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Missouri's Prairies Are Disappearing, And Here's Why City Dwellers Should Care

Bruce Schuette
Snowball Hill Prairie in Cass County is part of the more than 3,000 acres of grasslands Missouri Prairie Foundations works to safeguard.

Vast amounts of prairie speckled with wildflowers once covered Missouri. But today, little remains of what was once 15 million acres. The loss has been devastating blow to the state's ecosystem.

"We have reaped the benefits of prairie soils, becoming an agricultural powerhouse," says Carol Davit, executive director of the Missouri Prairie Foundation. But in doing so, she says, the state has also lost vital resources and part of its cultural history.

Rich in nutrients, prairies are a natural habitat for pollinators that fertilize crops. Further destruction of the grasslands would reduce these species' ability to thrive in their natural habitat, potentially affecting human food security.

Davit's organization works to preserve and recreate the grasslands. However, she says, "We certainly can’t do it alone."

Davit will be the keynote speaker at the North American Prairie Conference in Houston, Texas, in June.

"I'd like us to really embrace our prairie inheritance and be proud of it, and understand that it is part of our lifeblood," Davit says.

Much of Missouri's prairies have been plowed to make way for communities, roads and agriculture.

But communities also stand to gain from restoring prairies, Davit says. Root systems deep beneath the soil create a natural filter and a mechanism for absorbing storm water.

Credit Bruce Schuette
Snowball Hill Prairie is an original, unplowed prairie and is open to the public for hiking and nature study.

And as the state grapples with devastating floods, the benefits of prairies are more apparent: Prairie vegetation can absorb substantial amounts of water.

"Taking just 10% of a cropped area and creating strips of prairie plants, we can see up to 90% reduction in soil erosion," Davit says.

Planting native prairie vegetation allows some of the prairie's ecological functions to be restored, Davit says.

"But in terms of replicating every microorganism and every ecological interaction," she notes, "that is beyond the human scope."

Using native plants for landscaping is one way to help preserve the irreplaceable habitat and show pride in the state's cultural history.

"I was just reading about how children can recognize corporate logos but can't identify 10 plants that grow in their region," Davit says.

People who are interested in seeing what the state used to look like can head to Snowball Hill Prairie just south of Kansas City. There, MPF owns 22-acre plot of unplowed prairie and welcomes visitors to hike and learn more about prairie habitats.

“Each one of them remains a vital habitat, an inherent value that we must preserve and protect for our benefit and for the benefit of future generations,” Davit says.

Carol Davit spoke with Steve Kraske on a recent episode of KCUR's Up to Date. Listen to the entire conversation here.

Elizabeth Ruiz is an intern for KCUR' Up To Date. Contact her at elizabeth@kcur.org.