With a map of North America before you, trace a line south starting in Canada’s Manitoba and following the U.S. state boundaries between North and South Dakota on the west and Minnesota on the east. Keep going with the state lines between Nebraska and Iowa, Kansas and Missouri, but then veer slightly southwest through Oklahoma and into Texas all the way to the Gulf of Mexico. Taking in fifty to a hundred miles to either side of this line, you’ve just defined the primary thoroughfare of the former Tallgrass Prairie. I use the word former in the sense of “having once been something,” because the prairie was once very much something.
When encountered by westering Euro-Americans emerging from eastern woodlands, this treeless land appeared a desert, as in deserted, desolate, forlorn. Not knowing what to call it, they adopted the French word for the place, meaning “meadow.” The prairie of course was not deserted, but rather occupied by Native Americans and the buffalo. By “deserted,” the first pioneers meant they saw no buildings, no agricultural fields, and especially, once they left the oak savannahs intermediate between woodland and prairie, few if any trees. As David Wishart says in Michael Forsberg’s Great Plains, America’s Lingering Wild, the settlers “disliked the sense of exposure, the feeling of having nothing to hide behind.”
Yet they ventured forth while staring at the absurd, unending view of grass that defined the horizon. The settlers eventually came to admire and even love the prairie. Listen to Carl Sandberg in Prairie:
The prairie sings to me in the forenoon and I know in the night I rest easy in the prairie arms, on the prairie heart. …I have loved the prairie as a man with a heart shot full of pain over love.
Yet, the settlers valued growing food and making a living more than undisturbed prairie. After the sodbusters broke the prairie ground and found the soil rich, subsequent great plow-ups fueled the prairie’s demise—the 20th century blowup for large-scale agriculture followed by the vast cultivation of corn to fuel the ethanol boom. Dan O’Brien in Forsberg’s Great Plains says of the prairie, “It is a world that has indeed been turned upside down.” For all its former, awe-inspiring 170 million acres, where buffalo, elk, deer wandered unmolested except by the occasional wolf or grizzly or Indian, true prairie now only exists in roadside ditches, highway medians, old cemeteries, and pockets of land here and there saved from the plow.
I’m following one of those roadsides in southern Minnesota just above the Iowa state line, 30 miles of US 56 dubbed the Shooting Star Scenic Byway. Fortunately for the present day, a branch of the Chicago, Milwaukee, St. Paul and Pacific Railroad, nicknamed the “Milwaukee Road,” once paralleled the highway, unintentionally protecting prairie growing in the right-of-way, mostly between the tracks and the road. This section of rail line along US 56 that was abandoned in 1990 is now the Shooting Star State Trail. The Shooting Star Scenic Byway, including the rail-trail, is a project of Prairie Visions, a cooperative undertaking by the towns along the byway to preserve the area’s natural resources and promote tourism and small business economy.
I stop and walk a piece of the paved rail-trail, looking to either side hoping to see shooting star. Each small flower in a cluster points downward with an upward sweep of its petals. I see starry false solomon’s seal, prairie phlox, wild geranium, and various yellow flowers (Coreopsis, Crepis, Taraxacum) but no shooting star, maybe too late in the season. But I later learn the byway and trail are named for two nearby populations of the flower that were discovered in 1980. So the Shooting Star Scenic Byway at present has no shooting star. Still, the natural area harbors populations of tallgrass species, big bluestem and Indian grass, as well as prairie forbs (herbaceous flowering plants), including rough blazing star, prairie phlox, stiff sunflower, gray-headed coneflower, northern plains blazing star, whirled milkweed, rattlesnake master, and white wild indigo, the latter two state-listed species of concern.
Back to the map. The area we defined for the Tallgrass Prairie follows generally the outline provided in Forsberg’s Great Plains. To the north, the prairie once reached farther into Canada, beyond Manitoba’s Tall Grass Prairie Natural Area. The prairie also once penetrated farther east in Iowa and Missouri and even into Illinois and Arkansas where thinly scattered enclaves still linger. Of the total Tallgrass Prairie, only about 4% of the 170 million acres remains. But it was once something to behold. In the opinion of Walt Whitman,
…while I know the standard claim is that Yosemite, Niagara falls, the upper Yellowstone and the like, afford the greatest natural shows, I am not so sure but the Prairies and the Plains, while less stunning at first sight, last longer, fill the esthetic sense fuller, precede all the rest, and make North America’s characteristic landscape.
