Prairie Hiking: Wide-Open Spaces

It's the easiest hiking on Earth, and you get to sleep with buffalo, listen to coyotes sing, and bask in quiet so deep you can hear the grasslands growing. Welcome to the prairie.
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It's the easiest hiking on Earth, and you get to sleep with buffalo, listen to coyotes sing, and bask in quiet so deep you can hear the grasslands growing. Welcome to the prairie.

Early morning, and the first slivers of light drift in from the east. Birdsong rises on a breeze with a gentle warmth that hints at the day's coming heat. You are hiking, alone in the breaking light, your legs scissoring through the grass. As darkness falls away, you notice dew on the prairie flowers, and pronghorn tracks on the trail, then a hawk feather. The land opens slowly, every bit of sun stretching the horizon a bit farther into infinity. n The scent of chokecherry hangs in the air, mingling with the chatter of prairie dogs. You scan the morning sky, hoping to see a crane wheel overhead. And always, there is the wind and the slow swell of the grasses, rolling like waves across this great, wide land. n For just a moment on a morning like this, as you stop to listen to the liquid song of a western meadowlark, you can almost forget where you are: in one of the most endangered landscapes on the continent.

    "Anyone can love a mountain, but it takes soul to love a prairie."

      —Unknown

Once the American prairie was as wide and sweeping as the human imagination. From the heart of Canada south into Mexico, from the ramparts of the Rocky Mountains to Indiana, prairie grasses quilted more than 1 million square miles of North American heartland—40 percent of the Lower 48. The vast ecosystem was home to buffalo herds that shook the earth when they moved, prairie dogs by the billions, and wolves and grizzlies and elk and bluestem grasses that grew head-high to a man on horseback. Now it's almost all gone, claimed by unchecked agriculture, road building, oil and gas exploration, and runaway development. Experts estimate that less than 30 percent of the original short- and mixed-grass prairie remains intact, along with less than 1 percent of the tallgrass lands.

"People have forgotten the prairie," says Stephen R. Jones, author of The Last Prairie: A Sandhills Journal, who then ticks off the beauties we're missing by ignoring them. "First of all, there's that sense of being surrounded by immense space, and being able to see for great distances. Then there's the light, all those incredible sunrises and sunsets. Third, there's the wildlife. You can see more wildlife here than in the mountains. I don't understand why the prairies have been so overlooked. Anyone who spends time here eventually falls in love with them."

But slowly, as slowly as the drift of summer clouds across a Dakota sky, people are beginning to rediscover that beauty and are taking another look at what remains of the last wild prairies. In 1989, The Nature Conservancy created the 37,000-acre Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in Pawhuska, Oklahoma. The nation's first prairie national park unit, the 10,894-acre Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in east-central Kansas, was designated in 1996. Sections of two rivers that thread through prairie lands, the Niobrara and Missouri, were recently added to the National Wild and Scenic Rivers System.

In July 1999, the grandest hope yet for prairie preservation emerged when the USDA Forest Service unveiled its Northern Great Plains Management Plans Revision. The proposal pinpointed 62,000 acres of grasslands in four states (North and South Dakota, Wyoming, and Nebraska) that are suitable for wilderness designation. Taking this step would be a monumental first. While a national grasslands system has existed since 1960 under the jurisdiction of the Forest Service, outdoors enthusiasts have largely ignored its patchwork collection (20 units of land scattered across 12 western states). Ranchers, oilmen, and off-road enthusiasts, on the other hand, have paid plenty of attention to federal grasslands, since the land's multi-use designation permits their particular activities.

"The national grasslands are the largest holdings of federal land on the Great Plains, and for decades they've been treated as little more than cow pastures," says Kirk Koepsel of the Sierra Club's Northern Plains office. "The national grasslands should be managed, like all Forest Service lands, for all the values they possess—for livestock use, yes, but also for recreation, wildlife, and wilderness. It's time to look at the possibility of a national grasslands wilderness."

Sierra Club officials disagree with the Forest Service's 62,000-acre wilderness proposal and counter that 574,000 acres within the eight Great Plains national grasslands qualify for wilderness designation. Neither proposal is easy to sell, since these lands don't offer the towering mountains, raging rivers, deep canyons, or old-growth stands found in other awe-inspiring Forest Service wilderness areas. This is windblown country where rocks clatter as you hike and rattlesnakes buzz. This is a land of dry creeks and dusty ridges, of rustling cottonwood leaves and wide-open spaces. But look past the dust, the oil rigs, and the grazed-out hills and you'll find solitude worth saving. n "Prairies were one of the crucibles of American experience," says Jones. "They were the first places people went to escape the crowded East. Once, they were a place of hope."

Conservationists say the grasslands are, once again, places of hope—hope that we'll soon have our first prairie wilderness areas. When the final Forest Service plan was released in February 2001, two areas—Red Shirt and Indian Creek, both in South Dakota's Buffalo Gap National Grassland—were recommended for wilderness designation. The rest of the areas cited in the original 1999 management draft (Cow Creek Buttes in Thunder Basin National Grassland, Wyoming; Sand Hills in Sheyenne National Grassland, North Dakota; and Long X Divide and Twin Buttes in Little Missouri National Grassland, North Dakota) were dropped from the list.

