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OnEarth: Fall 2001: Feature Story


A Prairie Primer

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The tallgrass prairie, which once blanketed millions of acres of the Midwest, is now North America's most endangered ecosystem. Ninety-five percent of the tallgrass is gone. In Illinois, less than one-tenth of 1 percent of the original grasslands remains.

Prairie grasses have adapted over thousands of years to thrive in conditions that larger trees can't manage. To withstand heavy grazing and frequent prairie fires, the grasses hide nearly two-thirds of their buds and mass beneath the ground, earning prairies the name "underground forests." Grasses survive the frequent prolonged droughts of the Midwest by expanding roots 11 feet down into the water table. Above ground, the tallgrass prairie may grow 10 feet tall, and shelter nearly 800 types of birds, mammals, and reptiles.

The dark prairie soils, formed through the millennia by glacial deposits and decaying organic matter, are some of the most fertile and productive on the planet. Along with the plow, introduced by John Deere in 1837, they transformed the prairie into the American breadbasket. The tallgrass is now the corn-and-soybean belt, while the mixed-grass prairie of the central Great Plains sprouts wheat, and the short-grass prairie that once grew in the Rockies' rain shadow is grazing land for domestic livestock.

Numerous prairie restoration efforts exist across North America, though biologists continue to debate just how "restored" is "restored." Merely spreading grass over an abandoned field can be accomplished in a generation; reconstructing the original array of soil, plant, and animal types, however, requires a much longer vision. Cindy Hildebrand, a board member of the Iowa Prairie Network, cautions, "Reconstructing a virgin prairie from a corn field may take as long as four or five centuries."

-- Sarah Osterhoudt

Prairie Revival: Grasslander | A Prairie Primer | A Farewell to Arms | Resources

OnEarth. Fall 2001
Copyright 2001 by the Natural Resources Defense Council

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