Admittedly, they may not be one of the most charismatic or showy ecosystems, but grasslands have an important role to play in reducing atmospheric carbon. Stitched together by grasses with roots up to eight feet deep (see photo of switchgrass and its roots), grasslands suck significant amounts of carbon out of the atmosphere, and store it for decades, even centuries, in the soil. This is how the soils of Iowa got so famously fertile.
Those swaths of grass are also where most of the country's ducks and many birds nest, especially where there are water sources like "prairie potholes" nearby.
Tackling Climate Change and Restoring the Landscape
So I was delighted to read that Obama is pledging his administration to "identify new approaches to protect and restore our forests, as well as other critical landscapes including grasslands and wetlands, in the face of a changing climate."
Certainly towering but far-off tropical forests have a key role in storing carbon, but I am glad Obama also sees the need to save our deep-rooted grasslands here at home. About 40% of America used to be grasslands. But now almost all of the wetter, tallgrass prairies have been plowed under to grow crops. We have less than 3% of the tallgrass prairies that used to be cover most of Illinois, Iowa and the eastern parts of the Dakotas and NE.
I don't mean to be one of those of people who always see the downside in any situation, but as happy as I am with the inclusion of grasslands in Obama's plan, I must point out that some Obama administration's policies, at least to date, haven't been helpful in protecting grasslands. So as we roll up our sleeves and get serious about climate change, I humbly suggest that we'll also need to look a bit in the mirror.
Because the truth is that since 2007 we have lost more than 20 million of acres of native and planted grasslands-an area the size of Indiana-through the conversion of grasslands to grow crops. These are the highest rates of grassland plowing since the Dust Bowl. To protect grasslands, we need to acknowledge that we're losing them at historic rates, and then look to-yes, the root causes-of why we're losing so many so fast.