To the west of our mapped area, the diffused boundary for tallgrass prairie slowly creeps east as climate change brings higher temperatures and less rainfall. Historically at about the 100th meridian, the prairie peneplain began to gradually pass beyond the reach of moisture from the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic Ocean. However with climate change, the start of reduced rainfall has moved east and is now demarcated by the 98th meridian or, some would argue, the 96th meridian. From there, the rain decreases to the west as the prairie gives way to the plains, leaving the tallgrass behind.
Here I’m distinguishing between prairie (meaning “meadow” in the original French) and plain (usually referring to a more dry, flat upland). West of the prairie, the Great Plains stretch to the foot of the Rocky Mountains, which cast a rain shadow across the land, blocking moisture from the Pacific. On the prairie, there’s still enough moisture blowing up from the Gulf of Mexico and wending east from the Atlantic to enable a luxuriant growth of tallgrass dominated by big bluestem and Indian grass, often six, eight, ten feet tall by late summer.
Even with grass that high, most of the plant is famously underground where its deep roots are protected from buffalo, harsh winters, and wildfire, the latter either naturally occurring or set by indigenous peoples who were stewards of the prairie long before Euro-Americans ever set foot there. The buds that send up blades of grass are at or below ground level; so if the grass loses the aboveground portion by grazing or fire or cold, the plant’s growth tissues remain to send up the next crop of grass.
While the remaining prairie is exceedingly small in aggregate, the pockets of land still harboring tallgrass are many, separated by privately owned land. So a prairie corridor will necessarily be composed of preserved “blocks of natural landscapes” connected in places by narrow strips of prairie, or where a narrow connection is not possible, the landscape blocks will serve as steppingstones. (See Prairie Ecological Corridor.)
I’m now in one of those “blocks of natural landscape” that serve as steppingstones. After heading south from the Shooting Star Scenic Byway and entering Iowa in search of prairie, I spot a sign for Hayden Prairie State Preserve and turn for the four-mile drive and pull in at a dirt parking area next to a couple of other vehicles and get out. A couple is walking among the shin-high grass. Curious, I take a few steps in their direction. “May I ask what you’re doing?”
“We’re here for a guided hike, especially to see the shooting star,” the guy answers.
“Oh? I just happened by to see the prairie. Is it not too late in the spring to see shooting star?”
“No they’re here.” He points to where the woman has squatted. Rod and Miriam; we later introduce ourselves.
I walk over and see Miriam’s looking at a shooting star.
“This is a white one!” she exclaims.
I see now there are several around. They’re almost all pink; so I see why she’s excited to see a white one. “I’m from east Tennessee; ours in the wild are almost always white.”
“Oh, my!” she remarks.
I’m thinking I have an unexpected opportunity for an introduction to the prairie from a local expert. “How long is your hike?” I ask them.
“You’ll need to ask him.” They point back to the parking area where a pickup has pulled in and a slender man gets out of the truck, dressed in an official-looking green shirt, khaki pants, boots, and well-worn cap. We three walk to him. I explain once again that I just happened by, unaware there was an organized outing today. “May I join your hike?”
“Sure, anyone’s welcome,” Larry responds. We’ve introduced around. It’s a few minutes before the scheduled time for the hike, and we chat a bit. “This is the largest piece of tallgrass in Iowa,” Larry says. “Forty years ago when I was a kid, I’d come out here and see nothing but grass and thousands of shooting stars. Now you can see it’s being invaded by woody shrubs that shade the ground. So over time we’re losing the prairie.”
Other vehicles have arrived until our group has grown to a dozen or more folks.
“Well, it’s two o’clock, so we’ll get started and anyone else who arrives can follow. I’m Larry Reese with Winneshiek County Conservation, although this is Howard County. I grew up right over there.” He points east toward the little community of Lime Springs that I had passed by, nearly at the border with Winneshiek County.
As we start our walk with Larry in the lead, I pick up our conversation. “Don’t you use fire to control the invasives?”
“I don’t believe fire helps all that much. It will burn what’s above ground but will not kill the shrubs. This was burned three years ago, and they just shoot right up again.” He’s referring to the clumps of aspen as well as dogwood, stunted but still alive. “Aspen are good for other locations, but should not be here. Once this was all grass, but when the settlers came in they brought trees with them and planted copses.” Although the pioneers gradually became used to the open expanse of the prairie, they at first felt the need for trees and still want trees around their houses, if for no other reason than as windbreaks. So with wind and birds spreading the tree seeds, just like they spread grass seed, trees and shrubs now dot the prairie.
