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Prairie Days (and a big chick!)

June 4, 2019

The North American Prairie Conference has come to Houston for the first time ever and because of that, I’m spending time in a classroom rather than our Park. What, you might ask, do grasslands have to do with Houston? Just EVERYTHING!!

For at least 20,000 years, Houston was part of a vast grassland ecology that stretched from Louisiana to Corpus. During this time, Houston was a largely treeless expanse of grasses and flowers. Our trees were limited to the strips alongside rivers and bayous. Grasslands (prairies) over time generate incredibly productive soils. Given our ample rainfall, this made our entire coastal prairie a giant money pile for agriculture. Farmers cashed in our prairies, but it turns out that we still need them. Desperately. So Buffalo Bayou Park is part of a nation-wide effort to restore our prairies.

Many of the challenges Houston and the world faces can be repaired by replacing the world’s missing grasslands. Prairies mitigate flooding. Prairies provide habitat for pollinators. There’s a reason the bees and songbirds are disappearing. We took away their food. And since insects pollinate our crops, we need them. They starve, so do we. Grasslands support healthy pollinator populations.

Prairies are also world-class carbon sequestration systems. We often think of forests when planning natural carbon sinks, but that isn’t the best solution for a variety of reasons. For one thing, soil storage is long term. Trees seem long term, but a single fire returns the tree’s carbon to the air, and with climate change, you can expect more wildfires. Prairies put atmospheric carbon back into the soil. If you don’t plow up grasslands, they can burn over and over and that carbon stays put. In fact, burning prairies over and over is what keeps them alive!

The capacity of the soil to absorb carbon is so vast that every bit of atmospheric carbon plus all the carbon in the world’s biomass (every living thing) could be sunk into the earth’s soil.* In other words, we can restore the health of the entire world through something as simple as grass. And please do not confuse prairie grasses with turf grasses. Turf grasses (lawns!) are environmentally useless. Actually worse than useless, but that is a topic for another day.

There is so much more to say about prairies and I will devote many future blog posts to this topic. If you really want to know more about how prairies made Houston and how we are now helping to save the world by replacing them, join me for our monthly nature walk. It’s free!

Our baby is growing up!

I did find time to check in on our baby hawk. Our singleton chick is growing like crazy. She’s got flight feathers mixed in with her baby fluff and she is precariously walking around in the nest. This may be the last week I get to see her in that nest. She will be flying soon.