In Forgotten Grasslands of the South, Dr. Reed Noss lays out the first comprehensive study of its kind to firmly establish a well documented yet little known fact: the South was first and foremost a grassland, prior to widespread tilling, fire-suppression, fragmentation, industrial forestry, and development in the wake of Euro-African colonization. While this generalization may be surprising to most, it reveals our short collective memory of our recently altered landscape, as well as a tendency to not see the grassland for the trees. While there were and are some true prairies in the South, most southern grasslands were savannas and woodlands, or prairies with trees, kept so by frequent fire and grazing (rather than low precipitation), and in some cases, soil conditions. Even the bottomland forest primeval was carpeted with a flammable grassland of bamboo.
Noss thoroughly erases the simplistic notion of a presettlement-postsettlement dichotomy, laying out in great detail the long and dynamic story of the South’s geological, biogeographical, and climatological natural history, of which post-Columbian humans have experienced only the latest chapter. The once popular notion that southern grasslands were invented by humans is carefully but convincingly laid to rest. While the important role of anthropogenic ignition during the past ten thousand years is duly acknowledged, the overarching influence of climate in promoting fire and grasslands long before human arrival is strongly supported. Thus it was over a period of many climatic cycles that species evolved to have the remarkable evolutionary adaptations to fire and grazing observed in remnant southern grasslands today. This argument is pursued along two complementary themes: 1) Southern grasslands are strongly related to grasslands throughout the world in their plant and animal species composition and parallel taxonomic associations; and 2) Southern grasslands are characterized by phenomenal small-scale endemism, in part related to local geology, suggesting local evolutionary adaptation and persistence of isolated refugia from one glaciation to the next.
This second theme occupies a large portion of the book in the form of a travelogue describing in detail the author’s visits to surviving grasslands throughout the region. Though tedious, these descriptions drive home the remarkable fine-textured diversity of southern grassland communities, as well as how critically they are imperiled from one day to the next.
Another theme is the historic role of grazers in maintaining southern grasslands, including their trophic relations with predators and producers which mediated herbivore demography. Ecologists have too little acknowledged this nearly forgotten but important factor in the region’s ecosystems. However, his conceptual model presenting herbivory and fire as competitive and mutually exclusive may be oversimplified, drawing too little from the considerable work done at Oklahoma State University and allies on synergistic effects of fire and grazing. In the later model, grazers follow fire (rather than preventing it) to find palatable vegetation, leaving unpalatable grasslands to accumulate fuel for fire.
While the “natural history” component of the book’s subtitle stands firmly on the author’s life work, the “conservation” component provides little new insight into conservation strategy and implementation. Noss is sharply critical of quantifying “ecosystem services” to society and takes the purist stand that all remaining natural areas should be legally protected and managed strictly with natural disturbance regimes, dismissing voluntary conservation by private landowners as inadequate. While his utopic vision is appealing to conservationists, it offers no plan for the funding of acquisition and management of conservation lands, educating landowners or the general the public, or facing the challenges of preserving natural community remnants on a developed landscape. His let-it-burn vision for fire management seemed particularly detached from realities of landowner and agency resources, regulations, liability, and public safety. While his emphasis on restoring natural (lightning-season) fire regimes is appreciated from an ecological perspective, it is not balanced with the more pressing general need to increase fire frequency, or the need for alternative fire regimes in the common case of altered fuel structures. His derision of prescribed...