What is a blade of grass? That is a question that does not likely keep many of us awake at night. Regardless of grass’ priority in your life, prairie grass is extremely common in Illinois and important to our natural ecological communities as a whole. In our last issue, the article “Harvesting the Future” explained the process and steps volunteers take to ensure the future of our natural prairies. So, why do people care so much about prairie grass as to dedicate many hours of their day to collecting and harvesting their seeds? The truth is, the prairie is not just a bunch of grass. The tall, beautiful grasses are home to thousands of insects and small animals that are crucial to the balance of nature. Just like us humans, plants and animals live in communities that depend on natural resources for survival. If the prairie were to one day disappear, what would become of these animals?
Prairies also aid in creating some of the most fertile, valuable soil on Earth. Since most prairies have been around for thousands of years, they have been able to go through the decomposition cycle more than once, making them valuable due to their rich nutrients. Areas as diverse as prairies cannot possibly have only two benefits, however! FermiLab is among America’s top particle physics laboratories and is home to one Illinois’ few natural prairies. A FermiLab docent and leader of the Prairie Rangers, Maureen Hix, helped to prove just how beneficial prairies are to the ecosystem.
“With less than 1% of our natural prairies left, it is in our best interest to preserve it,” Hix said. “The rich prairie soil nurtured and developed an impressive prairie ecosystem — 10,000 years in the making — with its diverse plants and animals. It is our natural heritage.”
Hix also mentioned how the preservation and reconstruction of deep-rooted prairie plants aid in creating a climate that encourages more delicate prairie plants to grow, which in turn attract birds, insects and animals that rely on a variety of plants to survive.
“Greater diversity of plants creates greater diversity of all living things,” Hix explained. “This allows scientists to then study these plants and animals within this ecosystem and to discover the plants’ ability to be used for habitation, medicine, surface runoff and carbon sequestration, to name just a few.”
For example, a popular prairie plant is Milkweed, which happens to be the only plant where the female monarch butterflies lay their eggs. With monarch butterflies’ dwindling state, it is crucial that we increase their habitat. Reducing our carbon footprint is crucial to our climate as well, especially due to our country’s recent political statements. In fact, several prairie plants, like Switchgrass, are currently being studied at FermiLab as an alternative fuel source. Could it be that prairies hold the key to eco-friendly fuel? The prairie is crucial to several aspects of our world, and could have several benefits if the right measures are taken. From potential fuel sources to breeding grounds for struggling species, it is imperative that we help preserve our natural treasure.
“Young people hold the power to affect change for all of the environmental issues that continue to face our society. We need their energy!” exclaims Hix. “They have to demand change and support legislation for cleaner energies and greener building materials, greener household products, solar energies, less plastic and the mindset that they can do with less. Conservation of our natural resources and developing technology must go hand in hand with a respect for nature.”
Actions truly do speak louder than words. While one person can get things started, a handful of people can really set things in motion.