A blog from Carol Davit, Executive Director of the Missouri Prairie Foundation, www.moprairie.org
Chardonnay, roast leg of lamb, tap dancing—they all get a day on the National Day Calendar. I never thought about this list of national days until one of our board members suggested we, the Missouri Prairie Foundation, establish National Prairie Day. And why the heck not?
Prior to European settlement in the Midwest, where I’m from, prairie was the defining landscape of the region. Spacious open prairies along with other native grasslands including rocky glades, marshes, and savannas stretched across large areas of Missouri—the southern half of which falls within the Southeastern Grasslands Initiative’s geography. Even in wooded areas, prairie plants and animals occurred in scattered patches in open woodlands. These natural communities supported a staggering array of plant and animal species and carried out many ecological functions. For these reasons alone, prairie deserves a day highlighted on the calendar.
But this post isn’t just about biodiversity and a special day of the year. It’s about money too.
Prairie has been nearly obliterated in Missouri and surrounding states, but it is the underpinning of our entire agricultural economy. Rich, deep prairie soils made the region into an agribusiness powerhouse, directly or indirectly defining the careers and livelihoods of generations of Missourians. The value of agricultural commodities ebbs and flows, and the nature of farming has changed dramatically, but there is no denying that the land—once prairie land—is the backbone of agriculture in central North America.
Thanks to the landmark work of geographer and historian Dr. Walter Schroeder, who mapped Missouri’s presettlement prairie, we know that the state once had 15 million acres of prairie—and this doesn’t include Ozark glades and other native grassland types.
The mining of prairie soil for agriculture took its toll, however, and the price paid for prairie conversion for agriculture and other forms of development in Missouri has resulted in less than 1/10th of one percent of original prairie remaining. Breaking prairie sod has led to many other consequences for land and water, in addition to outright loss of grassland communities and their associated species:
· Conventional row crop practices have led to a tremendous export of soil and fertilizer into the Mississippi River throughout its watershed, resulting in degraded streams and ultimately the Dead Zone in the Gulf of Mexico, impacting Gulf fisheries and those who make a living from them.
· There is a not uncanny correlation between the increase in flooding of the Missouri, Mississippi, and their feeder streams and the dramatic loss of prairie in these watersheds. Millions of acres of prairie across central North America acted like a sponge—deep, complex root systems absorbed and slowed storm water, and lush prairie vegetation transpired vast quantities of water into the atmosphere, preventing or reducing flooding. Without millions of acres of prairie to do the work of flood prevention at no cost to us, we instead spend billions of dollars in constructing flood walls, levees, and in rebuilding after flood damage.
· Conversion of prairie released enormous amounts of carbon into the atmosphere once stored in prairie roots and soil, and this continues to happen as more grasslands are plowed. It is difficult or impossible to put a price on what climate change is costing society.
As we grapple with the sobering facts of what we have lost when prairie was plowed, we also marvel at all that prairie has given us, how biological rich remnants have survived the odds, and how we may harness the power of prairie to address many challenges facing us today.
A way to rally appreciation of and support for prairie is to make prairie relevant to a wider audience. Hence National Prairie Day, recognized on the first Saturday of June.
American prairie evokes our national spirit: expansive, exhilarating in its abundance, full of life and promise. Today—from the vastly reduced native grasslands of the Eastern Seaboard, the Southeast, and westward through the tall-, mid- and short-grass prairies that stretched to the Rockies and westward—our native grassland legacy has been dramatically reduced to scattered remnants of its once vast 170-million-acre domain across North America.
However, these remnants—from pocket prairies that delight us with their beauty and diversity of plants, insects, birds, and other grassland wildlife—-to the larger tracts that support cattle ranching, antelope, and other large animals—remain vitally important to us:
Water Quality: It’s possible for as many as seven inches of rain from one storm to be absorbed by prairie with no runoff—helping to keep soil on the land and out of waterways. With its complex and deep roots, prairie is like an incredible sponge that helps control flooding.
Soil Health: Soil scientists have determined that prairie soil hosts the most diverse communities of microorganisms of any terrestrial ecosystem on earth. Understanding how these micro-biota interact with soil and plants can help improve how agricultural land is managed—and perhaps with fewer chemical inputs.
Carbon Storage: An acre of intact prairie can absorb one ton of carbon in its roots and soil per year. Recent work carried out by pioneering prairie restorationist Steven Apfelbaum has measured 3 to 5 tons of total carbon increases per acre under Adaptive Multi-paddock (AMP) grazing and restored prairies, especially in the Midwest. The carbon capture of trees and other woody species is praised in much scientific literature and in the popular press, but in many cases trees are not the best choice to plant for atmospheric carbon mitigation—depending on soil types, rainfall, and other factors—but prairie plants often are.
Protection in Drought: Prairie plants are adapted to drought. Cattle producers have found that their livestock gain weight faster, and are healthier, when they eat prairie forage rather than non-native grasses—and prairie plants remain green and palatable in dry summers.
Pollinator Habitat: In the Midwest, no other ecosystem hosts more native pollinating insects than prairie. In Missouri, more than 250 native bee species occur on the totality of our remaining prairies, along with at least 200 total beetle, fly, butterfly and moth species that also play a role in pollination. Because one-third of all our food crops are pollinated by insects, protecting native pollinator habitat is crucial to food security.
Beauty and Spirit: Prairie is at once open “Big Sky Country,” and also replete with infinite detail—hundreds of plant species, jewel-like spider webs, complex calls of insects and birds. This aesthetic contrast is rejuvenating to the soul and exhilarating to the senses.
National Prairie Day provides a day of focus across the United States to inspire learning, appreciation, and exploration of our national prairie legacy, and success of national, regional, statewide, and local prairie conservation efforts from coast to coast.
On June 1, 2019 raise your glass of Chardonnay—-or whatever beverage is handy—and pay a tribute to the native grasslands of your region.
Banner photo credit: Linden's Prairie Natural Area, owned by the Missouri Prairie Foundation. Prairie is at once open “Big Sky Country,” and also replete with infinite detail–plenty to celebrate on National Prairie Day, the first Saturday of June. Credit: Bruce Schuette