Forgotten Grasslands of the South is a literary and scientific case study of some of the biologically richest and most endangered ecosystems in North America. Eminent ecologist Reed Noss tells the story of how southern grasslands arose and persisted over time and addresses questions that are fundamental for conserving these vital yet poorly understood ecosystems.
The author examines:
the natural history of southern grasslands
their origin and history (geologic, vegetation, and human)
biological hotspots and endangered ecosystems
physical determinants of grassland distribution, including ecology, soils, landform, and hydrology fire, herbivores, and ecological interactions.
The final chapter presents a general conservation strategy for southern grasslands, including prioritization, protection, restoration, and management. Also included are examples of ongoing restoration projects, along with a prognosis for the future.
In addition to offering fascinating new information about these little-studied ecosystems, Noss demonstrates how natural history is central to the practice of conservation. Natural history has been on a declining trajectory for decades, as theory and experimentation have dominated the field of ecology. Ecologists are coming to realize that these divergent approaches are in fact complementary, and that pursuing them together can bring greater knowledge and understanding of how the natural world works and how we can best conserve it.
Forgotten Grasslands of the South explores the overarching importance of ecological processes in maintaining healthy ecosystems, and is the first book of its kind to apply natural history, in a modern, comprehensive sense, to the conservation of biodiversity across a broad region. It sets a new standard for scientific literature and is essential reading not only for those who study and work to conserve the grasslands of the South but also for everyone who is fascinated by the natural world.
"Here's more love being poured on the glorious and endangered landscapes of the South, this time on the grasslands and this time by a man who knows more than anybody about them. A scientist turned writer, Reed Noss is a marvelous guide to what has been lost and what we still have. You're in great hands with this splendid book."
Janisse Ray, Author of "Ecology of a Cracker Childhood"
"Reed Noss provides readers with a thought-provoking account of his journeys of discovery and inquiry through the little-known, rapidly vanishing grasslands of the American South. He draws on his tremendous experience in global conservation to reflect on the challenges of preserving these marvelous and beautiful places, but does so in a way that transcends geography and makes them a case study in the challenge of preserving nature worldwide."
Robert K. Peet, Professor of Biology, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill
"Using a combination of personal narrative, ecological science, and old-fashioned natural history, Reed Noss brings the southern grasslands to life in this eloquent and passionate defense of one of the world's most endangered ecosystems. Noss argues persuasively that humans will only protect the nature we know, and this authoritative book goes a long way toward introducing readers to this biologically rich, once abundant and now rare natural community."
Mark V. Barrow, author of "Nature's Ghosts"
"What do passenger pigeons have to do with canebreaks, or red pandas in Tennessee with the history of North America? Let this distinguished elder of conservation biology kindle your interest in the history, natural history, and conservation of this unexpectedly diverse, dynamic, and improbable set of habitats: the grasslands of the American South. No reader will ever forget, or underestimate, these grasslands again."
Don Waller, John T. Curtis Professor of Botany, University of Wisconsin-Madison
"Noss's new book [is]... in many ways his magnum opus... will prove to be an instant classic on several levels. As a piece of natural history writing it is unparalleled in its depth and scope... a rich brew of the most important theories in ecology, plant ecology, conservation biology, biogeography and related sciences... I learned so much on every page..."
Eric Dinerstein, Vice President and Lead Scientist, Conservation Science Program
"Noss has spent years exploring and studying these grasslands and is aptly qualifi ed to serve as a clearvoiced ambassador of these critically threatened habitats. While giving hope, he outlines a way to move forward by persuasively arguing that humans will only protect that which we are familiar with and endeared to."
"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."
Native Plants Journal
"In the end, Forgotten Grasslands of the South re-inspired in me a sense of awe and wonder at the almost inconceivable diversity and irreplaceable endemism of natural communities within the region. I leave with renewed excitement that previously unknown species, even new communities, shaped by millennia of natural processes and narrowly escaping our nearly complete alteration of the landscape, remain to be discovered and appreciated, maybe in our own back yards."
"Noss's mission is to promote an appreciation for, and understanding of, these neglected [grasslands]."
Frontiers of Biogeography
List of Illustrations
List of Tables
Foreword \ Edward O. Wilson
Chapter 1. Natural History of a Forgotten American Grassland
-Natural History for Conservation
-Grasslands in the South?
-What and Where are Southern Grasslands?
