Of Prairie Preachers and Sacred Gems

“Twenty-five years will be too late.”  That is the tagline of the Southeastern Grasslands Initiative (SGI), and until I heard from the luminaries who assembled at Austin Peay State University on Nov 7th for a Summit to launch SGI, I did not realize quite how literal those words were.  


To quote Dwayne Estes, the South’s “Prairie Preacher” and Executive Director of SGI, “There is no greater issue facing terrestrial Southeastern biodiversity than loss of open habitats.”  Theo Witsell, SGI’s Research Director, emphasized that native prairies should be thought of as “sacred gems” because of the importance of these small high-quality remnants to larger-scale grasslands restoration.  


Why will 25 years be too late?  


First, native grasslands in the Southeast are simultaneously extraordinarily diverse and critically endangered.  We don’t have an “Endangered Ecosystem Act” (although we probably should), but many species native to Southeast grasslands are already listed, rare or declining:  specialized plants, pollinators, grassland birds and more.


Second, once destroyed, it is impossible to bring native prairies, savannas, glades, barrens and meadows back to their original diversity.  For someone like me, used to the world of riparian forest restoration where tree species diversity can often be counted on two hands, and plantings respond with relatively rapid growth and wildlife response, it is hard to conceive that a system can get so broken it can’t be put back.  One speaker at the Summit cited a 40-year-old restoration in the Midwest that still had a fraction of the diversity of native prairies, even though its current diversity is quite high.  Scientists recently discovered new elements of the prairie soil microbiome that are completely missing from agricultural lands.


Witsell says that native grasslands should not be thought of as early successional systems on their way to becoming forest, but as stable mature communities with a late successional or even “climax” ground layer maintained by periodic above-ground disturbance (often fire).  Someone called for a revolution in branding, recasting grasslands from early successional systems to naturally open, sunny ecosystems. 


Third, and most importantly, 25 years will be too late because the native grassland sites, the balds and barrens, the savannas, prairies, and seepage meadows of the South, are almost entirely left in small patches of 1 to 5 to 40 to 600 acres.  Grasslands are now so rare, that their loss often goes unnoticed. In Arkansas, the Grand Prairie, once truly grand at 500,000 acres, has been reduced to less than 400 acres (this number had to be updated from 430 to 400 after posting this article - that's how fast native grasslands are going).  One could cite similarly depressing statistics for every other southeastern state.  


In short, native prairie is more rare globally than tropical rain forest.  Put another way, grasslands are the least conserved and most threatened major ecosystem on Earth.  


The Southeast: Resilient biodiversity engine of North America


Alan Weakley, Director of the UNC Herbarium and Chair of SGI’s Scientific Advisory Committee, took a step back and asked, “Where is the biodiversity in the U.S.?”  The Southeast U.S. gets top billing for the following: native grasses, tree diversity, amphibian diversity, amphibian endemics, reptile endemics, mammal endemics, bird endemics, fish diversity, and fish endemics.  Along with California, the Southeast is very high in narrow endemics, woody plant species, and number of species overall, and probably also competitive in crayfish and cave fauna  Wow.


Weakley went on to give us a more in-depth evolutionary understanding of our open, sunny Southern heritage.  Biodiversity is higher in southeastern grasslands than other areas of the U.S. because they are more ancient:  they have never been glaciated (and interior grasslands have never been covered by oceans.)  Southeastern grasslands have the highest fine-scale plant species richness in the world—with as many as 50 plant species found in a single square meter plot!


Hot spots of species endemism in the Southeast are indicators of refugia from climate change and other factors precisely because these areas have had a long time to evolve under changing environmental conditions.  These patch communities are prepared for just about any future possibility because they have been shaped by many past events.  According to Weakley, they are “mini-arks of biodiversity” containing both indigenous species as well as others that migrated, pushed by glaciation then left behind as glaciers retreated. 


Unlike your stock portfolio, past performance is an indicator of future results when it comes to biodiversity and resilience!  Of approximately 6,500 plant species in the Southeast, roughly two-thirds are grassland obligate or dependent.  Of 161 new plants discovered since 2000, 70% are grassland species.


The Summit closed on an ironic note.  Reed Noss, esteemed ecologist, author of Forgotten Grasslands of the South, and Chief Science Advisor for SGI, has long been an advocate for landscape conservation.  But he said, “With the recent shift in emphasis to large landscape conservation and working landscapes, many naturally small grasslands are no longer of interest to public and private conservation agencies.”  But, he pointed out, this is a mistake because relatively small, pristine “pocket prairies” are hugely important for biodiversity conservation.  Remember: once they are gone, we cannot bring them back.


Using gems as anchors


Summit participants seemed nearly unanimous in their recognition that large-scale landscape conservation is important.  But, they said, the pendulum has swung too far if we are willing to let go of these remaining precious jewels forever simply because they are small.  Instead, these irreplaceable gems should be the anchors that define fixed points of conservation around which larger landscapes, habitat restoration, and integration with working lands can be managed more flexibly.  


“It’s not just about wildflowers,” said Estes, “It’s about ecological collapse.  When you take away the base of the food web it affects all elements of biodiversity.”  What does SGI aim to do to halt the loss of biodiversity and bring back native grasslands?  SGI has an 8-pronged approach, which includes preservation, restoration, recreation, rescue, research, seedbanking, markets, and education.  A key means for achieving these goals is to develop a grant program for partners around the Southeast using funding from philanthropic and corporate sponsors.  


Education is profoundly important because people don’t understand grasslands.  Even some conservationists don’t recognize the value of small-patch communities.  


Aside from the inherent worth of such a diverse, resilient and beautiful ecosystem, here are some of the additional reasons we should be using prairies and savannas as anchors for our landscape conservation:  water filtration, pollinators, carbon sequestration, flood control, wildlife habitat, drought-resistant livestock forage, a source of native biofuel materials, extraordinary biodiversity, and seed sources.


We also need to focus on helping people to recover their sunny, open habitat heritage.  We can do this through volunteer programs, such as the Botanical Guardians, lovingly shepherded by Jennifer Ceska of the Georgia Plant Conservation Alliance, or other forms of hands-on involvement, and especially local access to prairie patches.  Paraphrasing Carol Davit, Executive Director of the Missouri Prairie Foundation:  From a distance, prairie can all look the same, like an ocean.  But it is also alive like an ocean, with its own wild teeming wonders that come into focus only when we take the time to explore it.


Can the Southeast’s grasslands survive into the 22nd century? Not until there is a coordinated effort to conserve, research, and rebuild them.  That is the mission of the Southeastern Grasslands Initiative.


[Endnote: The ideas in this blog are borrowed from the presenters at the SGI Summit, but any mistakes and inaccuracies are mine.]