Saving the Wild South

Saving the Wild South


Words by Grace Cope
Photos by 
Eberhard Grossgasteiger

The small stretch of meadow located just outside Dwayne Estes’ porch in Clarksville, Tennessee, may seem insignificant, but that meadow is part of the 1 percent remaining grassland ecosystem in the Southeast. 

Grasslands were once part of a rich variety of ecosystems on our planet. Before urban sprawl, the earth was covered by lush foliage, dense forests, and widespread grasslands thriving with biodiversity. Now, 99 percent of these incredible Southern landscapes have been destroyed, leaving the few grasslands that are left fragmented and suffering. 

This is where the Southeastern Grasslands Initiative (SGI) comes in. Launched in early 2017 by founders Dwayne Estes and Theo Witsell, the organization fights to preserve, maintain, and grow the beautiful grasslands and their species in the Southeast. Estes and Witsell also want to educate people about the importance grasslands hold in our country’s history and in our individual communities. 

“Grasslands really are one of the greatest ecosystems in need of conservation in our present day,” said Estes, executive director. He sat on his front porch, just feet away from the meadow surrounding it, and reflected on being raised in the South, playing outside in lush backyard thickets and dense treelines. This love for nature followed him to college, where he studied to become a professor of biology. It was along this career path that he began learning about what was happening to grasslands throughout the Southeast. 

“There is a lot of great conservation work and organizations out there, but there was not a Southeastern-wide focal group that was specializing in grasslands. So we stepped up to fill a much-needed void that existed,” said Estes. 

Also, many Southerners are unaware of the significance of grasslands in the history of Southern cities. SGI’s website explains that grasslands have affected agriculture, landscape, and industry across the Southeast. 

“Our mantra for 2020 is that we are telling an untold story of American history and conservation,” said Estes proudly. 

Despite the huge role these ecosystems have played in American history, there is still a lack of education and awareness in the public about this land, causing more and more grasslands to become forgotten and unintentionally ruined. 

“A lot of the remaining grasslands are really tiny. A quarter acre here, a tenth of an acre there, but rarely are they any bigger than that,” Estes noted, pointing out the meadow by his front porch. “Those are remnants, and they are scattered and sprinkled across the landscape, and those represent the last 1 percent of what remains.” 

Living inside Dwayne’s meadow, and in other grasslands across the Southeast, are hundreds of rare species. The population of many species of these animals and plants are plummeting quickly due to the destruction of these grasslands. According to the SGI website, “We will likely begin seeing the extinction of grassland-dependent species by 2050 and this number will only increase toward 2100.” 

In order to save these species, education is not the only strategy that must be implemented. Grasslands are unlike other landscapes in that they require many hours of upkeep in order to preserve their natural state. 

“Grasslands require management. You can’t simply walk away,” Estes explains. “They’re going to need fire, something that mimics the bison and elks that were historically there.” 

“A lot of people will say, ‘How come we had them for centuries, and all of a sudden they need so much management?’ The management is required because of the activities we have already undertaken that are eliminating grasslands. We are a part of the ecosystem, so what we do has an effect,” adds Gregg Elliot, SGI’s director of communication. 

While this maintenance may appear daunting, it can be done with the diligent effort of Southern communities. Because of the need for maintenance, it is of the utmost importance that people learn to care for these ecosystems. 

“This has to be a grassroots movement, and it has to be a movement that’s led by the people,” Estes says. “The average American may see grasslands every day and not realize what they’re seeing.” 

This lack of awareness damages Southern grasslands. SGI is partnering with several organizations in hopes of furthering its conservation efforts. According to Estes, SGI is joining the U.S. Geological Survey to host a workshop that addresses the topic of rare species in grasslands. SGI is also developing a strategy called the Cumberland Plain Conservation Plan, with the goal of joining fellow conservationists and scientists across the Southeast to work on preserving the Cumberland Plateau ecoregion. 

As stated on the SGI website, grasslands won’t survive another hundred years if people do not begin putting grasslands on their radar and acting to make a difference. Saving these grasslands will allow our sons and daughters the chance to have their own meadow stretching alongside their front porch.