(What We Have Here is) A Failure to Communicate

Picture a grassland dominated by little bluestem and other grass species.  One that has an abundance of wildflowers, including bird’s foot violet, goat’s rue, partridge pea, and numerous varieties of goldenrod, bushclover, and tickclover – among many others.  This prairie is one of only a few remnant prairies remaining in an ecosystem that once covered large swaths of North America.  Less than 1% of that ecosystem now remains in good condition, and most of its remnants are on sandy soils or steep slopes where farming and other human practices are difficult.  Sound familiar?  What if I told you this grassland ecosystem is found in places like North Carolina, Alabama, and Florida?  Oh, and that when it’s in really good condition, it’s full of pine trees…

Longleaf pine woodland (grassland?) in North Carolina.

If you live in the Midwest or Great Plains regions of North America, you were likely picturing a nearby tallgrass or mixed-grass prairie as I was describing that grassland.  Our prairies here sound, look, and function very much like the grasslands of the longleaf pine ecosystems in the southeastern United States.  Both rely heavily on frequent fire to maintain the species and habitat structure their species rely on.  The main difference is that longleaf pine grasslands have longleaf pine.

So if longleaf and midwestern prairies are so similar, why is there so little interaction between those of us working in the two ecosystem types?  It’s a question that has bothered me for years.  I’m not anywhere close to an expert on longleaf, having visited only twice during prescribed fire training courses.  On the other hand, I felt very much at home while I was there.  I recognized many of the plants – if not the species, at least the genus – and it wasn’t hard to imagine that I was walking through a midwestern oak savanna (with pine cones).  Click HERE to see some photos of longleaf pine wildflowers.

Frequent fire is used to keep longleaf ecosystems in good condition. Mature longleaf pine trees are very resistant to fire, and the fire keeps woody species from becoming overly abundant in the understory.

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Deciduous trees and shrubs can quickly start to encroach in longleaf pine communities when fire frequency decreases.

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Young longleaf pines - not just older ones - are resistant to fire. When very young, longleaf pines spend several years in a "grass stage" in which the growing point is at the ground level. In the grass stage, the tree invests in root growth belowground and resembles a bunchgrass aboveground - protecting it from fires. The tree in this photo is in the "bottle brush" stage, a phase in between the grass stage and a more mature tree. During this stage, the tree is at its most vulnerable to fire - until it reaches a size that it can again withstand burning.

It seems crazy to me that we’re not consistently exchanging ideas and strategies between midwestern prairies and longleaf pine grasslands – especially because we’re both struggling with many of the same issues.  Both systems become choked with brush and trees in the absence of frequent fire.  Invasive species are a major issue.  Perhaps most importantly, both midwestern prairie and longleaf pine are nearly gone, making restoration a critical need if the ecosystems are to survive.  Restoration efforts involve both the rehabilitation of degraded remnant natural areas and the reconversion of farm land to native vegetation.

I’ve been part of a couple efforts to start information exchanges through The Nature Conservancy and through the Grassland Restoration Network.  Both have mostly fizzled, but the little bit of exchange we managed only strengthened my conviction that we need to keep trying.  From what I can tell, many midwestern prairie ecologists could learn a lot from the way longleaf ecologists focus on ecosystem function – especially fire – as a way to measure success and manipulate habitat.  That heavy emphasis on restoring ecological process is very different from the more species composition-oriented thinking among many midwestern prairie ecologist.  At the same time, I think many longleaf ecologists could gain from infusing their process-oriented approach with more emphasis on plant diversity and the insect and animal diversity associated with those plant species.  In some ways, the differences between longleaf and tallgrass prairie thinking are similar to those between eastern and western prairie thinking within the Central U.S. (as discussed in an earlier post).

One specific opportunity I see is to provide longleaf ecologists better access to lessons learned from the long history of diverse prairie restoration efforts in the Midwest, in which hundreds of plant species are included in seed mixtures.  Most efforts to convert farm fields to longleaf pine communities (with notable exceptions) focus mainly on establishing longleaf pines and grass – largely as a way to facilitate reintroduction of fire.  Increasing the diversity of herbaceous plant species could have some big benefits ecologically, and shouldn’t slow down process of reintroducing fire.  The extent to which midwestern techniques would transfer south is something we should be exploring together.

How do we build the connections?  If I knew the answer, I wouldn’t be writing this post.  However, I do think there are some important steps.  One would be to ensure that longleaf pine ecologists are encouraged and invited to attend the meetings such as the biennial North American Prairie Conference.  Getting us all in the same place to share ideas is absolutely the best way to exchange information.  Better yet, maybe someone in Alabama or South Carolina can host an upcoming prairie conference so that Midwestern prairie folks are forced to come down and see for themselves the wonderful longleaf grasslands.  Facilitating involvement from Midwestern prairie ecologists in existing longleaf conferences would also be valuable (to everyone).

In addition, I think organizations like The Nature Conservancy and others that span multiple states have a responsibility to lead the way in facilitating communication and collaboration.  It’s certainly not easy.  It’s hard enough to work between adjacent states, let alone regions.  On the other hand, none of us have figured out all the challenges in grassland conservation, so we need all the help we can get.  Working and experimenting in separate laboratories without sharing results is just silly.

