On Thursday, October 26th, the Land Alliance and partnering organizations held a grasslands symposium. It highlighted the significant work occurring on Long Island to protect and establish grasslands, as well as ways we can grow more biodiverse landscapes. The event was held at the Barn at Old Westbury Gardens.
The symposium opened with an inspiring keynote address by Dwayne Estes, Executive Director and Co-founder of the Southeast Grasslands Initiative, Professor of Biology and Director of the Austin Peay State University Herbarium. He discussed the fascinating but untold story of how Long Island’s grasslands, like the Hempstead Plains, connect to other grassy ecosystems of the eastern U.S. This is what E.O. Wilson termed the “Southern Grassland Biome”. Audience members learned about the variety and interconnection of grassland ecosystems of Long Island and across the U.S. as well as about systems that have survived centuries of degradation and the species that depend on them. They also learned how the Southeastern Grasslands Institute is restoring grasslands and seeks to build partnerships on Long Island to help bring more attention and resources to the Hempstead Plains and other grassland initiatives on Long Island.
A second keynote program was delivered by Rob Longiaru, Habitat Director, Friends of Hempstead Plains, who spoke about the history of the Hempstead Plains. Its existing acreage is home to 250 species of plants, including six state rare and/or endangered species. It is a storehouse of genetic resources, a cherished part of Nassau County’s heritage and a globally significant natural asset.
There were two panel discussions, the first of which, Local Stories: Large Initiatives and Public/Private Partnerships, was moderated by Polly Wiegand of the Central Pine Barrens Joint Planning & Policy Commission. Polly is con-sidered one of Long Island’s most knowledgeable grassland experts and is the founder of the Long Island Native Plant Initiative. Her panelists described their projects, objectives, steps in implementing them, ongoing management and lessons learned. While all had some shared experiences and challenges, the variety of information and stories kept audience members entranced. Sue Feustel of the Caumsett Foundation, for example, alluded to damage caused during intense rain one year and cautioned that projects should be prepared for more extreme weather events occurring with climate change. Nelson Pope Voorhis Landscape Ecologist Rusty Schmidt introduced the audience to the new meadow at the Sisters of St. Joseph property in Brentwood and how fire might be used to manage it. Rob Longiaru spoke about the successful use of fire this past spring at Hempstead Plains. Stephane Perreault described management successes and challenges of Greentree Foundation’s 70 acres of a variety of grassland systems. The second panel, Smaller Scale Projects and Building Habitat at Home, was led by John Turner. John is one of Long Island’s best loved naturalists and author of the legendary Exploring the Other Island: A Seasonal Nature Guide to Long Island, now in its second edition. The panelists shared information on habitat values of grasslands and meadows, how audience members can create habitat at home and where they work. They also described steps taken to acquire and transform a highly disturbed four-acre site into a thriving grassy ecosystem, the plants and wildlife found there and the management challenges that continue today.
Anthony Marinello of Dropseed Native Landscapes educated participants about sourcing native plants wisely. Frank Piccininni of Spadefoot Design and Construction provided the nuts and bolts of converting lawn to habitat welcoming to wildlife. Rick Cech of the New York City Butterfly Club pointed out that caterpillars of 56 species of eastern butterflies feed on grasses. He noted, sadly, that surveys at Westchester’s Ward Pound Ridge have shown that there are fewer butterflies since 1980, with eight species lost. The Land Alliance’s Jane Jackson provided a brief history of the Humes meadow and the steps taken to convert this 4-acre area covered with invasive species into a meadow filled with wildlife that now call it home.
The afternoon provided opportunities for attendees to visit some of the project sites described during the morning panels. Sites open to the public included Caumsett State Park, Greentree Foundation, Hempstead Plains, Humes Preserve, Shore Road Sanctuary and William Cullen Bryant Preserve. Each of the locations was represented by a project manager to answer questions or provide a tour.
The day left participants with a better understanding of the value and beauty of land, and, alas, threats to grasslands here on Long Island and around the world. Attendees learned not only how critical these grassy ecosystems are as wildlife habitat and in preserving quality of life but also the roles individuals can play in building these landscapes.
In addition to providing wildlife habitat and aesthetic values, grasslands play a major role in ameliorating climate change impacts. While only a few pockets of grassland remain both here in the U.S. and around the world, grasslands support enormous biodiversity. Grasses’ deep, hairy roots remove carbon from the atmosphere, storing it in a mass of organic matter underground. When grasslands burn, carbon is locked below ground so it does not get released back into the atmosphere. Grasslands grow back quickly after burning.
As our symposium attendees learned, individuals can take important steps to do their part, like planting warm-season native grasses, milkweed and other wildflowers. Maintaining grasslands is a wonderful example of how thoughtful stewardship of open space can conserve a critical landscape. It benefits native plants and wildlife while protecting our water supply and providing access to beautiful natural areas for our children and grandchildren.
Many thanks to our wonderful partners in this endeavor.
Thank You to Our Partnering Organizations
Central Pine Barrens Joint Planning & Policy Commission
Cornell Cooperative Extension – Suffolk County
Dropseed Native Landscapes
Friends of Hempstead Plains
Nassau County Soil & Water Conservation District
Nelson Pope Voorhis
New York City Butterfly Club
New York State Parks, Recreation & Historic Preservation
North Country Garden Club North Shore Land Alliance
Old Westbury Garden
Seatuck Environmental Association
Sisters of St. Joseph
Spadefoot Design and Construction
William Cullen Bryant Preserve (Nassau County Museum of Art)