-The Grasslands Considered in this Book
Chapter 2. Origin and History
-A General Model
-Geology, Physiography, and Pre-Neogene History
-Neogene and Quaternary History
-Disjunctions and the Gulf Coastal Corridor
-Human History in the South, as It Relates to Grasslands
Chapter 3. Biological Hotspots and Endangered Ecosystems
-Discovering Lost Worlds
-Centers of Endemism in the South
-Peripherals and Disjuncts
-Species Richness in Southern Grasslands
-People Care About Diversity, Endemism, and Disjunctions
-The Decline of Southern Grasslands
Chapter 4. Physical Factors: Rock, Soil, Landform, Water, and Wind
-The Purpose of My Journeys
-Rock, Soil, and Landform
-Wind, Storms, and Sea-Level Rise
Chapter 5. Fire, Big Animals, and Interactions
-Bottom-up, Top-down, and Sideways
-Interaction of Fire and Hydrology
-The Enigmatic Canebrakes
Chapter 6. The Future of Southern Grasslands: Outline of a Strategy
-A Conservation Strategy for Southern Grasslands
-Examples of Restoration Projects
About the Author
Q. What first drew you to study these unique places?
A. First of all, the aesthetics. Here are these beautiful open breezy places, full of flowers, in a landscape otherwise thick with dense second-growth forests and swamps, pine plantations, and increasingly, urban sprawl. Then I learned how amazingly rich in biodiversity southern grasslands are, and that sealed it.
Florida dry prairie at Kissimmee Prairie Preserve State Park. Once covering more than 1.2 million acres, the dry prairie has been reduced by around 90%, mostly due to conversion to "improved" pasture. Still, tens of thousands of acres remain in relatively large blocks, making this one of the most extensive grasslands in the South.
Q. Describe one of your favorite southern grasslands. What makes it so special?
The Florida grasshopper sparrow (Ammodramus savannarum floridanus), endemic to the Florida dry prairie, federally listed as endangered, and declining rapidly for reasons that are not entirely understood. This is probably the most highly imperiled bird in the continental United States.
A. One of my favorites is the Florida dry prairie. Botanist Roland Harper in 1927 described the dry prairie of south-central Florida as having “views strongly suggestive of the Great Plains.” It’s a very odd ecosystem, like pine flatwoods in many respects except that it naturally has few or no trees. You can see for miles, and the clouds (and thunderstorms) in such open areas in Florida are magnificent. The dry prairie is also the only home of the Florida grasshopper sparrow, which is probably the most highly imperiled bird in the continental United States, and one I personally care much about.
Q. What are some of the threats currently facing southern grasslands? Is there hope to combat them?
A. One major threat is that people, even including many ecologists and environmentalists, don’t know that these grasslands exist – or they think they were all created by human activity. Conversion to agriculture, including monoculture pastures and pine plantations, has destroyed many southern grasslands, and losses to urbanization are increasing. One of the biggest specific threats is fire exclusion, either through deliberate suppression of fires, fragmentation of landscapes (which prevents the natural spread of fires), or failure to apply controlled burns to areas that are too small to receive enough lightning strikes to burn frequently on their own.
A grassy bald on Roan Mountain, on the Tennesse–North Carolina border.
Q. Why are factors like fire and herbivore populations important to the health of these ecosystems?
A. Fire and large herbivores both reduce densities of trees, allowing grassland to flourish. We lost most of our large herbivores near the end of the Pleistocene, around 13,000 years ago, due in large part to over-hunting by humans. We lost bison from the South more recently. Fire has been important in Earth history for more than 400 million years and has shaped much of the vegetation worldwide. It so happens that thunderstorm and lightning frequency is highest in the southeastern United States – especially Florida – than anywhere else in North America (except, apparently, one little part of Mexico). Hence, many of our plants and animals are well adapted to fire, to the extent that entire ecosystems are fire-dependent. In the absence of fire, many of these species and ecosystems disappear as fire-intolerant species, such as many hardwood shrubs and trees, invade and outcompete the fire-adapted species for resources. Nevertheless, some of the southern grasslands discussed in my book rarely or never burn; they are maintained by other factors such as extreme soils or regular flooding.
One of the rarest plants in the world, Short's goldenrod (Solidago shortii) is closely associated with ancient megaherbivore trails (buffalo traces) at Blue Licks Battlefield State Park in Kentucky and a recently discovered site in Indiana.
Q. How do you believe southern grasslands would be best conserved?
A. Effective conservation of southern grasslands will require protection of all reasonably high-quality sites that still exist, and restoration of many of the sites that have been degraded by fire exclusion and other factors. Management, such as controlled burning, must be continued and improved. Forestry agencies need to stop enforcing “burn bans” that prevent managers from burning during the times of year when most lightning fires naturally occur, and to which grassland species are best adapted. Finally, we need to increase public awareness and understanding of these ecosystems. People will only want to save what they know and appreciate in some way.
Mt. Arabia, Dekalb County, Georgia. This is a granitic flatrock community just east of Atlanta. At least twelve full species and several subspecies and varieties of plants are strict endemics on these igneous and metamorphic outcrops in the Piedmont.
Q. How could some of the success stories of southern grasslands be applied to other ecosystems?
A. Good conservation and management requires some understanding of the biogeographic, ecological, and human history of the ecosystem in question, what factors maintained it over time (or failed to), what threatens it, and how it responds to various kinds of management interventions. We have learned much of these things for southern grasslands based on the work of naturalists and ecologists over the last couple centuries and beyond, and by understanding how indigenous peoples managed and maintained some of these ecosystems over thousands of years (whereas others got by just fine on their own, or with a little help from lightning). The basic lessons about ecological and evolutionary processes in southern grasslands can help inform conservation, restoration, and management of other kinds of ecosystems worldwide.