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Is planting a savanna on the Colorado plains possible? Desirable?  RSS feed

 
pollinator
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As far as I can tell, the Colorado plains have historically been treeless, except along the Front Range foothills and along the creeks. This due to a combination of a dry climate, fire, and grazing buffalo; there are few native trees that would survive here.

However, some non-native trees survive fairly well, such as Russian olive, Honey locust, and Siberian elm. Some of these are now classified as invasive.

Would it be possible to turn large areas of the plains into savanna? Would it be desirable? Or should restoration work focus on planting willows and cottonwoods along the creeks and bringing back the grass on degraded ranch land?

The Carbon Farming Solution seems to suggest that adding trees to grasslands will sequester much more carbon than grass alone; so would this help? Or would it just imbalance the ecosystem worse then ever?
 
pollinator
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In areas which have runoff from heavy downpours, swales capturing the water could provide pockets of more moisture for trees. I've only briefly been to the high plains, but noticed a lot of heavy clay in places which seemed like it could hold water well. However, in that sort of climate I wonder if building and restoring the soil in the landscape overall would mean there wouldn't be much runoff anymore to fill the swales. Cities/suburbs are a different matter since they have so much impervious surface area such as roads and roofs, which if diverted into the areas that still have soil would increase the soil moisture in those areas greatly, provided they have the soil to hold the extra captured runoff.

What could be done with the vast plains landscapes is an interesting question, and since most of my experience is in wetter climates I can't say for sure, it would be interesting to hear if anyone has gotten edible savannas to establish in such a climate. Prairies historically grew in many places that were wet enough to grow a variety of trees, Iowa for instance, and were kept open by a combination of fire and grazing herds of bison and elk. The plains of Colorado are much drier than Iowa, but even western Nebraska has some national forest areas that were planted on what was plains. I'd personally think that the most sustainable way to manage the expanses of the high plains would be predominantly as grassland with holistic management practices, with trees concentrated in the wetter parts of the landscape, both natural watercourses and pockets created by earthworks. The krater garden sounds like it could work well in windy areas of the high plains that are cold enough to get blowing snow in the winter that would tend to settle in the krater garden, which would include trees. Windbreaks also reduce water loss substantially in windy areas.

I'm a tree lover but also recognize more trees isn't always the answer. I'd think there could be more trees than there are now on the plains but the landscape will probably remain largely open (assuming the climate doesn't get unexpectedly wetter).
 
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Obviously grasslands are important and lovely, but things change all the time in nature, and trees can give a lot to an environment: microclimates and niches and biodiversity and soil building.  Even non-native species.  Things change all the time!  Also if there aren't native species to browse down any tree sprouts, they're not serving their other biological niches and perhaps trees in some areas would improve the soil and area.

Or should restoration work focus on planting willows and cottonwoods along the creeks and bringing back the grass on degraded ranch land?



That sounds important and wonderful.  

I think you should try both things in different areas, if you have space to work with.  Even just small patches of trees to offer shade for animals and people, habitat for birds, windbreaks, etc.  

Try it and see!
 
pollinator
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I would think in terms of secession.
It is much easier to go from bare dryland TO grassland TO savanna TO woodlot TO forest.
Than to go from bare/degraded dryland to forest/savanna.

Also if you do some earthworks and create swales/man-made creeks and then plant willows/fruit tree and have the rest at grassland you would have created a type of "savanna".

Overall if you are getting over 12inch of rain per year you can make create your woodlot/savanna. If it is less than 12inches, then it will not be able to support as many shrubs/trees. But you can always use runoff/creeks/swale to effectively double or more your rainfall.
 
Gilbert Fritz
pollinator
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At this point in time, my question is purely theoretic. I've been thinking about large-scale tree planting projects in arid parts of Africa, and wondering how similar or not the American great plains are.  
 
pollinator
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One problem I see is you don't have the animals either the mega fauna - masterdon etc nor the numbers of smaller beasts such as buffalo to do heavy duty Eco work done by these larger animals in Africa .
 
steward
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I personally would love to see the great plains turned to savanna !  Lots of earthworks, Keyline plowing, and trees planted, at least, along every fence line.
It seems that we have already forgotten the lessons of the dust bowl years. There are still plenty of Colorado landscapes which were formed from the sand dunes of that time. Waiting for us to turn them into sand again.
It kills me to see all of the large swaths of land around Denver being plowed over and over again to get rid of "weeds "and then left dry and fallow. What little topsoil left blowing in the winds.
The Ogallala aquifer being drained lower each year.
Seems to me that covering the plains with trees would stabilize the soil, shade the ground, save moisture, and rebuild the soil communities that have been lost. A quick search through some of the YouTube  videos of farms that run livestock in "savanna's" Shows that the productivity of the plains would increase with trees added.
It is too bad that the trees that would be the best pioneers have been outlawed!
 
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Native prairies are among the most imperiled ecosystems in North America.  Many of the plant, mammal, songbird and reptile species which evolved in the extensive prairies of the great plains are in dramatic decline- even many of the fish species inhabiting prairie streams are blinking out.  Yes, you could probably create large-scale savanna plantings in the great plains- but you'd be upending the local ecosystem in the process.  
 
gardener
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Gilbert Fritz wrote:As far as I can tell, the Colorado plains have historically been treeless, except along the Front Range foothills and along the creeks. This due to a combination of a dry climate, fire, and grazing buffalo; there are few native trees that would survive here.

However, some non-native trees survive fairly well, such as Russian olive, Honey locust, and Siberian elm. Some of these are now classified as invasive.

Would it be possible to turn large areas of the plains into savanna? Would it be desirable? Or should restoration work focus on planting willows and cottonwoods along the creeks and bringing back the grass on degraded ranch land?

The Carbon Farming Solution seems to suggest that adding trees to grasslands will sequester much more carbon than grass alone; so would this help? Or would it just imbalance the ecosystem worse then ever?



While this sounds like a good idea, fire will prevail in this area and that means any trees that are not part of a fire disturbance (fire resistant species and varieties) would not be a good idea to plant.
The best method of using this land is to restore it to the grass lands it is supposed to be, and then create pockets of food plantings. Any other use would be something where you are fighting against nature and that only works with constant diligence and disruption. Then just when you think you are winning, a fire will come, because that is the nature of this land, and all your work will get to be done again. It is always the best method to work with plants that nature recognizes as belonging in any area, that insures you better success with the minimum of effort and disturbance.

Lightening storms are the prime way fires get started in the plains and unless you have found a way to regulate or control these, you will be fighting against nature and the earth mother. I have never seen any situation where this built a lasting agriculture or horticulture without constant work, and even then nature finds a way to reclaim what is rightfully hers.
 
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I looked into this recently while having similar thoughts about forestation of the Eastern Colorado plains. I found out that the government actually tried to do something similar after the Dust Bowl. It was called the Great Plains Shelterbelt which was a plan to plant massive tree lines to serve as wind breaks. The number of trees planted was astounding. Unfortunately, with time many of the windbreaks have deteriorated or been cut down. It is interesting though to read into the challenges faced during this project and how this would also be reflected in transforming the Great Plains into a Savanna.

http://www.dailyyonder.com/fdrs-big-break-shelterbelt/2015/07/10/7895/

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Plains_Shelterbelt
 
Lori Whit
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Good point, Matt.  Jogged my memory about this video that includes Geoff Lawton visiting a Dust Bowl Era swale project that has shown some amazing results.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UOj4cnHHCzU
 
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