowan, landscape ecologist, and MacArthur genius says she'll keep looking for small changes with big impacts

Omar de Kok-Mercado
Iowa State University
"I kind of think of myself as trying to take Iowa's native ecosystem, prairie, which did a great job of building soil and cleaning water and providing habitat, and then think about how we integrate that back in to key parts of the landscape,"

The prestigious MacArthur Fellows Program, unofficially known as the "Genius Grant," is awarded to between 20 and 30 individuals by the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation every year. The fellows can work in any field, and the foundation says that "the fellowship is not a reward for past accomplishment, but rather an investment in a person's originality, insight, and potential." That investment comes in the form of $625,000, “no strings attached.” Since 1981, fewer than 1,000 Americans have been named as fellows.

Landscape ecologist Lisa Schulte Moore is a professor in the Department of Natural Resource Ecology and Management and associate director of the Bioeconomy Institute atIowa State University. She is also, as of last month, a MacArthur genius. Schulte Moore talked about her work and the honor on River to River.

On her work as a landscape ecologist

“Landscape ecologists, we are ecologist by training. We study the patterns and processes in nature specifically. But landscape ecology really incorporates the human dimensions as well, or at least some landscape ecologists do.

“What landscape ecologists do is they study spatial patterns and the processes that give rise to those spatial patterns, or how patterns are, or how processes are affected as a result of spatial patterns. And so, what does that mean? Well, for me, think about when you are up in a plane, and you're flying over the landscape and you see, all of these different shapes out of the plane window: you see the farm field, you see the streams, the trees along the stream sides, you see urban areas. I study those patterns and then, what gives rise to those patterns, and what is the impact of those patterns, with regards to the goods and services that we humans need to derive from our landscapes.”

“I usually think of myself as kind of trying to take the best of both of those worlds and put them together in really smart ways. So the pioneers, when they when they came to this area, they didn't know how to eat the prairie basically, right? So they converted the land to other land uses that they did know how to make use of. And of course, as history marches on, humans have improved upon that, in terms of the productivity of that landscape, so that we could support even more of civilization with our amazing Midwestern soils. However, we all know that there's some downsides associated with that productivity, and that the way we manage it has a big impact on our soils, it has a big impact on our waterways. It leaves less land for our native wildlife. And so I kind of think of myself as trying to take Iowa's native ecosystem, prairie, which did a great job of building soil and cleaning water and providing habitat, and then think about how we integrate that back in to key parts of the landscape, recognizing that farmers still need to be able to maintain their farming operations, they need to be able to farm those fields. But how do we integrate it in ways that we can sort of shore up some of the environmental benefits?”

On what makes this work in Iowa unique

“I think most Iowans are familiar with the fact that, prior to the Euro-American history of this place, most of Iowa was covered by native tall grass prairies, grassland ecosystems that had a mixture of predominantly grasses and flowering plants. And some woody plants, especially shrubs. And that is not our dominant ecosystem today. We only have about 0.1 percent left of our native prairie. And those areas have been largely replaced by agricultural production. Those prairies, however, gave rise to the amazing soils that we need for our agriculture.”

“We all have a have a role to play when it comes to climate change. That said, we know that, globally, that agriculture is responsible for about 30 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions. We know that if we look at the U.S., that number decreases to about 10 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions. And if we look at Iowa, it goes back up to 30 percent. And the reason for that is just the scale of of agriculture here in Iowa. And so we have to do our part as a state. One of the things that I'm really excited about is Gov. Reynolds' carbon sequestration task force. That's ongoing right now, trying to prepare the state to get ready for emerging carbon markets. There's now billions of dollars flowing, which can help address practice adoption by farmers through these carbon markets. And there's a lot of curiosity.”

On the response from farmers and other Iowans

"Everybody wants to be a good steward of the land, right? You recognize that farmers have to be profitable, they have to run their business, but they also have a desire to be good stewards of the land. And, some people have different tools, they have different assets, they have different financial profiles, right? And so with the team I work with here at Iowa State and beyond the STRIPS team, we've found innovative farmers and landowners that have been willing to try this practice on their farm fields. And in addition to the science, I can't say enough great things about those farmer and farm landowner partners. It was a big step to take a research idea from an experiment and actually try to integrate it in on a farm field and do it in ways where it didn't negatively impact farmers’ bottom lines. And the farmer partners were a really key part of that, figuring out how to make that transition. So the combination of really robust scientific research, along with those farmers and farmland owners that were willing to sort of prove it out on their land and work out the kinks."

"And then we just have had a groundswell of support from all, all different walks of Iowa, in terms of people, organizations that have bought into this idea of integrating our current dominant ecosystems with our native ecosystems to try to achieve more. And widespread stakeholder support. Those three things together led to, in 2018, prairie strips were listed for the first time in the U.S. Farm Bill as a conservation reserve-eligible practice. So farmers or family and owners can go into a USDA service center and sign up for prairie strips through the conservation reserve program and help offset some of those costs associated with prairie strips or putting prairie strips on their land. And we know from theIowa Farm and Rural Life poll,that's run by my colleague J.R. Buckle here at Iowa State, that having that federal funding available to help support putting prairie strips on the land is really crucial. We know that about, 50 percent of farmers are willing to consider putting prairie strips on their land, and that number increases by 40 percent if they can also receive some kind of financial, compensation."

"Another phase of the research is we're trying to help develop market -based ways, working with businesses, to help where someone could actually harvest that prairie biomass and sell it to a market, and then use that as a financial mechanism to pay for the cost of prairie strips on land."

Next steps

“Here's where I take a big breath and say I don't know. It’s still so new and it's sinking in and I'm just really overcome, by being an awardee.”

“I can say it will be put towards my big passion, which is figuring out, how do we return more of the value associated with agriculture back to people, rural people in the land? I know that much. But what exactly it looks like? I think I'm going to keep doing what I'm doing, which is looking for small changes that result in big impacts. And it's worked for me so far, so why not keep going with it?”

You can listen to the full interview with Schulte Moore hereand find a full list of this year's fellows here.

Ben Kieffer is the host of IPR's River to River
Rick Brewer was a producer for IPR's Talk of Iowa and River to River
Caitlin Troutman is a talk show producer at Iowa Public Radio