Looking for wildflowers, Larry says, “The flowers change every couple of weeks. Notice these flowers are just an inch or two above the grass. As the grass grows, the flowers that come on are taller also, staying above the grass.” So later in the summer we would find waist- and head-high families of goldenrods, sunflowers, coneflowers, blazing stars.
For now, the grasses are still coming on and we’re seeing spring wildflowers, just a foot or less tall—golden Alexander, yellow star grass, white blue-eyed grass, prairie phlox, hoary puccoon, common toadflax, prairie smoke, prairie violet, and many shooting stars.
The prairie hosts various insect and bird species—eastern meadowlark, Henslow’s sparrow, common yellowthroat, dickcissel, grasshopper sparrow. Among the butterfly species, the monarch dominates in season. Grassland birds are the most imperiled, experiencing a decline of some 50% since 1970. Birds that nest or feed strictly in grasslands, such as upland sandpiper, eastern meadowlark, grasshopper sparrow, and bobolink, are especially hard hit. In the near distance we see a bobolink, black with its cream-colored cap, and farther a northern harrier sailing at bush level looking for prey. We hear the short crowing of ring-necked pheasant, hidden somewhere in the grass and shrubs nearby.
Hayden Prairie, acquired by the state in 1945 and at 240 acres one of the largest preserves in Iowa, is named for Dr. Ada Hayden, a botanist at Iowa State College in Ames, later Iowa State University. Growing up on a farm northwest of Ames, Hayden had often wandered the prairie remnant on her father’s land. With that interest, she studied botany in college and in 1918 became the first woman to earn a Ph.D. at Iowa State where she was soon appointed curator of the college’s herbarium. She’s credited with adding 40,000 specimens to the collections during her tenure.
Her intense interest in prairie ecosystems and the danger of their disappearing led her to advocate for establishment of prairie preserves. The Iowa Academy of Sciences asked her to survey prairie remnants across the state and select the best for potential preserves. In her report, she identified 22 prairie tracts in ten counties for consideration. These tracts had been mostly left unplowed. In the case of Hayden Prairie, a single family owned the land for decades but only used it for hay.
Dr. Hayden began working for protection of the prairies she had identified. Her efforts led to a handful of designated preserves, only two during her lifetime. Some have since been plowed under. But in addition to the handful of prairies preserved by her advocacy, her work contributed to the formation of the Iowa State Preserves system. Shortly after her death in 1950, the first prairie preserve established was named for her. Hayden Prairie was declared a National Natural Landmark in 1966.
Prairie management today includes prescribed fire set in an attempt to remove woody growth from the prairie. If not completely successful, it at least slows the loss of prairie habitat.
Reseeding prairie species helps. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources includes the Prairie Resource Center that grows and harvests seeds of 65 species of Iowa prairie grasses and wildflowers that are then distributed to public land managers across the state for prairie restoration. The hope is to bring back a small portion of the Tallgrass Prairie that once covered as much as 80% of the state. The grassroots Iowa Prairie Network promotes prairie preservation through events and outings to raise awareness of the value of the vanishing prairie.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture through its Farm Service Agency encourages preservation and restoration of environmentally sensitive lands through its Conservation Reserve Program. Under the program, farmers volunteer to remove land from production and to introduce plant species to restore habitat. In exchange, they receive a yearly “rental” payment. The grassland component of the CRP engages agricultural producers to ensure sensitive grasslands are preserved while maintaining the area for grazing. While this encourages prairie and plains preservation and supports the ranching culture, the agreements are for ten- or fifteen-year periods and so do not permanently protect the acreage.
In addition, the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service works to restore wetlands through its Wetlands Reserve Program. The NRCS provides technical and financial support to landowners with their wetland restoration efforts. Eligible for the program are “rangeland, pasture, or forest production lands where the hydrology has been significantly degraded and can be restored.” As a consequence, The Nature Conservancy with a coalition of partners enrolled the largest restoration of prairie and wetlands ever attempted in the U.S. in the Wetlands Reserve Program. The Glacial Ridge Project was initiated in 2000 when TNC purchased 24,000 acres in northwest Minnesota. At the time only 3,000 acres remained there of native prairie. Over the next two decades, the coalition has restored thousands of acres of prairie as well as 200 wetlands. The goal is to expand the area to 37,000 acres with as much as 8,000 in wetlands and 20,000 in prairie. As early as 2004, the project area was transferred to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and became the core area of the Glacial Ridge National Wildlife Refuge.
