Context for Native Grassland Conservation:  Five things every supporter should know

-thoughts from Gregg Elliott, SGI Communications Director

If you’re a botanist or an old hand at resource conservation, this post is not for you. But if you’ve been “converted” (like me!) by SGI’s charismatic director Dwayne Estes, aka the “Prairie Preacher,” and you’re eager to learn more about grassland conservation issues or how you can make a difference, here are some basics you might want to know. This context comes not from my knowledge of grassland plants, of which I have very little, but from my years of working in, tracking, and observing the evolving priorities of natural resource conservation.

1. Ghosts of native grasslands past are all around us.

When I was a small child growing up in a suburban neighborhood, I used to think that trees and grass were put into gardens and lawns by people, with pavement being the more permanent substrate under my feet. I distinctly remember the epiphany when my worldview flipped, and I understood it was precisely the opposite: the earth is everywhere, and we simply lay down a little pavement on top of it!

This was pretty much the case for me again, after I first met Dwayne. Native grasslands of the Southeast are scattered all over the place, in patches both large and small, most of the time forgotten or hidden from view by the different land uses we have laid down on top of them. Because more than 85% of native southeastern grasslands have been “covered up” with these different uses, we have a lot of work to do. That’s why at SGI we like to say that we are building a movement.

SGI is using on-site “prospecting” for native plants, research, and historical records to uncover the degree to which our native southeastern grasslands still remain….in the seed banks of our pastureland, in the rare plant populations hidden in plain sight under power lines and along transportation corridors, and even in some of our forests, which according to historical records may once have been “open land,” requiring signposts to delineate property boundaries due to the dearth of trees. 

What happens as SGI identifies these signs of native grasslands past? We call on our network of partners—growing across the Southeast—and we call on YOU to assist in protecting, restoring, recovering, or even rescuing these sites!

2. Much of native grasslands are hidden below ground, including many of the benefits.

Theo Witsell, SGI’s Director of Research, says that native grasslands should not be thought of as early successional systems on their way to becoming forest. Instead, think of them (most of them!) as stable, mature communities with a late successional or even “climax” ground layer maintained by periodic above-ground disturbance (often fire). Dwayne likes to call them the “sunny, old-growth habitats of the South” (at least most of them are old). 

A large proportion of the biomass in many of the Southeast’s native grasslands is below ground, with root systems extending 1 to 4 feet (or more) underground. What are the implications of this?

  • Native grasslands build healthy soils. In grasslands with native species as opposed to introduced species such as fescue, it’s easier to increase soil organic matter and microbe populations, which guards against erosion and increases soil water-holding capacity. Recent research has discovered elements of the prairie soil microbiome that are completely missing from agricultural lands.

  • This means native grasses reduce runoff and improve water quality. Native grasses are also more resistant to drought.

  • Native grasslands produce more forage than non-natives at a comparable cost. One reason for this is natives require less fertilizer than nonnatives. 

  • Native grasslands support honeybees and the many native pollinators that benefit crops requiring pollination. They also provide critical habitat for a host of wildlife species, particularly game birds such as quail, turkey, and waterfowl (nesting), which are important to our outdoor recreation economy.

(Source: Natives First.)

The hidden grassland that lies below ground level is also a huge carbon sink, something that’s critical for slowing climate change. In some places (such as California) grassland carbon sequestration may rival that of forestland. 

This means harvesting above-ground biomass of native grasslands (such as when grazing cattle or harvesting biofuel crops) has little impact on a grassland’s carbon stores. On the other hand, you can imagine why tilling native sod is so destructive. It’s not just plant roots below ground, it’s an entire interdependent community of plants, seeds, invertebrates, mycorrhizae, microbes, and organic matter that sequester a significant amount of carbon. Imagine yanking your hair out by the roots, rather than simply trimming it, and you get the idea. 

This view of native grasslands as something valuable to be protected from the plow is captured in this touching video showcasing Mr. Herb Hamann’s attitude toward his Bluebell ranchland.

3. Native grassland conservation management is being supported by private ranchers and landowners.

More than one-third of U.S. land is used for pasture, while up to 41 percent revolves around raising livestock—by far the largest land-use type in the contiguous 48 states. When Europeans began inhabiting North America, they brought with them their cattle, sheep, horses, and goats, each of which can serve as part of the “above-ground disturbance” needed by grasslands (see #2). Before Europeans, it was fire (from lightning or set by Native Americans), and grazing by herds of wild buffalo, elk, deer and other ungulates that performed that essential function of keeping grasslands open. 

I’m not going to revisit the many controversies surrounding when, where, how much, and how many ways in which livestock grazing has impacted natural grasslands in North America, both good and bad. What I will say is that open-minded people all across the country are learning from the past and developing improved methods of grazing that are more sustainable and more likely to provide benefits to native grasslands and wildlife than not.

Here’s what rancher Tracey Rosenberg of South Dakota has to say about the native prairie in her state: “This is an ecosystem that is by far probably the most important ecosystem we have in North America and yet it is disappearing at extraordinary rates. It would be equal to the rain forest, equal to the boreal forest….You’re much better off to try to maintain what native grasslands are left and work with them to make them as healthy as possible.”

This ethos of managing healthy native grasslands using cattle is part of what’s supporting the move toward 100% grassfed beef. Grassfed is not only healthier for you (at least according to some doctors), it’s also part of the animal welfare rating standards (step 4) for raising livestock. Now, even the horse community is jumping on the bandwagon, with recent research focused on the benefits of native grass hay for horses. In essence, if it’s good for native grasslands, it’s good for wildlife and pollinators, it’s probably good for your health, and it’s good for animal welfare. 

I love it when that happens!

4. We need policies to systematically protect and restore our precious native grassland heritage. 

Natives First” is an effort spearheaded by the National Bobwhite Conservation Initiative, one of SGI’s collaborators, to create a native vegetation standard for Farm Bill conservation programs such as the Conservation Reserve Program and Environmental Quality Incentives Program.

Why Natives First? Because as currently managed, many Farm Bill conservation practices foster the spread of introduced grasses. Many people are unaware that the Farm Bill is the nation’s single largest private lands conservation program. As such, these USDA programs have serious potential for encouraging restoration of native grassland species - about 2 million acres per year by one estimate. The good news is NBCI and many collaborators made headway in the 2018 Farm Bill, resulting in USDA management encouraging the use of native vegetation where practicable.

Another SGI collaborator, the Society for Range Management, is also working to expand USDA programs to benefit native southeastern grasslands in areas east of the Mississippi River. Currently, with the exception of grasslands in Florida, these native grasslands are not recognized as “rangelands” in conservation programs under the Farm Bill. 

5. It all boils down to you.

If native grasslands are not the first thing you think about in the morning…if the plight of pollinators is but a blip in your social media feed…if you don’t know what an awn is, you’ve never heard a bobwhite sing, or you don’t know who E.O. Wilson is, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you care about these issues; you want to learn; you’re willing to get involved, give your time, and talk to your friends about it…The conservation world needs you, just a surely as we all need the natural world.

Conservation is fundamentally a social endeavor because nature’s benefits are essential to us all. Nature is our life support system, and as E.O. Wilson says, “Biodiversity holds the earth steady.” But to make things happen, we have to work together. Advocacy groups need you to speak up, conservation groups need your time and donations, natural resource agencies need public understanding and support for their habitat management programs.

So whether you are a volunteer for a day or for the rest of your life, whether you are a committed citizen scientist, an advocate willing to meet with your government representatives, a donor to the cause, or a follower on Facebook…We need you. Just as importantly, we want not only your support but also your friendship, because at SGI we’re not just building a movement, we are also building community.