Saving the Prairies of Northwest Lincoln

August, 2021

Lincoln — The Lincoln city council has been considering whether to destroy two prairie parcels in northwest Lincoln, one tallgrass and one riparian, about 20 acres in total, in order to put housing developments on them.  Council members have wisely delayed a decision — three times — until they can fully understand the implications and choices before them. 

The Center for Grassland Studies at the University of Nebraska–Lincoln has recommended that the parcels be protected because they are an essential part of the ecosystem of nearby Nine Mile Prairie.  Local conservationists and citizens' groups concerned about climate change — as we all must be — have opposed the destruction of the parcels because they are also important carbon sequestration resources.

There is another reason for saving the prairies that few talk about, or even know about.  These prairies are of great historical interest, as they were the objects of study in the 1890s by remarkable faculty and students at the nearby University of Nebraska.  Led by botanist Charles Bessey and two of his graduate students, Lincolnites Frederic Clements and Roscoe Pound, the university shook the scientific world with the botanists' analyses of Lincoln area grasslands.  

It is likely that Clements and Pound knew these particular 20 acres and the surrounding properties well.  Many grasslands in and around Section 1 of Middle Creek precinct were owned by Tilman and Mary Flader, some of whose lands later became today's Nine Mile Prairie.  Clements' wife, the botanist Edith Schwartz Clements (the first woman to receive a Ph.D. from the University of Nebraska), accompanied her husband on examinations of all Lincoln's grasslands and collaborated with him in developing what became known world-wide as the Clementsian theory of plant communities and plant succession, or Clementsian ecology.  One of their many followers, John Ernst Weaver, conducted his landmark prairie research on and adjacent to Flader properties in the tallgrass heights above northwest Lincoln. 

Bessey, Clements, Pound, and other natural sciences faculty put the University of Nebraska on the map in the early years of the 20th Century.  The university became known as the "Harvard of the Plains" and was admitted in 1909 to the prestigious Association of American Universities, a select group of distinguished research institutions.  Textbooks on the history of science still devote whole chapters to Clementsian theories; lexicons are enriched by words coined by Frederic Clements, such as biome and forb.  Frederic and Edith Clements are forebears of the Environmental Movement.  

Although Roscoe Pound received a Ph.D. in botany in 1897 for his co-authorship of Phytogeography of Nebraska with Frederic Clements, another of his interests was law. He went on to teach law at Nebraska, Northwestern University, the University of Chicago, and Harvard, where he was dean of the law school.  Pound was influenced by his colleague Clements' theories of ecology and saw them as applicable to matters of jurisprudence, as explained in "The Influence of Ecological Science on American Law"*:

"The two main themes of Pound's early writings on sociological jurisprudence, empiricism, and interdependence, were an extension of the ideas that grew out of his early work in ecology.

"By 1912, the essential elements of what later scholars have called the "Poundian paradigm" were in place.  To the Progressive political movement of that era, the "law in action" embodied many of their goals: For pragmatic scholars and activist lawyers, sociological jurisprudence quickly became a popular label to attach to a range of ongoing reforms. Boston attorney Louis Brandeis used it to justify his successful efforts to persuade appellate courts to consider data on social problems that had not been included in the trial record."  

A culmination of the use of the Poundian paradigm in the law came in 1954, in Brown v. Board of Education, which overturned the separate-but-equal decision over a half-century earlier in Plessy v. FergusonBrown is an early milestone in the Civil Rights Movement.

That so much of two 20th Century movements springs from northwest Lincoln's grasslands should not be lost on Lincoln's city council.  Too few of these acres remain from the time of Frederic Clements and Roscoe Pound, who changed the world because of what the grasslands taught them.  

Prairies still have much to teach us in this century as well.  Rather than destroying Lincoln's unique prairie heritage, we should be memorializing, restoring, and protecting it.    

*Fred P. Bosselman & A. D. Tarlock, The Influence of Ecological Science on American Law: An Introduction, 69 Chi.-Kent L. Rev. 847 (1994).