We're Making a Mistake in Our View of Grasslands

'Atlantic': Trees get all the glory, but these ecosystems may be vital to fighting climate change
By John Johnson,  Newser Staff
Posted Aug 9, 2022 8:35 AM CDT
Trees Get the Glory, but We're Missing the Boat on Grasslands
   (Getty/adogslifephoto)

(Newser) – You're no doubt familiar with the phrase "old-growth forest." But "old-growth grassland?" For the uninitiated, Julia Rosen provides a big-picture overview in the Atlantic under the provocative headline, "Trees Are Overrated." That headline speaks to a widespread bias—even among ecologists—that forests are naturally superior to grasslands in pretty much every way. (Witness the popular belief that planting tons of trees is the way to save the planet.) To be clear, the pro-grassland scientists interviewed in the story are not anti-tree. But they make the case that grasslands and savannas have come to be viewed merely as "run-down forests," areas that surely could be improved by planting trees upon them. That view is not only ecologically wrong—true grasslands are distinct ecosystems—it overlooks their natural value.

"Indeed, grasslands are gigantic reservoirs of carbon," writes Rosen. "Scientists estimate that, worldwide, they contain about a third of all the carbon stored on land, mostly in their soils." Old-growth grasslands take just as long as old-growth forests to attain that status, around 150 years. The forests do so "more impressively" with their giant trees, but the grasslands evolve into complex systems in their own right, above and below ground. And consider this point in our age of rising temperatures: "One recent analysis based on global climate models estimated that, in the long run, grasslands and savannas may save more carbon through fire than forests lose." Read the full story, which details the movement to recognize and protect such areas. (Read more Longform stories.)

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