Native Grasslands: The Unsung Heroes of Climate Change

By Michael Gillogly, Preserve Manager

If I ask you to imagine your favorite California landscape, what comes to mind? Perhaps the magnificent redwood forests, or the golden rolling hills dotted with gnarled old oaks. But grasslands? Oftentimes, when we look at grasslands we only see a vast expanse of green or yellow – just grass. But what if I were to tell you, here lies one of the greatest unsung heroes of our California landscape? To understand, we must look closer.

Mount Saint Helena is silhouetted in the background with tumultuous-looking skies and the sun shining through on Pepperwood's oak woodlands and native grasslands.

Native grasslands are exceptionally biodiverse places and provide numerous ecological functions. Many animals rely on grasslands for food, fiber, medicine, and habitat, and humans are included in that tally. Carbon sequestration, water infiltration, soil stabilization, nutrient cycling, wildlife (from pollinators to apex predators), and a multitude of rare and endangered species are supported by healthy native grasslands. Native grasslands might just help save the world.

I’m not being overly dramatic, considering the problems facing California. We are experiencing extremes from record heat to flooding to drought and wildfires. Even a generous rainy season isn’t enough to assuage our fears around the changing climate – or to sufficiently refill our aquifers. For this kind of problem we need creative, nature-based solutions for which grasslands may hold the key.

Did you know that native perennial bunchgrasses like California fescue (Festuca californica), purple needlegrass (Stipa pulchra), blue wild-rye (Elymus glaucus), and California barley (Hordeum brachyantherum) have root systems that dwarf other plants? For example, purple needlegrass can have root structures that penetrate up to 20 feet into the soil. These deep-rooted champions take carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and deposit the carbon deep in the soil where it stays stationary for the long-term and remains unaffected by wildfires. This root structure also provides an efficient pathway for rainwater to filter deep into the soil, replenishing soil moisture and reducing downstream flooding. Grasses like these can live for centuries.

Grazing is a much-needed “disturbance cycle” for grassland health. A cow munching on a native bunchgrass acts in much the same way as pruning a fruit tree: it stimulates growth and promotes plant health. Hundreds of years ago this disturbance was fulfilled by large herds of elk, antelope, and deer. Wolves and grizzly bears kept the herds on the move, giving the plants time to recuperate before being grazed again. Regenerative agriculture is about farming root systems in much the same way these pre-colonial predators inadvertently did, by keeping herds moving and allowing plants to rest between disturbances. When properly managed, grazing cows can magnify the ability of native grasses to sequester carbon. As the cow tears the tops of the bunchgrass, the plant equalizes by reducing its root mass, releasing as carbon deep into the soil. As the plant regrows, it pulls more carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere. This cycle can repeat again and again if the plant has an adequate rest period between grazing episodes.


A belted galloway cow stares at the camera from a grassy hillside slope with tree-covered hills in the background on a sunny day.

A belted galloway cow grazing at Pepperwood. These hardy cattle are owned and operated by Markegard Family Grassfed LLC., whose grazing program partners with Pepperwood’s adaptive management program for maintaining ecological health and resilience throughout our native grasslands. Photo courtesy of Ian Nelson.

Another healthy disturbance cycle for grasslands is periodic fire. Native cultures stewarded these lands with fire to promote plants for food and textiles, among other reasons. At Pepperwood, we are working alongside Indigenous leaders to restore cultural burning practices to our native grasslands. How, where, and when to apply fire is another reason we turn to our knowledgeable Indigenous native practitioners.

Intentional fires like these burn less severely, emit less smoke, and move more predictably than wildfires. Fire burns up accumulated dead fuels, or thatch, transforming them into usable nutrients like nitrogen, which benefit the soil and plant life. Native plant species tend to fare better after fire disturbances than those not adapted to periodic fire regimes, giving them the advantage after a fire. For this reason, prescribed and cultural burning practices are helpful in reducing invasive species. Additionally, with the thatch removed sunlight can reach the seeds waiting in the soil. The subsequent boom of post-fire productivity is felt by all those who rely on grasslands from the smallest pollinators to the biggest grazers.

A firefighter uses a drip torch to ignite a dry grassland plot slated for a prescribed burn.

The grassland cultural burn of June 2022 at Pepperwood was a momentous occasion not just because of the success of the burn but also because it marked the largest cultural burn to take place at Pepperwood in hundreds of years. Photo courtesy of Ian Nelson.

When evaluated on a global scale, native grassland restoration has great potential to mitigate climate change for a whole range of reasons. So what’s the hold-up? Why haven’t we abated the worst impacts of our changing climate by restoring native grasslands, switching to regenerative agriculture, and reintroducing traditional burning practices? The answer is probably something you can guess.

The loss of native wildflowers and perennial grasses has been caused by human development, industrial agriculture, the introduction of invasive species that overcome native grassland communities, and the encroachment of trees and shrubs into grasslands that remain undisturbed. All of these impacts combined have made native grasslands one of the most endangered ecosystems in the State. In California, 47,000 acres of grassland are converted to agriculture or development every year. Today, non-native species make up the bulk of our grasslands.

But, and this is a very important but, well-managed grazing and the use of intentional burning practices can help restore our native species. There are also many ways for an individual to contribute to the health of our native grasslands. You can choose to favor native species over non-native species in your landscaping practices. You can choose to source your meat responsibly, maybe even consider beef produced at Pepperwood by Markegard Family Grass-fed! And you can choose to support your local open space authority to implement measures that promote native grasslands.

Each year, Pepperwood volunteers collect native grass seed at the reserve and propagate them in specialized planting “plugs.” Last year alone, volunteers planted 25,000 native grass plugs throughout the reserve. You can join us at Pepperwood, the first Saturday of every month, for our Volunteer Workdays, or you can support an open space that is local to your neck of the woods. If you have property with grasslands on it, maybe consider ways you could be a better steward to that community or start by getting to know the plants and animals that reside there.

Whatever you choose to do, I hope the next time you are enjoying the expansive views across those green rolling hills, you feel thankful for the multiple benefits native grasslands provide, and maybe share that knowledge with a friend or two.

Hikers set off in the distance at the top of a grassy ridge line as the sun sets.

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