Grasslands and Fire, an Introspection

Why grasslands? For the Great Plains Fire Science Exchange, it may seem obvious. Grasslands once were the dominant ecosystem in the Plains. We know this from the remaining remnants as well as historic and archaeological data. Today, grasslands of North America are imperiled. I learned recently about the once extensive grasslands of Florida and the Southeast. Yes, Florida still has important rangelands. Nationally, we are losing our grasslands to a variety of things including development, climate change, transition to woodland, and yes–the plow. The plow was the initial source of grassland conversion as our country grew over the last two centuries. We owe many of the things we need and enjoy in our grocery stores today to this legacy, so it is tough to look back at history with a negative lens. We can, however, learn from the past and conserve our existing resources for the future.

                                                              Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, post-burn, landscape view.

                                                              Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, post-burn, landscape view.

Have you ever been in a place where you felt completely at peace? Grasslands are that place for me and many of my friends who study, manage, and own them. It pains us to know that the tiny fraction of remaining prairie is still subject to the plow today despite the current availability and waste of food. Those losses are painful because we know the importance of the grasses, wild flowers, insects, birds, mice, snakes, and so many other creatures that are just holding on to those last vestiges of amber waves. Some of the benefits of grasslands are in academic circles, known as ecosystem services. Things like erosion control, clean water, and carbon sequestration, along with livestock production, ecotourism, and open space aesthetics are among the benefits these places provide.

Fire has shaped the grasslands since the beginning. We used to debate whether lightening or American Indians were the primary source of ignition, but the science is coming to a place where that debate is trivial. Fire, how to apply it, "control" it, appreciate it, and have more of it (safely) are really a more important debate presently. We discuss substitutes for fire in a social and political environment that struggles to appreciate it. But really, there is no substitute. Machines and chemicals cannot replicate the cycling of nutrients, changes in light and water availability to the soil and other plants, smoke needed for germination, and cause of mortality for some organisms. We have good evidence of the dependence of grazing animals on fire. Bison, cattle, sheep, deer, and many others gravitate to burned lands. Animal health benefits from a diverse habitat with forage choices.

The loss of grasslands weighs heavily on the minds of some, and I hope the small role that I can play will be to create awareness in a few more. Great Plains Fire Science Exchange aims to support the work of those who love grasslands by providing fire information through research summaries and connecting people who have questions with those who have answers. The fire community we serve includes everyone from urbanites who have never seen a prairie fire to the fire operations professionals who make their livings eating smoke and protecting us, to the researchers who help us understand what it all means. I invite everyone to ask questions and share their knowledge and skills. Maybe together we can increase appreciation for grasslands and our home.