Question: What are the top 5 things you would like to see changed in Charlottesville/Albemarle that would make our community better? (Part 4 of 5)

Above: Unplanted, high-quality Piedmont prairie view, Fluvanna County. Image by D. Floyd, at one of CUH’s 2021 grassland research sites.

Protect what is left of Indigenous Grassland Habitats

By Devin Floyd
January 25, 2021

Despite the indoctrination most of us received, towering dark forests are not natural in much of the Piedmont. Ecologists now understand that much of the Piedmont’s vegetated landscape burned every 3-10 years for the majority of the past 10,000 years, due to lightning fires and human-ignited or encouraged fires. Over time this honed a phenomenally diverse mosaic of native grasslands and forests. The land was blanketed with open and sunny prairies, savannas, and woodlands. Forests were here, but not regionally dominant. And guess what? Most of those bees, butterflies, and birds we enjoy and hope to save really miss those habitats! Most of them are adapted to these diverse open spaces and are reliant upon them for survival. If you have doubts, just ask yourself why, when one wants to “attract” a pollinator in the garden, they are advised to plant a grassland species like butterfly milkweed, calico aster, or showy goldenrod. Our native animals need the grasslands they emerged from. Their morphologies, reproductive cycles, and behaviors were shaped and honed in the context of wet and dry savannas and prairies.

Liatris pilosa in a remnant Piedmont prairie. Culpepper Co. Image by CUH Field Tech Drew Chaney.

The colonization of eastern North America forced Indigenous people off their land, by way of removing, killing, or converting and subsuming them in a European social construct. The same can be said for natural ecosystems and biodiversity. Europeans brought domesticated animals and crops, and the habits of mass production and extraction. It was the open space, free of large trees – the native grasslands – that were targeted most for agriculture, and so they were destroyed and replaced with wheat, corn, tobacco, and cotton. After thousands of years of maturation and establishment, the colorful and diverse old growth grasslands were nearly completely removed from the land in less than 400 years. What’s more, paths were widened to roads, resulting in thousands of firebreaks. Natural fires, an important disturbance regime for the sustainability of grasslands, no longer swept across the Piedmont landscape. They were snuffed out quickly and limited to smaller blocks of land. This pattern of fire suppression still exists today. Thousands of acres of grasslands and their unique biodiversity declined rapidly, and were all but gone by 1900. 

Gratefully, we still have significant grassland remnants that survived in forgotten and overlooked places. These exist along old property lines, on water-saturated landscapes, along the oldest roads and paths, and in old utility line corridors. But perhaps the largest grassland remnants are those hiding in unnatural thicket forests (having emerged due to fire exclusion) on landscapes that were never plowed. Many of those exist in the Central Virginia Piedmont, and wait for nothing more than a clearcut or a fire to begin their path to renewal.

Rudbeckia fulgida in a high-diversity, unplanted, natural grassland near Orange, Va.

Perhaps you have noticed that there were more wildflowers along roadsides than usual in 2020? Utility maintenance companies and departments were delayed in their mid-season mowing, perhaps because of the pressures of the COVID-19 pandemic. We noticed this early in summer and took the opportunity to identify and document 47 rare and healthy remnants of old grasslands in the area. The realization after having done that small amount of work is that there may be thousands of remnants, most of which are hiding right in front of our eyes. Education is needed to learn to see and understand these fragments of high quality grassland. Research is needed to better understand them so that conservation efforts are meaningful.

Though the Piedmont landscape is fragmented, hope is not lost. Grand potential resides even on the weedy roadside and in old powerline corridors. Even though it is counter-intuitive (beware intuition when it is ill-informed) powerline rights-of-way support more animal and plant diversity than other upland habitat types in the Piedmont region when they are allowed to do so during a season free of mowing!

In conclusion, and with resolve, we want the County of Albemarle, The City of Charlottesville, and indeed the State of Virginia, to take steps to conserve these little bastions of biodiversity by putting a stop to herbicide application and mid-season mowing along weedy roadsides, in abandoned lots, power line rights-of-way and other utility corridors, and in publicly owned old fields and wetlands. To get a little more specific, we request that the Albemarle County Board of Supervisors and the Charlottesville City Councilors adopt a resolution. The resolution would make normal, and official, specific best management practices (detailed in the resolution) for supporting and protecting intact, emergent, and restored grassland habitats and the native plants and animals they harbor along roadsides, in utility rights-of-way, and on public lands with open space.

Center for Urban Habitats has a draft resolution in the waiting.

Sincerely, Devin Floyd. Executive Director, CUH

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