Great Egret

Great Egret

Monday, 25 April 2016

Earth day and the demise of prairie?

Okay...maybe I'm stretching it a little bit.

For what it is worth Earth Day, now an internationally celebrated event, is connected to Arbour Day (a.k.a. Arbor Day in the USA), which is connected to prairie, and Tallgrass Prairie in particular, which is connected to Windsor, Ontario.

Let me explain.

Julius Sterling Morton spent most of his early life in Michigan, but in 1854, he and his new bride moved to Nebraska City, Nebraska, where he became the newspaper editor of the first newspaper in that territory. During his time there, he missed the trees of the east, and so he planted numerous trees, many of which were not native, around his own property.

J. Sterling Morton became quite prominent in business and politics and eventually became the Secretary of Nebraska Territory. While the prairie soil of the territory was productive, once it was tilled, it blew away easily, and the area became known as The Great American Desert. In order to hold down the soil and improve the dusty, treeless plains to make it more appealing to future settlers, in 1872 he convinced the State Board of Agriculture to proclaim a tree-planting day, with prizes awarded to the counties that planted the most trees. The date selected was April 10, 1872 and over one million trees were planted during the first event.

In 1882, the state proclaimed Arbor Day as a legal holiday, and established the date of April 22, in honour of the birth date of J. Sterling Morton. At one point the state legislature wanted to declare Nebraska as 'The Treeplanter State'. Eventually Arbor Day became celebrated in all 50 states, and many countries.
Mixed grass prairie in Nebraska
Mixed grass prairie in Nebraska
J. Sterling Morton became the Secretary of Agriculture under the presidency of Grover Cleveland, from 1893-1897. It was during that time when the US Dept of Agriculture was interested in introducing hardy plants from parts of eastern Asia, that would survive the challenging growing conditions of the Great Plains. As a result, one or more representatives of the USDA visited those countries and in the next couple of decades brought back over 2500 species of herbaceous and woody plants. Some of those species did quite well, and have since become highly invasive on the mid-western landscape. In the western part of Nebraska, mixed grass prairie is dominant, but in the eastern part of the state, it is mostly tallgrass prairie. Nebraska City is at the extreme eastern part of the state, and there are some fabulous, but very small, tallgrass prairie remnants. They would be not that dissimilar to the tallgrass prairie of western Iowa and Missouri.
Iowa restored tallgrass prairie
Iowa tallgrass prairie
Missouri tallgrass prairie

Planting trees definitely helps reduce soil erosion, from both wind and water. But establishing trees, in combination with the breaking up of the prairie sod, suppressing naturally occurring and necessary fire as well as the introduction of numerous invasive species, has greatly compromised the integrity of tallgrass and mixed grass prairie.
Tallgrass prairie overgrown with shrubs and trees

In 1970 Wisconsin senator Gaylord Nelson recognized the seriously deteriorating natural environment, and was one of several people to push for an Earth Day. (It has been described as a grassroots movement, which is ironic, as one of the main activities of Arbor/Earth Day is to plant trees, which impairs the grasslands.) He suggested it to be held on April 22, to build on the concept of Arbor Day.

Don't get me wrong......I am a strong supporter of anything that gets people to pay more attention to improving the quality of the natural environment. But it is interesting to see how some of these events got started.

Scissor-tailed Flycatcher: a denizen of the mid-western tallgrass prairie

Dickcissel: a denizen of the mid-western tallgrass prairie
Elk: a successful re-introduction on a Nebraska prairie
And that connection to Windsor and tallgrass prairie? It isn't as detrimental as Arbor Day. For years, beginning in the mid-1970s, I was involved with the resource management of one of Ontario's best known tallgrass prairies: Ojibway Prairie Provincial Nature Reserve, in southwestern Windsor. While doing field work there, one would often hear a muffled boom and a gentle tremor in the ground, usually about 4 p.m. Several hundred metres below my feet, salt was being mined, and the blasting at about 4 p.m. was deemed to be the least disruptive to the residents living above. The mining company was none other than the Morton Salt Company, situated just down the road from Ojibway Prairie PNR. It turns out that J. Sterling Morton's son was one of the founders of the Morton Salt Company, today known as Windsor Salt.
A high quality tallgrass prairie in Missouri


  1. Some interesting historical context...and now I finally know what the BOOM! is.

    1. Thanks, Patrick....I thought it would be a worthwhile change from my usual posts.