For Release April 18, 2000

The Importance of Rangelands

by Chuck Otte, Geary County Extension Agent

After spending last week discussing why burning is important to our Flint Hills tall grass prairie, it leads us to the next logical question. Why are those tall grass rangelands so important? After all, Kansas is the wheat state, so why are we worried about grass? Itís obvious that those pastures will grow cedar trees so why donít we let the trees grow and market timber? All of these are very good, legitimate questions.

First of all, the Flint Hills are still in grass because much of the land is not suited to crop farming. Much of the soil is too shallow, too rocky or too steep to convert into crop land. The soil that is there is often very good, there just isnít very much of it present before you hit rock. The native grasses are very well adapted to exploiting what shallow soil and limited moisture there may be. A stand of native grass on a steep hill will usually do a very good job of preventing erosion from occurring.

As for timber marketing, there is some of that done. But mainly it is from the base of the hills and the river or stream flood plains. Lots of good oak and walnut have been harvested over the years. The areas that are still in grass will quickly become a dense tangle of cedar trees, but many of these will not become marketable timber because of the soil and water limitations. There is a limited market for red cedar timber, but it takes a long time to grow a harvestable crop of cedars.

These grasslands are still in grass, because that is what they grow best. We try to keep them in grassland, not forest land, because we can use cattle to harvest the grass and convert it into a food source that we can utilize. Cattle grow very well on grass, humans donít. These are some very simple, basic, economic reasons why the native rangeland is important. But there are some other reasons why these grasslands are worth preserving and caring for properly.

When the European settlers started venturing across the Mississippi River in the mid 19th century, the tall grass prairie stretched from Texas to Canada and east into portions of Iowa, Missouri and even some of Illinois. Now, 150 years later, much of that tall grass prairie is gone. Even the mid and short grass prairies further west are dwindling in size, but nothing like the 90% loss that we have seen in the tall grass prairie area. The reason that the tall grass prairie was so tall was because of the abundant rainfall. Abundant rainfall is also a prerequisite of good crop production, so most of this original tall grass prairie was turned into crop land. The Flint Hills region is the last remaining large tract of tall grass prairie.

But a reason of possible greater importance is also appearing. For years, scientists have noticed that as air masses move west across the United States and Canada there was a large drop of carbon dioxide levels as the air masses left the plains states and prairie provinces. It was once thought that this was simply due to the lack of population. But now we are finding that the grass plants are helping to scour the carbon dioxide out of the air and deposit it in the soil as grass roots and organic matter. Trees do this also, but not nearly at the level that grasses do. And carbon that is stored, or sequestered as the scientists say, by trees, will remain sequestered for 100 to 200 years. But carbon sequestered by grasslands will stay tied up for 500 to 1,000 years. In short, grasslands are helping counteract the impact of global warming.

Yes, the grasslands are an important part of our ag production system, a very important part of our local ag production system. But they are also a remnant of the once vast tall grass prairie ecosystem and now we find that they are a valuable resource to help fight global warming. Letís help keep those grasslands grassy through proper management!


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