Carter Johnson and Tim Johnson ELI Wetlands Award 2014-trim

No relation: Senator Tim Johnson (right) congratulates Dr. Carter Johnson on receiving the Environmental Law Institute's National Wetland Award for Science Research, National Botanical Gardens, Washington, D.C., 2014.05.08.

It may seem impolite to talk about wetlands research while southeastern South Dakota is in a flood emergency. But given that wetlands are nature's way of controlling floods and require less energy than sump pumps and bulldozers, maybe now is the perfect time to talk about some practical, award-winning science from South Dakota.

My friend Carter Johnson received the Environmental Law Institute's National Wetlands Award for science research this spring:

For over 40 years, South Dakota State University Distinguished Professor of Ecology Dr. W. Carter Johnson has been a major contributor to wetland science, including significant contributions to the understanding and management of riparian and prairie pothole wetlands. Carter is considered one of the world’s leading authorities on the impacts of global climate change on prairie pothole wetlands. He has published approximately 125 peer reviewed articles, books, and book chapters [Environmental Law Institute, press release, 2014.04.03].

Dr. Johnson is among those researching and warning of the harms that climate change and our hunger for grain are doing to grassland, pheasants, and water quality. Johnson says draining wetlands for agriculture has made flooding worse along the Missouri River.

But the good professor is no radical rewilder seeking to banish all industry from the prairie. Far from it, Johnson wants us to restore the prairie by putting the grass back to work. His own EcoSun Prairie Farms venture south of Brookings (discussed on this blog two summers ago) has restored native grasses and wetlands and is making money selling seed, hay, and grass-fed beef.

In this TedX Brookings talk from February 2014, Johnson proposes a half-and-half solution for the prairie: restore half of the prairie to "working nature" like his prairie farm concept while keeping the other half for tillage and organic agriculture. But whatever the ratio, Johnson says, "We need more from our land than grain. We need more grassland. We need wetlands. We need healthier streams in our landscape."

Flood abatement is just one reason to pay attention to Carter Johnson's award-winning work and his vision for the prairie. Some changes in our agricultural policies and practices could lead to a healthier prairie ecosystem, not to mention less time and money spent sandbagging along the Big Sioux.