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Saving the Earth Includes Saving the Grasslands

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ASPA as an organization.

By Robert A. Hunter
July 3, 2023

As public servants, educators, community volunteers and engaged citizens, we all have plenty of issues on our agendas, yet nourishing our grasslands is no less important than any other environmental initiative.

And just why are grasslands so critical?

Grasslands comprise about one third of the earth’s land surface. They are important for Ecosystem Goods and Services (ES) such as food production (think milk, honey, meat, etc.), public health (think medicine), wildlife habitats, water conservation, erosion control, recreation and many other resources which contribute to a healthy economy and our well-being.

The trouble is that grasslands are not given as much attention as trees, yet their existence and maintenance are just as paramount.

Too many of us overlook the role of grasslands in the ecosystem and, in the process, their acreage is diminishing for other land uses. Supplanting grasslands is not necessary. Grasslands may be used for multiple purposes if managed correctly. It’s time for us all to recognize the challenge and take stronger action.

So what can we do?

At the national level we can support the North American Grasslands Conservation Act introduced in Congress last summer by Senator Ron Wyden of Oregon and Senator Michael Bennet of Colorado. According to these leaders this legislation would provide incentives for partnerships with landowners and tribes to voluntarily curb the loss of grasslands and restore them where possible.

A successful model for this is the already enacted North American Wetlands Conservation Act, which has been proven worthy of its passage.

A number of organizations exist which are focused on grassland preservation and restoration. Three examples are the United States Department of Agriculture’s Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS), the Southeastern Grasslands Institute (SGI) operating in 23 states and the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (WAFWA) serving 24 western states and Canadian provinces.

A great example of how individuals can support such efforts is found in the volunteerism story of Chip and Jodi Morgan of Canton, Georgia.

It was Jodi who took the first action. While looking for ways to do something interesting with their large backyard she ran across a native plant conference in North Carolina.

Chip reluctantly attended the conference with her. They learned about more than what kinds of unique things could be used in personal landscaping. They learned about what they could do to support the environment. They met a dynamic leader, Dwayne Estes, of SGI, who soon recruited them to support the Grasslandia initiative. Dwayne captured the urgency of addressing the dramatic decline in southeastern grasslands.

SGI’s slogan is “25 Years Will Be Too Late.”

Chip, a recently retired senior IT engineer from Norfolk Southern Railroad, recognized his ability to contribute to the tedious work of the “Witness Trees” project. This work entails the research and identification of Post-Revolutionary War land survey records which pinpoint trees totally adverse to shady forest conditions, thus inferring the presence of grasslands. Researching the past helps establish a clear-minded plan for future action.

Jodi, a lifelong leader in causes involving youth groups, dove into opportunities to educate and encourage young people to act on environmental preservation projects.

Jodi’s service will undoubtedly contribute to turning the hearts and minds of many future leaders to positive action.

This kind of work, in each of our communities, can bring about the kind of movement required to address critical environmental challenges, including grasslands conservation.

Such efforts in my own hometown, Ogden, Utah, demonstrate how easily we can support such service.

In 1975, volunteers in Ogden, with city leaders’ blessing and foresight, successfully applied for the grant of about 300 acres of land being surplused by the federal government, previously known as Defense Depot Ogden.

The plan was to use half for a new Weber County fairgrounds (including grassland area) and 152 acres for the establishment of Utah’s first nature center. Again, this was initiated and continues to be supported by committed volunteers, requiring very limited support of local government resources.

Located near the center of northern Utah’s population base, this grassland and wildlife preservation area boasts 1.5 miles of walking trails. More importantly, it attracts thousands of visitors (predominantly school students) to view living exhibits and learn about the importance of such natural landscapes and the role they play on this planet. Needless to say, this community is inspiring thousands of young people who soon will be our adult volunteers and voting citizens.

In summary, it is critical for us all in academic, government and leadership circles to (1) study and support the North American Grasslands Conservation Act now before Congress, (2) learn about and support the organizations in our localities working on grasslands initiatives, such as those identified earlier in this column, (3) educate our constituents about the importance of all environmental preservation, including little-known grasslands concerns and (4) look for ways to encourage the establishment of  local conservation initiatives.

Interested citizens are among us. And they’ll respond to the call by dynamic leaders.

Author: Robert A Hunter is a longtime political and nonprofit leader in Utah, currently serving as public policy advisor to United Way of Northern Utah and teaching Leadership and Political Life at
Weber State University. He may be contacted at [email protected].

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