Pulitzer Prize-winning writer James Risser observes: “Many experience anguish at the wreckage of clear-cut mixed-tree forest, destined to be replaced by a single-species tree farm.” A field of golden wheat, corn or soy is the same thing— a crop monoculture inhabiting what once was a rich and diverse but now ‘clear-cut’ grassland.
Grassland covers more land area than any other ecosystem in North America; no other system has suffered such a massive loss of life.
—Richard Manning in Grassland
Grasslands occur in temperate and tropical areas with reduced rainfall (10-30 inches per year) or prolonged dry seasons. Grasslands occur in the Americas, Africa, Asia, and Australia. Soils in these regions were deep and rich, but have been exploited for agriculture. Grasslands are almost entirely devoid of trees, and evolved with large herds of grazing animals. Natural grasslands once covered over 40 percent of the earth’s land surface. In temperate areas where rainfall is between 10 and 30 inches a year, grassland is the climax community because it is too wet for desert and too dry for forests.[i]
Much of the Elder Creek watershed is actually blue oak woodland and savanna, with comparatively little natural grassland. However, since native grasses play a significant role in the mineral and water cycles of all ecotypes that include grasses, we believe that all native grasses, be they among oaks or not, deserve to be restored and protected.
Before Europeans arrived, California had about 25 million acres of natural grasslands. Only about one percent of the remaining 10 million acres of grasslands is native perennial grass dominant, and this tiny relic of the past is fragmented into thousands of small patches. Over 300 species of native grasses are found in the state. These grasses are an integral part of diverse habitats, ranging from cool, wet forests to hot, dry deserts. Ninety percent of California’s rare and endangered species inhabit the state’s grassland ecosystems as well as significant populations of native pollinators, whose services to agriculture are estimated at $937 million to $2.4 billion annually. The decline in native grasses and grasslands in the last two centuries has been due to intensive cultivation, poorly managed grazing, urbanization, fire suppression, and the introduction of nonnative grass and forb species. [ii]
The deep roots of native grasses stabilize soil, increase water infiltration, store carbon in the soil, and recycle nutrients. Appropriate management and restoration of grasslands, savannas and woodlands can enhance these benefits. Well-managed grazing can help maintain native grass populations, which offer a longer green forage season. We see Predator-Friendly Holistic Planned Grazing that includes long periods of rest as perhaps the best method available to us for grassland and native grass restoration.
Brock Dolman of the Occidental Arts and Ecology Center explains the very important biological roles of these plants in the following video: