Friday, June 21, 2024

Prairies, our most endangered resource

By Diane Wetherbee

Flower Mound is home to a tiny piece of one of the world’s most endangered ecosystems – a native prairie that has never felt the bite of a plow. Yet, despite its importance to our region, this valuable prairie remnant is an often-misunderstood landscape. Members of the non-profit Flower Mound Foundation, owners and caretakers of the iconic prairie that gave the Town of Flower Mound its name, are often asked, “Why don’t you mow that weedy field? Where are the wildflowers?”

Beauty abounds on the prairie. (Photo by Diane Wetherbee)

A native prairie’s defining feature is grass. The “Big Four” grasses are the lifeblood of any good prairie: little bluestem, big bluestem, Indiangrass, and switchgrass. The Flower Mound prairie is home to all four, along with several other important prairie grasses. When looking at a prairie from the road, it is what most people notice, the tall grasses waving in the breeze, which to some might look like a weedy field. In fact, they are the most valuable treasure of the prairie.

To see the amazing abundance of wildflowers in any prairie, you must walk it. The earliest spring flowers, before the grasses begin growing, are easy to spot. But you will have to look deep into the tall grass to see many of the native wildflowers that are there all summer and fall. Every season brings a new colorful show. Even in the winter, the seedheads of the grasses and the flowering plants lend their own subdued beauty to the prairie. This year is an excellent wildflower year, and anyone who ventures onto the prairie will be rewarded with the thrill of discovering nature’s rainbow of colorful plants.

Prior to European settlement in North Texas, much of the area now known as Flower Mound was covered in lush grasslands. A prairie savannah sitting in the middle of two “fingers” of the western edge of the Eastern Cross Timbers Forest, early visitors called the narrow four-mile stretch of open land “Long Prairie.” According to historian A.C. Greene in “A Brief History of Flower Mound,” it was called Long Prairie before anyone had settled on it. In 1879, the location of the historic Flower Mound Presbyterian Church was described in the deed as “on Long Prairie,” the first known official use of the name.

Early settlers, simple farmers lured by the Peter’s Colony to settle this part of Texas, quickly realized the fertility of this open land and recognized it would be easier to farm than the densely forested areas of the nearby Cross Timbers, which provided the wood to build their homesteads and fuel their cooking fires. Today, modern settlers have filled the former prairie with houses and businesses along busy Long Prairie Road (FM 2499), planting trees as they build.

We protect natural features like the Cross Timbers Forest, but no one seems to mourn the loss of the open grasslands. Yet there are many reasons to protect and restore prairies. Prairies are highly diverse, and just one acre of native prairie can hold over 300 species. Kirsti Harms, Executive Director of the Native Prairies Association of Texas (NPAT), says, “A small area of prairie has more diversity than even the rainforest. Even a restored prairie helps. And prairies are really good for the diversity of our native pollinators, too, like butterflies, native bees, beetles, and many other insect species. So many plants we humans need for survival, like food plants, depend on these pollinators.” They are also home to grassland birds. Not all birds live in the forest, with many species like scissor-tailed flycatchers, red-tailed hawks, and bluebirds nesting in the prairie in the summer, and an abundance of sparrows and northern harriers cruising the grasslands in the winter.

Once covering 167 million acres in the middle United States, now less than four percent of prairies remain. In Texas, it is even bleaker, with less than one-half of one percent of our prairies remaining. Prairies are considered the world’s most endangered ecosystem, and farming and early U.S. public policy contributed to the demise of our grasslands. The Homestead Act of 1862 provided 160 acres to anyone who lived and farmed on prairie land. “Prairies have a deep rich soil, making it really good farmland,” Harms said. “But once you plow it up, it’s no longer prairie.” Adding to the demise of prairie land, the Timber Culture Act of 1873 gave an additional 160 acres of prairie if the landholder planted more than 40 of those acres in trees.

Prairies are excellent at protecting both our water quantity and quality of our watersheds. “Grasses have a network of very deep roots, some as long as eight feet,” Harms of NPAT explains. “As rain falls, the deep roots increase infiltration, the amount of water sinking deep into the soil, slowing runoff. Prairies also increase the water quality, because the prairie grasses and forbs act as filters, removing many of the toxins in the water as it passes through their root systems.” Prairie management practices also help maintain the water quality in a way farmland doesn’t. No fertilizer or pesticides are used, and prairie managers make only very selective use of herbicides to eliminate hard-to-control invasive plants like Johnsongrass.

Native prairies also help with global climate change. With deep roots, prairie plants sequester huge amounts of carbon where it is used for more plant growth. That carbon won’t be released into the atmosphere for years, maybe even centuries. Native grasses like switchgrass also provide one of the highest energy and lowest input biofuel sources, much more efficient than corn, which requires huge amounts of chemical pesticides and fertilizers to provide the needed yield. Over 20 million acres of prairie has been lost to grow crops, and most of the recent loss was primarily to grow corn for ethanol.

By preserving prairies, we also are stewards of Texas history. A prairie is a living museum, a glimpse into what our area must have looked like before settlers moved in. Once, Texas was three-fourths prairie and savannah; now more than 99% of native prairies have been destroyed, and pressure continues with the growth Texas has been experiencing. However, an increasing number of ranchers and other landowners are recognizing the value of restoring their land to native prairie, both for the benefits in raising their cattle and to help increase our declining wildlife populations. The Endangered Species Act doesn’t protect endangered habitats. Harms perhaps says it best. “Prairies are our legacy; it’s part of Texas. It’s our heritage and we should save some so that our children can experience it. The current generation may be our last chance to preserve even small remnants of Texas’s native prairies. Who’s even going to know what a prairie looks like unless we save some?”

(For more information about Texas prairies, visit Native Prairies Association of Texas at texasprairie.org.)

CTG Staff
CTG Staff
The Cross Timbers Gazette News Department

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