If anyone sees an opportunity for building bridges between north and south on this issue, please let me know if I can help.

For more information about longleaf pine ecosystems, visit the Longleaf Alliance website.

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About Chris Helzer

Chris Helzer is an ecologist and Eastern Nebraska Program Director for The Nature Conservancy. He supervises the management and restoration of approximately 4,000 acres of land in central and eastern Nebraska - primarily along the central Platte River. Chris is also the author of "The Ecology and Management of Prairies in the Central United States", published by the University of Iowa Press.
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11 Responses to (What We Have Here is) A Failure to Communicate

  1. Mel says:

    Chris,
    Reminds me of home. I grew up in the Piney Woods of the southeast and remember burning timberland with my father so the tree seeds could reach the ground better and grass would grow for his small herd of cattle. Longleaf is pretty resistant to grass fires once it reaches about 4-5 feet tall so we rarely damaged the trees. Never thought there would be similarities with the Great Plains but now that you point it out it makes sense. I’ve wandered through tall grasses among trees just like your photos.

    Check with the forestry department at Mississippi State University – they are actively engaged in forest health research and there is a US Forest Service research center there. They may have a forum to engage southern and plains prairie managers.

  2. James McGee says:

    Chris, Looking back at your “Lessons from the Grassland Restoration Network” post I have a further suggestion. For those managers who are conducting restoration on land that has been out of row crop production for a long period of time, it may be best to do a patch work method of restoration. You talk about seeding small portions of a site for a number of years. However, I would take this further and say it is often important to selectively remove invasive species for a number of years while critically looking at the vegetation that may already be present. If your site has been fallowed for a long period, or is in rangeland, it may have never received a broadcast application of herbicide. It is important to take a critical look at the existing vegetation before any broadcast application of herbicide occurs. Sometimes what a critical eye can find is surprising. There is a restoration that is occuring locally where patches have been left untreated within the restoration area. These were not treated with herbicide because species like Early Goldenrod, Dissected Leave Grape Fern, Sedges, Bottle Gentians, and Nodding Ladystress Orchids were present. Other nearby areas dominated by difficult to control invasive species received a broadcast application of herbicide. This has created a patch work effect before seeding even occurred. Further variation is then added by seeding different species mixes in areas where the habitat would appear to be most appropriate. Factor to be considered range from soil fertility, to moisture level, and even species that locally associate with those that may already be present at the site.

    James

  3. Sarah Marshall says:

    Chris,
    I experienced a similar phenomenon when researching the hydrology of current and former wetland prairie sites in the Willamette Valley of Oregon. When I picked up a guide to the wetland prairie of the southeastern US, I could have been reading about our western prairies in terms of percentage of historic prairie lost, similar threats from invasive species and the encroachment of trees an shrubs, and the need for fire. While there are some key differences in the hydrology and soils of prairies in the northwest, midwest, and southeastern US, I agree that it would be wonderful to see greater collaboration and sharing between ecologists, hydrologists, and soil scientists trying to understand how to preserve and restore prairie ecosystems across the US.
    Sarah

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Thanks for adding this, Sarah. I’m planning a similar post in the future to talk about the grasslands in the northwest also – though I’ve never seen them in person. We’ve had a few participants in the Grassland Restoration Network from there in the past, and though there are some significant differences, the similarities are certainly greater than the differences, and there’s much to learn from each other.

  4. Tim Siegmund says:

    Don’t forget Texas and Louisiana have a fairly extensive amount of long leaf pine habitats as well. There is a working group for the Louisiana Pine Snake and the Red-cockaded woodpecker that are getting together to talk about the alot of the things you mention. Their focus is in SE Texas and western Louisiana. It may be something to look into. I was in one of these longleaf savannahs near the southend of Sam Rayburn Reservoir near Broaddus, TX in late April and we came upon little bluestem, indiangrass, side oats grama, purple top, switchgrass, rattlesnake master, an orchid or two, and numerous sedges and rush species. This was on US Forest Service property that is burned every 2-6 years.

    Good Post!!

    Tim

    • Chris Helzer says:

      Thanks Tim – didn’t mean to leave out the western end of the range, just tried to give some examples. There are absolutely some great examples of longleaf in TX and LA. And coastal prairies that I’d like to spend some time in sometime!

  5. I did two degrees in “Prairieland” (Illinois and Kansas), and a third in “Longleafland” (Florida) and came to know a fair bit about similarities of natural history and management of both, while doing so.
    Put simply, great idea!

  6. James McGee says:

    Chris, I wanted to also mention something else about the “Lessons from the Grassland Restoration Network” post. You say it is often best to concentrate on a smaller area if you have limited seed. One of the restorations locally that is trending to be one of the most diverse has taken an opposite approach. They have taken extremely small quanties of their hardest to collect and least aggressive species and widely seeded these into the entire site. They continue this every year. The result is these species are maturing, creating more seed, and spreading. This approach takes a viligant weed control program. However, the result appears to be trending toward a much more diverse and showier prairie.

  7. Pingback: Opportunity to Network Between Southeastern and Midwestern Prairie Ecologists | The Prairie Ecologist

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