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More than just grass: US prairies make a comeback

Why We Wrote This

It can be hard to see value in a landscape if you don’t know what to look for. American prairies have long been viewed as underutilized land. But slowly, conservationists are helping people to see the wealth of life that depend on these seemingly vacant meadows.

Anna Tarnow/The Christian Science Monitor
A tiger swallowtail butterfly lands on a blazing star wildflower on the prairie at Shaw Nature Reserve in Villa Ridge, Mo. Over the past three decades, a community of conservationists and land managers has worked to preserve American grasslands.

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In the 1980s, the idea of prairie conservation started gaining serious momentum. And over the past three decades, a dedicated community of conservationists and land managers has worked to preserve American grasslands. Why bother?

“Prairies in particular have high amounts of biological diversity, and that diversity helps sustain life on Earth,” says Tom Kaye, executive director and senior ecologist at the Institute for Applied Ecology in Corvallis, Ore.

And people just plain enjoy exploring them. Reserve managers report that public interest increases as opportunities for interaction grow. A rough estimate for preserved prairies in the Great Plains area alone is around 207,000 square miles of tall-, mixed-, and shortgrass biomes.

“The most hopeful thing is that we have come a long way in our ability to restore prairie,” says Chris Helzer, director of science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska. “As climate continues to change and [agricultural] policies continue to change, there will be opportunities where it makes sense for society to put some of the land in farms back into prairie habitat – and when that happens, we’re ready to do it. We have the ability to do it.”

A vibrant sea of grasses once flowed across the North American continent: the great prairies that Laura Ingalls Wilder described as “spreading to the edge of the sky.” All but a fraction vanished during the 19th century as migrants from Europe advanced across the heart of America, plowing the land into farms and settlements. But not many people paid attention then.

Even many of today’s prairie conservationists agree that grasslands are underappreciated ecosystems. “Most people, I think, would drive past a prairie and just see a lot of boring grass,” says Chris Helzer, director of science for The Nature Conservancy in Nebraska and author of a popular prairie photography blog. “Prairies are not an ecosystem that smack you in the face with beauty if you’re not tuned into it.”

But in the 1980s, a prairie conservation movement that had been gradually growing since at least the 1950s started gaining serious momentum. Over the past three decades, a dedicated community of conservationists and land managers has worked to preserve American grasslands in all their manifold forms: the tallgrass, shortgrass, and mixed-grass prairies of the Midwest, as well as lesser-known varieties, such as the northwest prairies in Oregon and Washington, or the sandplain grasslands in Massachusetts. Since the ’80s, conservationists have made significant progress in their ability to reestablish and care for prairie ecosystems. 

“The future of prairie restoration is headed in a good direction. We’ve learned some lessons,” says Tom Kaye, executive director and senior ecologist at the Institute for Applied Ecology in Corvallis, Ore. “We’ve been able to focus on ... the research that’s necessary to continue to improve.”

And that research has paid off. Advances in seeding technology have allowed land recovered from farming and other uses to be more fully restored with native plants. And reseeded plants have an increased rate of survival, thanks to efforts to understand plant establishment, says Dr. Kaye. 

Prairie burns – an essential part of grassland management in some areas –  have become grounded in community efforts. “Very few organizations have the resources to maintain a burn program on their own,” says Peter Dunwiddie, an ecological consultant and affiliate professor in the biology department at the University of Washington in Seattle; he studies prairies in the Pacific Northwest. “It’s hugely helpful to build these partnerships with a lot of different entities, so that everybody can work together.”

The exact acreage of prairie conservation efforts is somewhat difficult to track, since many are grass-roots endeavors. A rough estimate for preserved prairies in the Great Plains area alone is around 207,000 square miles of tall-, mixed-, and shortgrass biomes. But there are countless small preserves scattered across the United States, which can include areas as small as half an acre. And larger organizations, like the American Prairie Reserve, also tend to operate fairly independently. Conservationists are also used to finding land in unusual places.

“Military bases ... have become some of the last bastions for a lot of rare plants, rare animals, and rare communities. And in western Washington, prairies are a big one on Joint Base Lewis-McChord,” says Dr. Dunwiddie. He estimates that as much as 70 percent of the prairie reserves in Washington are on the base. Additionally, partnerships with private landowners and sometimes even ranchers play a big role in prairie conservation efforts. 

Another species that benefits from restored grasslands is the bison. The Nature Conservancy alone manages over 113,000 acres of land with about 6,000 bison –  including the Nachusa Grasslands near Chicago, which has almost 100 wild bison that have drawn significant public interest in the program. And ranches owned by media mogul and philanthropist Ted Turner have as many as 53,000 bison in managed herds. “It’s important from a bison conservation standpoint,” says Mr. Helzer. “But it’s also important because ... it gives more and more people a chance to see that sort of landscape with a big charismatic animal in it.” 

It’s not all smooth sailing, though. “Temperate grasslands are one of the least-protected terrestrial biomes. They are traditionally the places that we have settled and plowed,” says Alison Fox, the chief executive officer of American Prairie Reserve. “The estimates are that less than 5 percent of prairies are in any form of long-term protection.” 

Millions of acres of grassland have been lost in the Dakotas over the past few years as cropland expands. According to Dunwiddie, conservation laws that have helped fund and protect wilderness preserves, such as the Endangered Species Act of 1969, face ongoing legislative attacks. 

Nevertheless, many conservationists are optimistic about the future, and they’re dug in for the long game. “I think the most hopeful thing is that we have come a long way in our ability to restore prairie,” says Helzer. “As climate continues to change, and [agricultural] policies continue to change, there will be opportunities where it makes sense for society to put some of the land in farms back into prairie habitat – and when that happens, we’re ready to do it. We have the ability to do it.” 

From a practical point of view, prairies are good for the environment. “Prairies in particular have high amounts of biological diversity, and that diversity helps sustain life on Earth,” says Kaye. “Prairies also are huge carbon sinks.... Restoring prairie ties up a lot of carbon, so that it’s not in the atmosphere.”

And they are worth exploring, conservationists say. “We’ve certainly received increased interest as we’ve gone along, and I think [that’s happened] particularly as we’ve provided more opportunities for the public to come out and experience the landscape,” says Ms. Fox. Her organization, which is building one of the largest complete grassland ecosystems in the United States, depends almost entirely on private donations. It has found success in part by welcoming visits from the public. 

Helzer, for his part, uses photography to draw attention to prairies. “Every time you go out to a prairie, you see different things, if you know what to look for,” he says. “There’s different flowers that are blooming, there’s different insects that are active.... If you can get people to go to any prairie – even a half-acre prairie across town – you can always see something new and different.”

And he believes that the experience of being in a prairie is something special all on its own. “[Prairies] are a really subtle system from an aesthetic standpoint. Standing out in the middle of a huge expanse of grassland, where you can’t see anything else except the waves of grass – it makes you feel a certain way,” he says. “It makes some people feel really small and scared, and it makes other people feel exhilarated. But either way, it brings out a strong emotion.”

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