In the days when pioneers drove their wagons west, tallgrass prairies covered over 140 million acres of the United States, spanning from Canada to southern Texas. Today, less than 4 percent of these grasslands remain. Most of the land was plowed for farming or developed as populations grew.
But nestled within the rolling Flint Hills of Kansas, almost two hours from Kansas City, lies Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, one of the last pure examples of this unique ecosystem.
"The prairies became the bread basket to America and the world. We've certainly benefited from that, but we've lost the vast majority of the tallgrass prairie," explains Allan Pollom, Kansas State Director of The Nature Conservancy. "I like to think that what we're preserving here today is very much as my great-grandfather saw it when he first settled in Kansas back prior to Kansas being a state."
Efforts to restore the prairies to their original condition are ongoing. In October 2009, 13 bison were brought into the preserve from Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota. The staff hopes that a calf born on Mother's Day is just the first of many additions to the growing herd.
Bison herds were so large at one time that some early settlers reported their wagons were delayed up to two days as they waited for the huge herds to pass.
"It's an icon species, so to just have the bison here, it represents bringing the prairie back," says Wendy Lauritzen, superintendant of Tallgrass Prairie National Park.
Large limestone rocks found throughout the Flint Hills made this area unsuitable for farming. Cattle ranchers recognized the value of the grasses for their livestock, and this combination spared the prairies from being plowed under.
"This is a very productive grass system. It's been very beneficial to the livestock industry, and the ranchers have helped keep this open and free," Pollom says. "They realize that it helps them prosper."
America's Tallgrass Prairie
Ranching is also important to the park. The property is ranch dating from the 1880s that passed through many hands before becoming part of the National Park Service. Cattle still graze on the preserve today, and they help to stimulate the growth of fresh grass. A historic ranch house and three-story barn from the original ranch are accessible to visitors.
"The ranching legacy has preserved the prairie for decades. That's why we're able to get this in such prime condition when it did become part of the preserve," says Lauritzen, Tallgrass Prairie National Park superintendant.
In an unprecedented public-private partnership, the Kansas chapter of the Nature Conservancy and the National Park Service work together to maintain this area.
A private trust began purchasing the current park land in 1994 with the intention of helping it become a national park, but when they experienced financial problems, the Nature Conservancy purchased it to prevent the property from being sold off in pieces to cover debts.
Today, The Nature Conservancy owns the land, pays the taxes and manages grazing leases for ranchers who want to graze their cattle on the prairies. The National Park Service operates visitor services, and the Kansas Park Trust promotes tourism.
"By having the prairie here, people are able to understand the values of having these grasses grow, that it's not just wasted space, that if you don't have a house in it, something's wrong there," Lauritzen says.
The staff hopes visitors will take the time to appreciate the nuances of the prairie, and they won't dismiss the grassland as a boring blanket of green. Lauritzen suggests people try a "12-inch hike," in which they focus on just one foot of the prairie.
"You'll be surprised at just the insect life and the small, teeny tiny flowers and the variety of grasses," she says. "It's just an adventure, but you have to take your time."
The open expanses, endless skies and sea of grass have inspired people for decades. For Nature Conservancy's Pollom, there's nothing better than the tallgrass prairies' sweeping vistas.
"I think of myself as a prairie person," Pollom says. "Some people love the ocean; it just doesn't do it for me. Mountains are great, but the problem with them is they get in the way of the view. Out here we don't have those obstructions. It's what speaks to me."