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South Dakota program restores the ‘shared roots’ of disappearing prairie grasses

BY LAUREN STANLEY

Originally posted by the Episcopal News Service on Jan 5, 2023


[Diocese of South Dakota] Nestled under the accumulating snow from a mid-December South Dakota blizzard, prairie grass seeds and wildflower seeds bide their time, waiting for the right moment — perhaps this spring and summer, perhaps next — to burst forth.


“These plants have crazy long root systems,” according to Mia Werger, who works for the Ecdysis Foundation in Brookings, South Dakota, and whose senior thesis at Augustana University focused on restoring the prairie. “The root system does 90% of the work, because the roots are 10, 12, 15 feet beneath your feet.”


Before growing into the prairie grasses and wildflowers, the seeds actually wait for the right moment, Werger explains, depending on whether there is enough water in the soil to enable the plants to grow and thrive. Sometimes, she says, it can take two years before they burst forth.


The grasses pull carbon from the air through their deep roots and store it back into the earth, creating what is called a carbon sink. “If carbon is in the earth,” she says, “it’s not in the air, which keeps temperatures down. Restoring the prairie keeps the soul alive — it lets in air and water and insects and microorganisms,” she says. “We need these plants to renew the earth. Deeper roots equals … healthy soil.”


Werger has been helping the Diocese of South Dakota with its “Common Ground, Shared Roots” initiative, a program that invites the people of South Dakota to plant a mix of prairie grasses and wildflowers everywhere they can.


“One thing that we believe is of concern to all in South Dakota is the importance of our land, our reliance upon it and the necessity for us to take care of it as God’s gift to us and to all of creation,” says the Rt. Rev. Jonathan Folts, bishop of South Dakota.


“Common Ground, Shared Roots” came about as part of the Diocesan Leadership Initiative, a program of the Episcopal Church Foundation. Folts, along with canon for finance and property Mitchell Honan and Diocesan Council members Warren Hawk and Stephanie Bolman-Altamirano, met with a coach, Pastor Brian Brown, and came up with the idea for the program.


Three pilot projects were created at the Bishop Hare Center in Mission, on the Rosebud Reservation with the Rosebud Episcopal Mission; at St. James, Enemy Swim, on the Lake Traverse Reservation with the Sisseton Episcopal Mission; and at St. John’s, Eagle Butte, on the Cheyenne River Reservation, with the Cheyenne River Episcopal Mission. In each place, a small plot of land was set aside and prepared, and then seeded with the prairie grasses and wildflowers.


“This project,” he says, “is all about bringing people together on this land that we occupy together, and in so doing, healing pieces of land and thereby ourselves. … ‘Common Ground, Shared Roots’ invites all Episcopalians in our diocese and beyond to dream bigger."

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with Categories that also allow visitors to explore more of what interests them.“I’m very grateful to the members of our team who chose to accept the invitation to invest their faith, time, and energy into this project,” says Folts. “And I am also very grateful to those who hosted these three events. We are all about ‘risking something big, for something good,’ as William Sloane Coffin states in his benediction. And this was a risk that we all felt was very important to take.”


In her presentations, Werger emphasizes that the deep root system of the prairie grasses is what will make this program successful.


“A lot of what makes these plants so important is the root system,” she says. “It stays there year after year, and keeps getting bigger. It’s a living ecosystem underground pulling away carbon and storing water.


“The potential of grasslands to store carbon is incredible,” she says, “and it doesn’t get a lot of attention, but it is an important part of the climate change discussion.”


Lawn grass, the kind grown in most urban settings, “does pull in carbon,” she explains, “but some of the ways that we treat plants now, we manage them so poorly that they become a source of carbon instead of a sink. Look at how much energy goes into maintaining those lawns: cutting the grass with gas-powered machines, using fertilizers and weed killers.”


Grasses found in typical lawns aren’t as effective, because the roots are so short. Hawk, who is also a member of the Standing Rock Tribal Council, talked about how his work for the tribe focusing on renewable energy made this environmental program so appealing.


“I was listening to the group talk, and they were talking about what kind of project, and we were … discussing how far apart we are (geographically),” Hawk says. “We wanted to devise a project that would bring people together. Bishop said what he thought was a common thing for us was the land itself. We had talked about the pioneer history, the Native American history, and (Bishop) came up with, ‘Well, what can we do about the land?’


“Mitch was the one who came up with the idea about planting wild grasses,” Hawk says. “We started talking about it, so that’s how it formed. I thought it was a really cool idea, so we named it ‘Common Ground’ because that’s what we can all relate to, the land.”

Honan, who cares deeply about our environment, says, “We cannot afford to ignore climate change. … The issue is so daunting that individuals quite reasonably feel that they cannot do anything meaningful.


“I feel called by God to be part of the solution, and to bring love and hope into people’s lives,” Honan says. “Most days, I don’t get a chance to do that very directly. With ‘Common Ground, Shared Roots,’ though, I saw people come together and do life-giving and easily replicable work together, while also discussing some of the cultural and environmental challenges that we face.


“What I love about this project,” he adds, “is that it offers anyone who owns even a small amount of land in the Midwest an opportunity to do something that actually takes carbon out of the air and puts it back in the ground. The benefits of restoring wild grassland plant species go beyond carbon sequestration, too. These kinds of grasses are more resilient to both drought and flood, and provide food for birds and insects.



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