17 April 2007

The case for prairie restoration

Once upon a time, most of the midwest was a sea of grass, a vast, complex, self-sustaining system thriving on--and thus maintaining--a deep layer of rich, fertile topsoil, arguably the best in the world.

Once upon a time there was prairie.

Once upon a time people saw potential in the prairie. They plowed it up and scattered the seeds of their choosing--and thus destroyed the system.

Once upon a time, the system destroyed, any open space was seen with an indifferent eye. Cropland and empty lots alike were bought and sold, built upon and paved, defying and thus ruining the land's natural tendancy to cycle.

Now the sea of grass is gone. All that remains of the paririe are scattered pockets, most of which are severely degraded and overrun with invasive species and evolved pests. They cannot sustain themselves. These scattered bits of prairie require great effort and special care on our part in order to be restored to even a glimmer of their former greatness. We must step up and save what's left of the prairie, or it will be lost forever.

Why is this important? Why bother with prairie restoration?

Some people will wax nostalgic about all the pretty wildflowers and butterflies, or recite a list of native species on the brink of extinction, or make a grand speech about future generations. In my view these are all perfectly good reasons, and in my experience the argument usually ends there. But sometimes it doesn't, in which case I consider two fundamental reasons why restored prairie habitats are essential.

1. Development and industrialized farming have devastating effects on the water cycle. Not only does the water become polluted, but water sources both above and below ground dry up as rainwater is diverted elsewhere. In turn, conditions on the surface affect the weather. What was once an ecologically sustainable prairie (and then fertile farmland) could become an arid desert if we're not careful. Even small swaths of healthy, restored prairie can absorb enough water to make a difference. Of course, that can't be done if the water is severely polluted.

2. You know, all those future generations don't get the credit that they're due. I remember coming across a theory long ago that the Roman empire fell because, among other things, their aggressive overfarming of northern Africa resulted in the Sahara Desert. Is this a valid claim? Well, who knows? The ancient Romans never thought to set aside any bits of conquered territory as nature preserves as testaments to the original landscape. Maybe you think it's still a pretty wacky idea, but hey, in the meantime we'll never know for sure. Knowing what the natural landscape is like--or used to be like--can explain a lot, and familiarity with an area's natural history can improve understanding of that area's human history. After all, we do live here. So if you ask me, it is important that we save, recapture, and restore every bit of prairie that we can, so that we'll always remember what used to be here. Then even far in the future people will still be able to say, look, this is how it was, once upon a time.

McCormick Place Bird Sanctuary, Chicago, IL

Select references:

Mississippi National River and Recreation Area:
Prairie Restoration Home Page

Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory:
Ecology/Nature - Prairie

University of Illinois at Springfield:
UIS Prairie Restoration Project

Chicago Wilderness Magazine:
Water: Demand & Supply (Special Report)


At 17 April, 2007 14:17, Blogger Benjamin said...

The Sahara was a grassland at the end of the last ice age, but it was all desert at least by the heyday of ancient Egypt. Some megafauna (like lions and hippos) that today only live south of the Sahara survived on the Mediterranean coast until Roman times, when I believe they were hunted to extinction. (I think the last lion in Greece was killed during the Roman Empire.) So, the Sahara Desert wasn't a result of overfarming; however, the ongoing desertification of the Sahel (immediately south of the Sahara) probably is.

Having said all that, prairie restoration is probably still a desirable thing.

At 18 April, 2007 00:59, Blogger David Johnsen said...

Another informative Illinois prairie Web site is mentioned in Biking Illinois (Ride 32 sidebar):

Illinois Natural History Survey:
The Tallgrass Prairie in Illinois


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