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At first look, the shortgrass prairie is not exceptional. Located east of Denver, the expanse of green and golden stalks stretches to the horizon with only the occasional muted shrub and forb adding texture to the landscape. “It’s called the plains because it’s pretty plain,” says Fendi Despres, natural resource specialist with the City of Aurora. “The prairie is boring for most people.”
But even if the North American Plains aren’t marked by towering trees or flashy flowers, like in tropical rainforests, that evoke our popular imagination of biodiversity, the plains have their own unique ecology. In fact, Despres has discovered that when you look closely enough, the prairie has a lot to offer. “[It’s] one of the most biodiverse ecosystems on the planet,” she says. This includes a surprisingly long list of native animals, ranging from birds to reptiles. The shortgrass prairie also performs critical services for the environment, such as providing clean air and water. But perhaps the prairie’s most intriguing characteristic is a superpower that we can use to combat climate change and the effects of greenhouse gas emissions: carbon sequestration.
Depres says that the prairie ecosystem is particularly effective at capturing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it underground because its root systems run surprisingly deep—as much as 12 to 15 feet. And unlike forests, which can lose sequestered carbon stored in tree trunks during logging and wildfires, when the prairie burns, most of its carbon remains safely stored below ground.
That’s why Despres and a crew of volunteers are trying to save as much of Colorado’s prairie as they can from invasive species and non-native plants, which compete for resources like nutrients and limit the prairie’s effectiveness. As she’s finding out, though, it’s no easy task fighting for the grass.
A biology graduate of the University of Colorado Denver, Despres transitioned from a career in a pathology lab to the prairie after chronic pain from computer work and her frustrations with the insurance industry became untenable. In 2017, the New Mexico native took a seasonal ranger position with the City of Aurora at the Plains Conservation Center (PCC), which spans 1100 acres in Southeast Aurora and was founded in the 1960s to educate the region’s farmers on sustainable agriculture following the consequences of the Dust Bowl. Now, the PCC provides general education on the plains’ cultural and environmental history, and Despres serves as its volunteer coordinator for Open Space and Natural Resources, in addition to being a natural resource specialist. It’s in this role that Despres made it her mission to not just protect the prairie, but to restore it to its former glory.
The PCC—like much of the shortgrass prairie—is currently landlocked by developed land. Suburbia lies to the west and south; the Buckley Space Force Base edges the north; E470 runs along the eastern side; the Denver Arapahoe Disposal Site Landfill is less than a mile away. “That [development] brings in a whole lot of invasive, non-native plants,” Despres says, “and they don’t give the same ecosystem services [as native plants].”
So starting in 2022, Despres gathered volunteers to transform the plains back into a native ecosystem. Starting with a plot of 20 acres, they removed the invasive plants, catalogued what was present, and gathered native seeds to replant the prairie.
Volunteer Brad Stratton, a life-long Colorado resident and retired biology teacher, says that when working on the prairie, “you just feel that you’re in nature. It’s wonderful to be able to consider the fact that I’m helping nature in my own little way.”
So far, the efforts have been successful in bringing back native plants—with potentially impactful carbon sequestration results. And according to Despres’ calculations, if she can completely restore the 1,000 acres of the PCC not currently used for educational purposes, the carbon offset would be equivalent to removing 2,000 vehicles off the road each year. “That’s pretty decent,” She says. “There’s a hell of a lot more cars on the roads, but it makes a difference.”
Still, Despres and the volunteers have wondered if they could be doing more than just restoring their small chunk of prairie. They realized that if they tracked their progress and published their results, their findings might help others reseed additional prairies. So Despres tapped one of the volunteers to lead the charge on research: Bob Gemmill, a retired scientist who spent his entire 40-year career studying the molecular biology of cancer and published over 130 scientific papers. When he reviewed the PCC’s previous efforts at cataloguing results, he noticed some problems, including how the project contained too many variables. “We [had] not set up any control plots, for example,” he says. “The death of science is to not have controls. Without controls, you can’t learn anything–or, it’s difficult to learn something.”
Over the past several months, Gemmill, Despres, and other volunteers have designed a scientifically rigorous experiment that will test which techniques best aid in the revitalization of native plants. Inspired by two Hungarian grassland research projects, both published in 2021 in the peer-reviewed journal Restoration Ecology, the Aurora team installed eight 6-by-6 foot plots. They then cleared and re-seeded all the plots with native plants. Two plots—the control plots—will be left alone to observe how the native plants spread without help. They’ll then weed and water the remaining six experimental plots, and to determine the efficacy of the re-seeding efforts, volunteers will catalogue the species in all of the plots, as well as track rain, pH, soil moisture, and how far the native species have spread.
This dedication to the work has already led to more innovation across the team, as another volunteer created a machine learning program that identifies the prairie plants from pictures. But Despres doesn’t want all the science-talk to intimidate potential volunteers—the point of the work is to be accessible. “I don’t require any kind of previous experience,” she explains. “You don’t necessarily have to know plants. That kind of training we will give you when we are boots down on the ground.”
“You know,” Despres adds, “most people will never have the opportunity to be part of something that’s rigorous enough to be published in an academic journal.” Mostly, she’s excited to offer the chance for volunteers to be part of science like this—something she never expected for herself.
It will take several years for results to come in. But Despres hopes that more volunteers will sign up through the City of Aurora, and that their work will ultimately inspire the Denver metro area to convert more of its open land into prairie. Aurora, for example, is 10 percent open space that could be converted. “I hope to present the results from this [study] at various conferences like the Colorado Open Space Alliance Conference in a few years once we have a good baseline of data,” she says. “And I hope that people can be inspired by it.”
But Despres doesn’t need to wait to be inspired. “The health benefits that people gain from this immersion [in the prairie] is uncanny,” she says. “It’s one of the reasons why so many of the volunteers like being part of it.” Despres feels it, too: “that connective, spiritual peace with nature.”