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Connecticut Grasslands, A Review

by Roland C. Clement • Summer 2001 (Volume 29, no. 2)

Perhaps the most dramatic change we humans have imposed on the American landscape, in the last three hundred years or so, has been the clearing of the eastern deciduous forest. Only China had such a forest at one time, but it too was cleared, indeed so early that comparisons are difficult.

Almost as dramatic has been the recovery of much of that eastern forest as the Northeast's early agriculture was moved westward after 1850. In New England, New York, Pennsylvania, and New Jersey, nearly fifteen million acres have grown from abandoned old field to young woodland, and in a few places, to mature forest. It is this impressive transition that accounts for the excessive populations of White-tailed Deer in our day -- that, and the elimination of the deer's predators, the cougar and the wolf. Most readers of this Newsletter are familiar with this change in land use.

We have, however, seldom been aware of the changes imposed on the lesser grasslands of the Northeast, the non-wooded open spaces. Their loss is the flip side of the forest story.

Rather, most of us have somewhat carelessly assumed that grasslands were essentially limited to the Great Plains of interior North America. It is true, of course, that those were major plant communities. But our enthusiasms for knowing "things" -- our collector's instincts, perhaps -- narrow us. We study "one thing at a time," birds, plants, whatever. We seldom take the next step of placing that thing in the broader perspective of the community it is part of and helps shape, then studying them together, as a community. We are all too narrow in our special interests. For those of us who enthuse over plants, floristics seems sufficient, but the vegetation, as a carpet of plants, is just as interesting, and probably more important for landscape manipulators like us.

In any event, the growing concern about declines in populations of grassland birds, continent-wide, and the concerns about plant invasions, is forcing a reconsideration of our premature assumptions. It is time to study ecosystems and their histories. And of course the story is complicated.

To begin with, ecologically, the familiar turf of lawns, golf courses, and parks is not properly "grassland." In regions of high annual rainfall, like ours, the natural vegetation is woodland, and lawns are expensive to maintain against the trend, since they require extra fertilization, weeding, and constant mowing. Lacking such care, they convert to woodland in a few years.

We have, however, neglected fact that most sizable rivers which flow through relatively open country tend to flood annually. This flooding maintains floodwater woodlands or extensive meadows from place to place, depending on the substrate and other conditions. Of course, these riverine meadows were quickly occupied by colonial agriculture, usually long before the historical records of most towns were initiated about 1850. It was thus easy to lose track of the connections.

Most interestingly, it has only recently been pointed out that across much of Ontario, beavers still maintain a goodly percentage of the landscape in beaver meadow. Again, though our records are scant, we at least know that the beaver was abundant in Connecticut when the colonists first arrived. This suggests that there may have been some 100,000 acres of beaver meadow here, even if we assume that only half the state was suitable for such beaver engineering. These meadows occurred in tracts ranging from about ten acres to thirty acres or more. And, of course, these meadows, especially the older ones, fast disappeared before the plow.

Finally, geological studies and soil surveys have now documented the existence of several thousands of acres of deep, sandy, post-glacial outwash that supported a scant vegetation dominated by the knee high prairie Beard-Grass, also called Little Blue-Stem (Andropogon scoparius, now Schizachyrium). Locally, these areas were called Sand Plains, Barrens, or Deserts. And although the less prudent citizens tried to farm them, they were soon abandoned, to persist as open space until the post-World War II boom in industrial development converted them, almost to oblivion.

So, it is time to reflect on the fact that these early Connecticut grasslands were a significant enough part of the landscape to evolve and support their own subspecies of Prairie Chicken, the Heath Hen, along with a few plants limited to this habitat.

The several thousand acres of salt meadow -- roughly half of what once existed -- are not included here, though they too are a notable plant-animal community.

Finally, it is important to recall that throughout the 18th and 19th Centuries, the agriculture of the Northeast consisted of small farms with mixed cropping, almost always with tall hay meadows of Timothy, Red-top, and similar grasses. Connecticut still has 150,000 acres of such pasturage, although the dominant cover is now often a low alfalfa, which affords much less habitat for the variety of bird species that once occupied the tall grass meadows. Indeed, the loss of landscape that includes farmland is now a concern that almost exactly parallels the concern over the loss of grassland birds.

It is to arrest the decline of both farms and natural grasslands that a variety of citizen groups are making common cause in asking the Connecticut legislature to address the issue by charging the State's Department of Environmental Protection to create a Grassland Reserves Program that will match -- formally or informally -- the State's Farmland Preservation Program, and assist private land owners in joining the effort.

Such programs of course require funding, but the current state fiscal surplus is evidence that Connecticut can well afford to heed citizen concerns in its on-and-off commitment to an attractive and productive environment for all the people. Further, federal funding for such programming may be in the offing in the so-called CARA allocation of offshore drilling receipts promised for State conservation programs.

What we leave of these natural plant communities for the edification and enjoyment of our grand children will describe what kind of trustees of the creation we are, or were.

Notes

The piece on Connecticut Grasslands was inspired by Chap. 1 of Robert A. Askins' recent book, Restoring North America's Birds. Dr. Askins teaches a variety of biology courses at Connecticut College, New London, and his 2000 book made him a foremost exponent of what he calls Landscape Ecology.

Although this has been your editor's special field of interest for a long generation, it was Askins who first called our attention to recent studies of the beaver's influence in shaping the larger environment. These 1983 studies were "buried" in a British archeological journal, Antiquity, which naturalists seldom consult.

I hope many of us will read Askins' book, but meanwhile you may wish to try looking up Antiquity, vol. 57:95-1-2 (1983) and read J.M. Coles and B.J. Orme's article, "Homo sapiens of Castor Fiber?"

GRASSLANDS WORKING GROUP

On Feb. 13, 2001 Patrick M. Commins, who is Director for Bird Conservation at the National Audubon Society's Bent of the River Sanctuary in Southbury, called the first meeting of a new group intent on trying to conserve what little is left of Connecticut's native grasslands.

Some fifteen people representing the State's conservation groups, including State agencies, met at The Nature Conservancy headquarters in Middletown for an afternoon of discussion. Dr. Robert Askins, of Connecticut College, New London, a specialist on plant/bird communities, outlined the needs. Andrea Jones, a Massachusetts Audubon Society specialist, reported on the current status of grasslands bird in the Northeast. Roland C. Clement sat in for the Connecticut Botanical Society.

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© 2001 Roland Clement. All rights reserved.