A Role for Tall Grass Prairie

Wildflowers along Lake Macbride

Reading a book about tall grass prairie and savannas has me wondering why people bother preserving them.

Prairie used to cover more than 85 percent of Iowa land, according to the Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge. Today less than one tenth of a percent of original tall grass prairie remains in the state.

In that context, the Iowa legislature considered a bill to prohibit setting aside new land for conservation with state money. After a popular outcry, the bill was suppressed last week before the first legislative funnel. There is substantial support among a diverse constituency for conserving prairie, savannas and woodlands. Such support drags political will along as best it can.

The Neal Smith National Wildlife Refuge is mostly replanted, which suggests human cultivation rather than a naturally occurring ecology. Which parcel is one of the many original prairie fragments at Neal Smith, and which a human tall grass garden? Presumably guides can point them out. There were no guides when tall grass prairie dominated Iowa landscape.

Either one participates in the culture of tall grass prairie or one doesn’t. It is a culture rather than nature. Throughout the state people and groups work to “restore the prairie” or “restore woodlands.” What does that even mean except as a style of gardening? Partly it means pulling garlic mustard plants and other invasive species during their early growth period. It means cutting down selected mature trees so saplings can survive to replace them. There is enough garlic mustard to make pesto for the whole state if such a delicacy were desired — all this cultivation is a lot of work. A lot of human work doesn’t seem natural.

The ecosystem that was our tall grass prairie relied upon burning the prairie to remove dead plant matter and stop the growth of trees that would shade plants growing close to the ground. Naturally occurring burns have been replaced with prescribed burns which are diligently considered and executed in a way that doesn’t catch whole neighborhood landscapes on fire. A local fire department has been summoned to put out a prescribed burn that got out of control more than a few times. Without burns a parcel of prairie or woodlands would cease to be what humans intended. I don’t know if a new and different ecosystem would be better or worse. If one is a believer in tall grass prairie, different is viewed negatively. Is that hubris?

We tend to forget the role vast herds of buffalo and other grazing animals played in the formation of tall grass prairie. Hooves kicking up dirt contributed to creation of the unique prairie biome. Animal grazing helped shorter plants gain access to sunlight and thrive. Animal droppings helped fertilize. Most of the land is fenced now with buffalo herds diminished and relegated to a form of domesticated hides, steaks, ground meat and sausages.

We are at the end of nature, Bill McKibben wrote in his 1989 book of the same name. There may be something to learn from remnants of tall grass prairie. There may be a human use for seeds from plants that survived and thrived on the prairie. If one is interested in the survival of tall grass prairie it is important to follow the work of people engaged in it. There is also a question.

How will we use our lives to mitigate the effects of global warming? Managing tall grass prairies is one check box on a long to-do list. My answer to “why bother” is that every bit of carbon sequestration has value and that’s what tall grass prairie accomplishes. My problem is under current land ownership policies and practices increasing the amount of tall grass prairie is not scalable quick enough.

I encourage people who seek to preserve parcels of prairie and woodlands to continue. If nothing else, it will improve our personal well-being and that is worth something in this turbulent world.