At the age of 12, I was playing with matches in the only grassy field in my urban neighborhood in Yonkers, New York. Pretty soon, my summer fun turned into a dangerous game as a match flicked through the air ignited dry grass. When I frantically stomped on the smoky spot, it turned into a fireball which seemed to magically move to another part of the field. I ran to sound the alarm. But by the time the fire engines arrived, the entire field was charred and smoldering. Fortunately for me, the firemen dowsed the field before any neighboring houses went up in smoke. While I escaped reform school, you can bet my summer fun was replaced by a lengthy grounding and an endless succession of backyard and house chores.
Decades later, I would come to appreciate the important role grasslands play in the circle of life in the Hudson Valley and throughout the world. Scenic Hudson's terrific Conservation Science Director Dr. Sacha Spector has deepened my understanding with a fascinating article recently published in Wings, the Journal of the Xerces Society. Sacha also oversees our grassland restoration projects on park lands owned by Scenic Hudson.
Once one of America's predominant natural features, grasslands historically covered up to 1 billion acres, primarily in the Great Plains where the buffalo roamed. In the Northeast, early settlers' demand for sheep pastures and hayfields proceeded at such a furious pace that by 1850 they'd turned some 80 percent of the region's forests into grasslands. Since then, a combination of natural and human forces (with sprawling development a major culprit) have turned grasslands into subdivisions or back into woods at a breakneck rate. Out West, more than 285 million grassland acres have been lost. Here in the Northeast, trees once again blanket most of those fields our forefathers toiled to clear.
Why should we care? Although they may appear scrubby, grasslands offer enormous benefits. In the Great Plains and West, they provide 95 percent of the rangeland for America's beef cattle. Throughout the nation, they support a $123-billion hunting, fishing and wildlife-watching industry. Grasslands are essential for storing and purifying water supplies; they also sustain an incredible variety of wildlife, especially birds and insects. Feathered creatures dependent on this habitat for nesting, breeding and rest during migration have paid a heavy price for grasslands' disappearance. During the last 30 years, these species have declined faster than any U.S. bird group.
Efforts to maintain grasslands have been underway since the 1990s by both the federal government and many states. In the Hudson Valley, protecting grasslands is a priority of Scenic Hudson's land preservation program and one of the reasons we are pushing for restoration of state funding for land conservation. Such lands provide habitat for creatures such as bobolinks, northern harriers and short-eared owls. Because the abundance and variety of wildlife increases with the size of a grassland area, it's imperative to preserve large properties. Scenic Hudson accomplishes this, in part, by safeguarding working farms near each other. The strategy is akin to a three-run homer: In addition to protecting contiguous swaths of pasture and meadows, it guarantees an ongoing source for healthy local food and sustains communities' agriculture-dependent economies.
Saving grassland from development is only half the battle. Equally important is keeping the grass on the grassland. Halting forest successionthe natural process in which shrubs and then trees replace grasses and small plants, turning a wildflower-filled meadow into woodlandis extremely time- and labor-intensive. Halting this leafy onrush can be accomplished by regular mowing, proscribed burns, chemical treatments or livestock grazing. An added challenge is halting the spread of invasive species, such as purple loosestrife, that crowd out native plants wildlife count on. Short of pulling out the offending immigrants, no surefire remedy has yet been found for eradicating them. Here's another good reason for keeping grassland in farmers' hands: their cows and sheep get this job done safely and efficiently.
While less dramatic than a mountaintop vista or a stream-filled gorge, the critical role grasslands play in supporting bird and other life makes them a thing of beauty, worthy of our collective efforts to protect them.
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