Glacial Ridge, named for the ridges and hills left by glacier retreat, provides a link and a steppingstone in the prairie corridor. The project area joins TNC’s nearby 1,671-acre Pembina Trail Preserve with two scientific and natural areas, three federal waterfowl production areas, and several state-owned wildlife management areas. That combined acreage is also a steppingstone for prairie species to other preserves north and south in Minnesota’s prairie passage.
Of the remaining Tallgrass Prairie, nearly two-thirds resides in the Flint Hills of eastern Kansas and protrudes a bit into northern Oklahoma. The four million acres of the Flint Hills region was mostly spared from the plow because of rock near the surface: limestone, shale, and chert. Unable to plow the uplands of the Flint Hills, homesteaders turned to raising cattle, which remains the primary economy for the region. Zebulon Pike coined the name when he explored the region. Pike was sent in the summer of 1806 to explore the southwest as far as Spanish settlements in New Mexico and Texas. Traveling through Kansas, he wrote in his journal, “passed very ruf Flint Hills.”
Not far from where I drop below the Nebraska state line, incongruously named Manhattan, Kansas, resides at the northern end of the Flint Hills. Appropriately, the Flint Hills Discovery Center can be found in Manhattan, with exhibits and programs on the Flint Hills and the Tallgrass Prairie. But I’m headed to nearby Konza Prairie. In the early 1970s, The Nature Conservancy was looking to establish a prairie reserve in the Flint Hills. Working with Kansas State University professor Lloyd Hulbert, TNC purchased 916 acres at Konza and coordinated with Kansas State to manage the land. In the late 1970s, another 7,700 acres was added, and the preserve was named the “Konza Prairie Biological Research Station” where scientists study the role of fire, grazing, and climate change on grasslands.
I arrive at Konza, one of the spellings for the Kaw, or Kansa, people for whom the State of Kansas is named. Of Dhegiha-Siouan descent, the Kaw once occupied eastern Kansas and northern Oklahoma before being driven from their land in Kansas by the intrusion of Euro-Americans. The remaining Kaw reside in Oklahoma.
On the seven miles of trail on Konza Prairie, I first pass through woodland along King Creek. Homesteaders farmed these lowlands where water is available and the soil is deeper. Following the trail I ascend the terraced hills of the prairie with dried grass to either side, new grass not yet dominating. The terracing results from differential erosion of the limestone and shale deposited by an ancient inland sea, and also the chert that formed by groundwater depositing silica where it grows into concretions. In some defined plots, prescribed fires set in early spring have burned off last year’s grass and the sprouts of woody shrubs and trees. White limestone stands out against the blackened earth. Most of the tallgrass still lies below the surface, ready to send up this year’s growth—big bluestem, Indian grass, little bluestem, and switchgrass, the bluestems obviously named for the blue-green color of their stems and the base of their leaves during the growing season. I see fresh green grass blades emerging, just a few inches.
As a whale surfaces for air, so big blue comes up for sunlight… – William Least-Heat Moon in PrairyErth.
And the good green grass, that delicate miracle the ever-recurring grass … Again the deathless grass, so noiseless soft and green. – Walt Whitman in Leaves of Grass,
By fall the grasses will be several feet tall, with sufficient rain in spring and summer reaching as much as ten feet and with a root system as much as twelve feet into the soil. I top the ridge and have an expansive view across Konza Prairie with the Kansas River to the north, a tributary of the Missouri River. A small bison herd resides on the prairie to the south, but none are in view.
In my early years, traveling east to west, I hurried across Kansas or Nebraska to reach the Rockies, thinking this middle America with barely a hill or tree in sight had nothing to interest me. But just like the bewildered first settlers, I have come to value the mile-wide view and the persistence of a blade of grass.
Preservation of prairie remnants has never been easy. Often state and federal governments are the only agencies with enough money to purchase land or secure conservation easements. Yet, in this region where residents value autonomy, freedom of choice, and private ownership of land, government intrusion is often suspect, and even resented. That distrust played out at the Tallgrass Prairie National Reserve in the Flint Hills. Talk of a park in Kansas to preserve a large prairie remnant dates from at least the 1880s when D. W. Wilder, editor of the Hiawatha, Kansas newspaper, Hiawatha World, noted the prairie was disappearing and stated that we “ought to have saved a … Park in Kansas, ten thousand acres broad.”
Various proposals over the decades met opposition from local ranchers who did not want government to own the land. Finally, the idea for a public-private partnership emerged in the 1990s for a national preserve to be managed by the National Park Service but owned by a conservation non-profit. The National Park Trust, a land trust within the National Parks Conservation Association completed negotiations for purchase of the Spring Hill/Z Bar Ranch. NPT had difficulty raising all the necessary funds for paying off the mortgage and sold the property to The Nature Conservancy, which completed the purchase and continues to work with the NPS for restoration of the prairie, including reintroduction of bison, a herd that has grown to 100 animals.
