The mention of grasslands in the United States brings to mind the ecosystems of the Great Plains or high plains of the West. Yet, the eminent ecologist and conservationist Reed Noss reminds us in his book Forgotten Grasslands of the South: Natural History and Conservation that grasslands once occurred across the entire South. These grasslands were larger and more biologically diverse than those of any other region of the country. Where are these grasslands, are they lost and forgotten, or can they be rediscovered and conserved? These are issues that Noss addresses in a remarkable way.
Grasslands are described by Noss as any natural community or ecosystem in which the herbaceous layer is dominated by grasses or other grass-like plants, such as sedges and associated forbs. This does not exclude trees, as long as the tree canopy is not dense enough to shade out the herbaceous understory. Grass land communities are grouped into 5 main types: prairies; grassy balds; savannas and woodlands; barrens, glades, and outcrops; and canebrakes.
To provide an understanding of the origin and history of southern grasslands, Noss explains the natural history of grasslands based on the fundamental factors of climate, water, fire, wind, substrate and landform, grazing and browsing herbivores, and large predators. This natural history is based on travelers’ accounts of pre-European settlement, evidence of fossil pollen preserved in various locales, types of plants found in the region, the fossil record of the Ice Age mammals, and actual species present today.
Southern grasslands, including the longleaf pine communities, are remarkably species rich with the Coastal Plain alone containing nearly one-third of the flora native to North America. Noss reports they are even more species rich than tropical forests. These grasslands are among the most endangered of the world’s ecosystems, however—largely because they are densely inhabited and highly suitable for agriculture.
A concern Noss identifies is that grasslands are seen by some as wholly created by Native American fires rather than as natural ecosystems that are worth maintaining. He believes that some grassland types predate human activity and that lightning-ignited fires were a major natural cause of early fire-dependent ecosystems. Noss is clear in his support for the role of fire in maintaining grasslands. He discusses not only why fires are a healthy part of the ecology of the South and of grasslands in particular but also when fire should be used either as prescribed fire or natural wildfire. He provides an ecological view of southern grasslands by describing visits to many sites across the South. These visits, often with skilled local naturalists, provide an appreciation for how geologic history and its elements have interacted with fire to shape grassland landscapes.
The book is clearly written, informative, and thought-provoking. The unusual mix of personal anecdotes, summaries of scientific studies, and natural history provide a passionate defense of the endangered southern grasslands. Noss states that humans will only protect nature that we know, and this book introduces readers to biologically rich, once abundant, but now rare natural ecosystems. In the final chapter, Noss outlines an approach that will gain public support for conserving these areas.
Forgotten Grasslands of the South is remarkable in both solid science and solid conservation. The reader comes away with an appreciation and understanding of the history, natural history, and complex ecological interactions of the southern grasslands that inspire dedication to their protection and conservation. This volume is a must-read for those involved in managing, conserving, or who just have an interest in southern ecosystems. Destined to become a classic, the book provides better insight into the development and status of southern ecosystems than anything I have ever read. [End Page 87]
James P Barnett is an Emeritus Scientist for the USDA Forest Service, Southern Research Station...