EMINENCE, Mo. — As dawn cracked one morning in mid-May, the botanist Neal Humke and I hiked up a hill eager to check on a landscape in progress. Five years ago, we cut nearly every single tree across 19 acres here, piled and burned the limbs and left the trunks where they lay. The goal was to restore one of the Ozarks’ rarest ecosystems, a type of dry, rocky grassland known as a glade. To bring back the grass, we had to clear it of trees.
For the previous 60 years, the glade had been shaded by opportunistic redcedar trees that moved in after a large wildfire ripped through the area and fire was suppressed after that. Under the trees’ dense canopy, the native grassland species couldn’t thrive. But seeds are incredibly resilient; some may survive in the soil for 70 years. If the glade had remained covered in trees for a couple more decades, it might have been too late. But with the tree cover gone and sunlight pouring in, woodland species are now giving way to the grassland species. The result is a collection of strange bedfellows: sun-loving Eastern prickly pear cactus next to woodland greenbrier; ragweed alongside the Ozark-endemic, grass-loving wildflower Bush’s skullcap.
The glade has also filled in with songbirds. A whippoorwill sang its name in 4/4 time and a yellow-breasted chat squawked and chuckled. Under flat rocks, Neal Humke and I found a scorpion, a telltale sign you’re in a grassy glade.
Cutting down trees to bring back grass may seem puzzling in a time of climate change, as forest conservation and tree-planting have become popular ways to keep carbon out of the atmosphere. But it is exactly what we should do in some parts of the Southeast. The climate and biodiversity crises are twin-barreled problems. We can’t afford to rob biodiversity to pay for the climate.
And grasslands are surprisingly good at pulling carbon out of the atmosphere. A single sunflower might not be the carbon hog that an oak tree is, but grass’s deep root systems store the element deep underground, where it can take hundreds or thousands of years to return to the atmosphere.
What’s driving the grassier vision for the Southeast’s future is a revolution in our understanding of its natural history. For the past century, the commonly held belief was that forests once covered most of the region from the Atlantic Ocean to the Mississippi River. But we now know that’s not true.
“We went from thinking grasslands were these small islands in a sea of forest to now looking at these landscapes as having been probably three times that size, possibly about as much as 40 percent of the Southeastern landscape,” said Dwayne Estes, a co-founder and executive director of the Southeastern Grasslands Institute. His colleague Reed Noss was among the first to document the region’s botanical history, in a 2012 book titled “Forgotten Grasslands of the South.” It synthesized research from climatologists, anthropologists, historians and others to show that much of the Southeast was a string of large and small grassland ecosystems with tremendous biodiversity.
Pound for pound, Southeastern grasslands are far more biodiverse than the massive tallgrass prairie in the Midwest or the shortgrass prairie of the Great Plains. One reason is that Southeastern grasslands can be found in much wetter, steeper and more geologically diverse landscapes. The result is a dozen or more unique types — including river scours, glades, pine savannas and others, each with their own plant and wildlife communities.
All of these unique grasslands are under threat, but not all by tree invasion. The few remaining grasslands in Arkansas are being converted to grow rice, Virginia meadows are being bulldozed by housing developers, and low-lying coastal prairie faces sea-level rise. Because grasslands are so easily navigated, settled and plowed, they may be the most threatened ecosystems in the world. In the Southeast, Dwayne Estes estimates, at least 90 percent of grasslands have been destroyed by farming, grazing, development and encroaching forests.
And it’s obvious that everywhere, grasslands remain undervalued. Many conservation organizations working in the Southeast are still focused on tree planting and preserving existing forests. The Nature Conservancy’s Cumberland Forest Project spans 253,000 acres of land in Kentucky, Tennessee and Virginia, part of an effort to store carbon and create continuous habitat for species migration during climate change.
These habitat corridors are indeed crucial. The collared lizard, the charismatic iridescent species native to Ozark glades, will probably never make it to the glade I cleared because it has no safe path to travel from older grassland glades. One of conservation’s trolley problems is the choice between habitat corridors that protect large swaths of moving life and disconnected sites that harbor extremely rare species.
But the importance of habitat corridors doesn’t mean we should give up on the 60 percent of Southeastern plant species that prefer grasslands. Looking to the future, climate models suggest a hotter Southeast that may have more extreme droughts. Geologic history tells us this kind of climate is perfect for grasslands. Our conservation efforts should reflect the increasingly favorable conditions for grasslands too.
Recent legislation is beginning to steer us in the right direction. The Inflation Reduction Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill funnel billions of federal dollars into habitat restoration, including for grasslands. While much of the money has not yet been allocated, one opportunity is on public lands, which contain huge areas of savanna that could be restored.
Many of the most endangered Southeast grassland types, like the Alabama Black Belt prairie, are mainly found on private lands. Private landowners can apply for government funds to do restoration, and the U.S. Farm Bill, up for reauthorization by Congress this year, is a key opportunity to make sure grasslands are a priority for these funds.
The glade I helped restore in Missouri is on private land. The project is in its early stages, and grasses are still finding their place there. But Neal Humke, who is also the fire and stewardship manager at the L-A-D Foundation in St. Louis, said the building blocks for recovery are here.
Forests should still occupy a majority of the Southeastern landscape, as they always have. There is no war between grasslands and forests; there is more than enough American South for them to coexist.
But much of the South’s native grasslands lie dormant, under forests and farms, in seeds, roots and rhizomes, waiting for the sun that used to bathe them. They’re still alive, but time is running out. Let’s uncover them and help them bloom.
Robert Langellier is a writer who works in botany and ecological restoration in the Missouri Ozarks. He has also been a wildland firefighter and a long-haul truck driver.
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