Originally from, of all places, Nashville, Tennessee, Stephen F. Jones met his wife Louisa in Alabama where he had gone to work on a cotton plantation. They migrated to Texas and later Colorado, farming and ranching in each place and becoming rich along the way. In 1876, they reversed their migration and arrived in Chase County, Kansas, where they eventually purchased 7,000 aces along Fox Creek for the ranch, named for the natural springs in the hillside. They employed local craftsmen to construct their grand house, barn, and outbuildings from locally mined limestone. The three-story house with mansard roof commands the property, with the first floor built into the hillside in back and overall possessing eleven rooms and an expansive terraced front garden. Above the second-floor cornice is inscribed “A.D. J 1881.”
When I arrive at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, I first stop in the visitor center resting in the small enclave that the NPS is permitted to own. I ask the ranger manning the center about this public/private partnership and as we talk I sense, perhaps imagine, a certain defensiveness. Must be hard being the sole public representative of the government where clearly many of the local populace do not want the government. Outside, the prairie stretches west to the crest of a ridge. A three-mile walk (or bus ride) leads through the Windmill Pasture where bison roam to an overlook of the “Big Pasture” extending to the north.
I…have launch’d my view across broad expanses of living green, in every direction…that vast Something, stretching out on its own unbounded scale, unconfined, which there is in these prairies, combining the real and ideal, and beautiful as dreams. – Walt Whitman
TNC also owns 39,650 acres in Oklahoma, the largest remnant of tallgrass prairie in the world. While Frederick Drummond, founding member of the Oklahoma Chapter of the TNC is considered the father of the preserve, TNC named the Joseph H. Williams Tallgrass Prairie Reserve to recognize Williams’ efforts at saving the prairie. Williams was Chair of the Oklahoma Chapter and later TNC board chair at the national level. In Kansas and Oklahoma, TNC now owns more than 50,000 acres of Tallgrass Prairie, not even counting Konza Prairie and smaller patches here and there owned by the Conservancy.
Although I have explored the prairie several times now, I have yet to be there in late summer/fall to see the tallgrass. I write this during the Covid pandemic and so limit my travel. I thought seeing tallgrass at its height would have to wait for another year. Then, bike riding in east Tennessee with wife, Sondra, we came upon a native grass planting at Seven Islands State Birding Park, named for the seven islands in the adjacent French Broad River, a tributary of the Tennessee River, and for the numerous birds found there.
Native Prairie Planting and Big Bluestem at Seven Islands State Birding Park
The grasses look suspiciously tall, and so I get off my bike, approach on foot, and stare up to the tops of big bluestem beyond my reach. Indian grass and little bluestem intermingle with big blue. These native prairie grasses are fairly common in Tennessee, but large gatherings to form prairie have vanished from the state except for a few small protected and restored enclaves.
I wish I could say it was obvious when I first passed from forests into the Tallgrass Prairie. In a way it is obvious. If you pay attention, you’ll notice the trees thinning until there’s just a copse here and there dotting the flatland or a hedgerow around a house. But look around for the grass. All you see is agricultural fields. In A Sand County Almanac, Aldo Leopold mourned the loss of prairie:
No living man will see again the long-grass prairie where a sea of prairie flowers lapped at the stirrups of the pioneer. We shall do well to find a forty here and there on which the prairie plants can be kept alive as species.
I originally set out to see some of what is left, and if there’s any hope for its salvation. Accept for forty acres here, a hundred or a few thousand there, the tallgrass is gone. While much work is ongoing to protect prairie remnants, the question remains of whether they can be connected in a Prairie Passage, not a road route, but rather a prairie corridor physically linked in places and using steppingstone remnants in others that allows prairie plants and fauna to migrate north-south.
A prairie corridor may be the greatest challenge facing the attempts across North America to reestablish wildlife corridors. The Tallgrass Prairie is the most devastated ecosystem on the continent, perhaps in the world. Only with human intervention through land purchase and conservation easements, restoration through plantings and seed dispersal, maintaining a traditional ranching economy that raises cattle on grass but with rotation to avoid overgrazing, return of bison when possible, and judicious use of fire can we bring back the prairie. If we manage to salvage the Tallgrass Prairie, then we will have accomplished something.
© Russ Manning. All Rights Reserved.
An ebook of much longer text and complete references for Tallgrass Prairie can be downloaded from amazon.com