Prairie Revival

Sunrise at the Hempstead Plains on Long Island, New York. STEVE PFOST / NEWSDAY RM VIA GETTY IMAGES

Thanks to Yale e360’s Janet Martinelli:

Amid the Sprawl, a Long Island Prairie Makes a Quiet Comeback

Tucked into quintessential suburbia, the Hempstead Plains Preserve is a small sliver of the grassland that once covered a vast area of Long Island. New research shows that thoughtfully planted yards and gardens can bolster the biodiversity in such urban wildland fragments.

Volunteers remove invasive Chinese bushclover from the Hempstead Plains Preserve at Nassau Community College. FRIENDS OF HEMPSTEAD PLAINS

The Hempstead Plains Preserve is a place where you can imagine the presence of creatures past. Birdfoot violets, now gone, once colored the landscape with a wash of purple in spring. The heath hen, a large grouse that went extinct 90 years ago, performed its elaborate courtship dances on the Plains.

On a late afternoon in October, the slanting autumn sun lit up in a blaze of gold the grasses and wildflowers on this narrow, 19-acre sliver of land — almost all that is left of the tallgrass prairie that once covered more than 50 square miles at the heart of Long Island, New York, a fish-shaped island that stretches east into the Atlantic Ocean. “This place wants to be a grassland so bad, but so many obstacles are in the way,” says Rob Longiaru, the preserve’s habitat director.

In 1741 an English physician traveling in the Hempstead Plains lost his way on trails that meandered through the towering wild grasses and was forced to “blunder about a great while.” A century later, when the poet Walt Whitman explored the grassland as a boy, it was a vast grazing commons. “I have often been out on the edges of these plains toward sundown,” Whitman wrote, “and can yet recall in fancy the interminable cow processions, and hear the music of the tin or copper bells clanking far or near and breathe the cool of the sweet and slightly aromatic evening air.”

However, even the tenacious grasses that grew as tall as a horse’s shoulder proved no match for the demographic revolution that began in this globally rare natural community on the doorstep of New York City — urban sprawl. When World War II ended, real estate developer William J. Levitt constructed Levittown, an instant suburb of more than 17,000 modest, single-family homes for returning GIs. The development spawned copycat communities, creating the template for urban sprawl in the United States, and beyond.

The most striking thing about the remaining rectangle of grassland is the sheer improbability of its presence in the commercial core of suburban Nassau County, hemmed in by the Nassau Coliseum sports arena, a Marriott Hotel, Nassau Community College, a police academy, warehouses, and several multi-lane highways. Not only has the Plains shrunk drastically, but invasive plants from around the globe have taken root and pose a major threat to the native grassland denizens.

Many unique and disappearing landscapes like the Hempstead Plains endure only because dogged advocates struggle to raise funds to restore and maintain them. Now, a growing body of research is demonstrating that “conservation gardens” — planted in places like commercial zones, residential yards, schoolyards, and corporate landscapes — can help bolster these hotspots of urban biodiversity. The authors of a paper published in Landscape and Urban Planning last June sum up the new research: “While urbanization is a major contributor to declines in native biodiversity worldwide, ecological research across the Global North and South has demonstrated that yards can provide crucial habitats for birds, pollinators, and other wildlife within urban regions.”…

Read the whole article here.

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