Four Reasons to Love Prairies

By Anna Ramthun

February 2019

We talk a lot about prairie restoration at IAE. But why do we care about prairies? Why should you care about them?  Although prairies don't provide the obvious resources that forests do (no trees), and they do not provide the splashy benefits of wetlands (requiring folks to mitigate their losses), prairies provide a wide array of benefits to humans and other creatures.  In the Willamette Valley, prairies have all but disappeared, and IAE is working hard to restore prairie habitat and bring back the wildlife that depends upon them. Before we get into a discussion about some of the benefits provided by prairies, we thought we'd introduce this topic by composing a little poem so that we all can give prairies a little Valentine's Day love...

Aquilegia formosa is red

Delphinium menziesii is blue.

Not only are prairies beautiful

They provide ecosystem services for you!

Western columbine (Aquilegia formosa)

Soil

Long rooting depths of perennial plants have numerous benefits.  The root network holds soil together, preventing erosion and absorbing leftover fertilizers from nearby fields.  The decomposition of plant materials, helps to rebuild top soil, an especially important service in a region with high agricultural activity.

Prairie roots are also very effective in sequestering carbon from the atmosphere. Carbon is taken in from the atmosphere and is converted into plant tissues.  Forests can also perform this service, however, these carbon stores are less secure because they are susceptible to wildland fires and other natural disaster.  Prairies, on the other hand store the majority of carbon they collect in their roots, thus making their stores more secure.

Pollinators

Prairies provide a shelter and food to a wide variety of pollinating insects.  Higher diversity of flowering species and varied vegetative structure provide the potential to support a wider range of species, than most agricultural fields.  This can greatly benefit orchards and vegetable fields located near prairie patches.

Canada goldenrod provides food and habitat for a wide variety of pollinators

This swale at Herbert Farm Natural Area helps to store water during the rainiest times of the year.

Hydrology

Prairie root systems help hold topsoil together, reducing soil erosion.  This in turn helps to protect water quality.

Wet prairies also serve as water storage during heavy rain events, slowing and absorbing rainfall which could potentially lead to flooding.  This service is particularly useful in urban areas, as paved areas do absorb water, thus increasing the amount of water running off of these areas.

Cultural

Native prairies have long provided a wide variety of services for native peoples of the Willamette Valley. Species such as common camas (Camassia quamash), Yampa (Perideridia spp.), and tarweed ( Madia spp.) are significant  traditional food sources. Many species of reed (juncus spp) and willow are important basket and clothing materials.

Prairies also have recreational value, offering a scenic backdrop for hiking, birdwatching, and on some sites, hunting and fishing.

We have events to increase your love for prairies: volunteer, become a member, or join IAE staff for a hike. Check our calendar and Facebook page to keep updated on IAE's events.

Common camas (Camassia quamash) is an important food and cultural species for many native Amereican tribes in the Pacific Northwest

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