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Friday, May 13, 2011

Prairie Dreams: Restoring Prairie Ecosystems

So why is now a good time to be restoring these prairie ecosystems?

Several factors are coming together to make NOW a great time to start this effort to restore large prairie ecosystems. Carbon. Water. Wildlife. Land Use. Economics. Ecotourism. 

Let's consider carbon first - carbon dioxide to be precise.

Mature prairies, or more specifically, the soils under a mature prairie, are the subject of serious interest as a possible carbon sink in the reduction of atmospheric CO2. These soils have the ability to store large amounts of carbon pulled from the atmosphere via the prairie grasses and forbs.

In fact, the tilling of native prairie to grow biofuels appears to a losing battle in terms of CO2 emissions. If a farmer tills under a mature native prairie to grow corn for biofuel, it would take 93 years of constant corn & biofuel production on that plot to regain the CO2 emitted from the soil in the destruction of that prairie. In essence, the prairie is much more efficient at trapping and storing carbon – moreso than the corn plus emission gains from using the corn biofuel. It’s better to keep the prairie in prairie than to convert it to biofuels production, and then use the biofuels to power our vehicles.

Perhaps we could figure out a happy medium for some areas of prairie. Perhaps convert farmland to prairie? Let bison and other wildlife roam that converted farmland for a few years once that prairie becomes established, then every few years after that, harvest the mature grasses for biofuel. This might only be feasible in areas where switchgrass (a native Prairie grass) can grow as it’s a premiere source of biofuels. 

Once an area is harvested, put it on a several year cycle of growth/pasturage alternated with harvest. Add a fire in every several years if needed to keep the prairie close to its natural state (this could be done after a harvest) and it seems like we have a more sustainable “cropland”. Let the prairie give us its gifts rather than forcing it to be something less.

This type of land management would accomplish several goals: aid in the re-establishment of prairie wildlife, in turn the wildlife would help naturally “manage” the land by adding fertilizer, cropping the grasses and aerating the soil (prairie dogs, badgers, ground squirrels), and the grasses would periodically be converted to biofuels to power vehicles. 

If we choose the land wisely, we might obtain other benefits from this alternative management scheme. Marginal areas (land not easily farmed, or those prone to flooding) seem prime candidates for prairie restoration and biofuels production. Lands that would normally flood often, destroying crops, would make sense to convert to prairie. The prairie doesn’t care if it gets periodically flooded, but corn, soy, or wheat crops often don’t survive moderate to severe flooding. We’d also drastically cut down on the amounts of fertilizers and pesticides running off into our rivers because prairies don’t need these amendments.