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Envisioning a future for grasslands in the United States

August 20, 2020

Grasslands are among the most endangered ecosystems in the world, but there is widespread hope for their conservation according to a recent report by University of Wisconsin-Madison Nelson Institute assistant scientist, Tyler Lark. Published in Land Use Policy, the paper, Protecting our prairies: Research and policy actions for conserving America’s grasslands outlines immediate opportunities to reduce the loss of native grasslands and improve agricultural sustainability across the United States.

The proposed solutions come at a pivotal time when grasslands are being lost at a rate of over one million acres per year in the U.S., often to be replaced with crops, buildings, or other uses. “If we think about the Midwest landscape as an example,” says Lark, “most places that are now used as cropland or developed land used to be grassland, and as such remaining intact grasslands are few and far between. This is despite the fact that grasslands provide significant benefits to society including improved water quality, carbon sequestration, and often valuable forage for livestock production.” 

To harness the benefits of grasslands and address their growing threats, Lark makes the case for collective action and a community-based vision, such as “no native grassland conversion” or “zero net loss of natural ecosystems.”  The paper also highlights practical ways that scientists, policymakers, and the general public can help to protect these areas.  One such action is to improve the monitoring of remaining prairie sites, something that Lark and the team at Nelson Institute have been working to address.

“There’s several opportunities to deepen our understanding of prairie locations and conditions across multiple scales,” Lark said. “For example, we’ve been mapping grasslands broadly across the U.S. using satellite-based imaging, but complementary efforts are underway by folks throughout the country to conduct detailed inventories from the ground up at local, state, and regional levels.  Collecting and integrating these efforts nationwide could rapidly advance what we know about prairies, including the threats to and opportunities for their conservation.”

In addition, Lark recommends that policymakers revisit the ways in which publicly funded crop insurance encourages the conversion of prairie to cropland and how this is impacting the loss of grassland. “By redirecting some of those incentives to support conservation practices on existing farmland, we can improve farm resiliency and environmental stewardship while reducing pressure to convert grasslands to cropland,” he noted, “Such a change would better support both our agricultural producers and the environment."  

Finally, Lark encourages the public to support grassland-based products—think grass-fed beef and dairy, or even honey—and companies that make land restoration or protection a part of their sustainability plans.

“Public engagement is fundamental to grassland conservation,” Lark said. “Many of the policy or market-based opportunities to protect grasslands are driven by constituent support or consumer demand.  By engaging with grasslands – whether it be by enjoying them for recreation or supporting grassland-based products, we add value to their existence, which in turn can help foster protection for these at-risk landscapes.”

For Lark, this paper and his current work in this area provide an important opportunity to impact the trajectories of climate change and conservation while offering actionable solutions to help address one of the greatest environmental challenges.

“So often in the news and in published research, we hear only about problems in the environment and the challenges we face as a society to address them. With this work, I wanted to focus squarely on the solutions, with hopes of igniting conservation action towards environmental goals,” Lark said. “We know that preventing the destruction of our nation's grasslands is one of the top natural solutions for addressing climate change and a key conservation opportunity within the agricultural sector.  The good news is there are easy, immediate actions that we can take right now as researchers, policymakers, and the public to better protect these lands and realize their benefits."