What is your land ethic?
That was the question that Heidi Mehl, a University of Kansas graduate now working as a researcher for The Nature Conservancy posed to visitors to this year’s 3i Show.
Your land ethic, she said, is your innate sense of what is right and wrong with a given landscape. It is shaped by your community, cultural and social values, and the extent to which history and religious faith are part of that sense of right and wrong.
Mehl’s presentation included a photograph of Manhattan, Kan., in the 1860s, shortly after Anderson Hall was built. She contrasted that photo with a similar shot today. The old photo is strikingly devoid of trees, which are abundant on the campus today.
“People like trees,” she said. “They like the look of trees, and they like shade. So over time, people transform a landscape to what they want to see there.”
Development of land, however, can have consequences for the health of the soil and the quality of water in streams and aquifers, she said. Before development, almost all rainfall is taken up by plants and soils, or filtered into the groundwater that, in turn, feeds streams.
“The water is cooler and cleaner,” she said.
After development, which often includes paving of roads and parking lots, as well as the construction of buildings, there is more surface runoff and less filtering of water into the groundwater. That runoff is warmed by the paved surfaces and often carries pollutants such as oil, gasoline other chemicals.
“It costs more to clean it for use as drinking water, and streams become less healthy for fish,” she said. Heavy rains are likely to cause rapid runoff and flooding of streams, which in turn increases erosion and carries more pollution downstream.”
Travels to Siberia
Mehl said her job has taken her to many places to explore the relationship of people to land and water, including the Altai Republic in Siberia, where the indigenous people have a spiritual relationship with river, streams and mineral springs.
“They call the Katoon River “Grandmother,” and their streams and stream corridors are fiercely protected. The springs are the preferred source of drinking water, she said.
She said that the Altai region is not good for crops, but does offer excellent pasture for herd animals, such as cattle or goats.
“During the Soviet era, the government organized collective farms and gave the people who lived there a quota of milk and meat that they were required to deliver to the government. Each year, the quota got higher, and the farmers had to keep increasing the size of the herds. The result was overgrazing, that degraded the land and polluted the rivers and springs,” Mehl said.
In 1992, after the Soviet government fell. The Altai farmers disbanded the collective farms, reduced the size of the herds, and worked to restore their land and protect their streams,” she said. “Today, the land and the water have recovered.”
Preventing erosion in Kenya
Mehl also talked of visiting a tea and coffee producing region of Kenya, where the farmers carefully manage the crops growing on steep slopes to prevent erosion.
“You will see cash and subsistence crops growing together, and the river corridors are protected,” she said. “They control the environment of the headwaters to keep the stream clean and clear.”
For the last several years, Mehl has worked with the Potawatomie Tribe in northeast Kansas. She said the Potawatomies prefer a hunting and fishing lifestyle and do very little farming.
In most of Kansas, a land ethic that promotes production of crops for human and livestock food is prevalent, and after learning some bitter lessons, there is a strong interest in protecting both the land the water.
“Human activity rules the valley, and the valley rules the stream,” she said. “We are good at shaping the landscape, and we have a huge responsibility for the future. You see far more people interested in the health of the soil and adopting practices that promote soil health, including no-till farming methods, cover crops, riparian protection and playa restoration,” she said.
Mehl said The Nature Conservancy is working hard to keep funding in the 2018 Farm Bill that will help farmers pay for conservation practices.