"We didn't get anything close to what we wanted, but the fact that the Forest Service recognized that there are grasslands worthy of wilderness consideration is a dramatic change in its way of thinking," says the Sierra Club's Koepsel. He points out that under the proposed management plan, many areas left off the list may be managed as primitive backcountry, and thus retain the wilderness qualities that will make them eligible for future protection efforts.

In July 1999, the grandest hope yet for prairie preservation emerged when the USDA Forest Service unveiled its Northern Great Plains Management Plans Revision. The proposal pinpointed 62,000 acres of grasslands in four states (North and South Dakota, Wyoming, and Nebraska) that are suitable for wilderness designation.

Taking this step would be a monumental first. While a national grasslands system has existed since 1960 under the jurisdiction of the Forest Service, outdoors enthusiasts have largely ignored its patchwork collection (20 units of land scattered across 12 western states). Ranchers, oilmen, and off-road enthusiasts, on the other hand, have paid plenty of attention to federal grasslands, since the land's multi-use designation permits their particular activities.

"The national grasslands are the largest holdings of federal land on the Great Plains, and for decades they've been treated as little more than cow pastures," says Kirk Koepsel of the Sierra Club's Northern Plains office. "The national grasslands should be managed, like all Forest Service lands, for all the values they possess-for livestock use, yes, but also for recreation, wildlife, and wilderness. It's time to look at the possibility of a national grasslands wilderness."

Sierra Club officials disagree with the Forest Service's 62,000-acre wilderness proposal and counter that 574,000 acres within the eight Great Plains national grasslands qualify for wilderness designation. Neither proposal is easy to sell, since these lands don't offer the towering mountains, raging rivers, deep canyons, or old-growth stands found in other awe-inspiring Forest Service wilderness areas.

This is windblown country where rocks clatter as you hike and rattlesnakes buzz. This is a land of dry creeks and dusty ridges, of rustling cottonwood leaves and wide-open spaces. But look past the dust, the oil rigs, and the grazed-out hills and you'll find solitude worth saving. n "Prairies were one of the crucibles of American experience," says Jones. "They were the first places people went to escape the crowded East. Once, they were a place of hope."

Conservationists say the grasslands are, once again, places of hope-hope that we'll soon have our first prairie wilderness areas. When the final Forest Service plan was released in February 2001, two areas-Red Shirt and Indian Creek, both in South Dakota's Buffalo Gap National Grassland-were recommended for wilderness designation. The rest of the areas cited in the original 1999 management draft (Cow Creek Buttes in Thunder Basin National Grassland, Wyoming; Sand Hills in Sheyenne National Grassland, North Dakota; and Long X Divide and Twin Buttes in Little Missouri National Grassland, North Dakota) were dropped from the list.

"We didn't get anything close to what we wanted, but the fact that the Forest Service recognized that there are grasslands worthy of wilderness consideration is a dramatic change in its way of thinking," says the Sierra Club's Koepsel. He points out that under the proposed management plan, many areas left off the list may be managed as primitive backcountry, and thus retain the wilderness qualities that will make them eligible for future protection efforts.

Bullion Butte

Little Missouri National Grassland, ND

Like the badlands of Theodore Roosevelt National Park 16 miles to the north, this sun-baked, wind-scoured land has been laid open by the elements, with its rough edges softened by the riffles of the Little Missouri River. Dominating the skyline is the 3,358-foot-high Bullion Butte, a sandstone landmark that anchors the still-wild Little Missouri badlands. Mixed-grass prairie spreads out from its base in wooded draws and rolling swells.

Prairie paths: You won't find designated hiking trails, but climb the rocky slopes of the butte to its grassy, treeless summit and enjoy the spectacular view of the badlands. Or float the Little Missouri River in a canoe (call ahead to check water levels). Potential wilderness: 19,880 acres.

Contact: Medora Ranger District, (701) 225-5151; www.fs.fed.us/r1/dakotaprairie/medora.htm.

Sand Hills

Sheyenne National Grassland, ND

Oak savannas once spread over an estimated 30 million acres of the plains. Today, less than 1 percent of those acres remains, with the largest example of tallgrass, prairie-oak savanna being the 6,600-acre Sand Hills area in the Sheyenne National Grassland. At least 42 species of rare or sensitive plants can be found here, including one of the last large populations of the threatened western prairie white-fringed orchid. This is also the strutting ground of one of the last two sizeable populations of greater prairie chickens in North Dakota. The Sand Hills area represents our last chance to include the tallgrass-oak savanna ecosystem in the National Wilderness Preservation System.

Prairie paths: Wander the open savannas or hike the 25-mile stretch of the North Country National Scenic Trail that winds among the sand dunes and prairie grasses. Potential wilderness: 18,120 acres total (when combined with the nearby 11,520-acre McLeod unit). Contact: Sheyenne National Grassland, (701) 683-4342; www.fs.fed.us/r1/dakotaprairie/sheyenne.htm.

Cow Creek Buttes

Thunder Basin National Grassland, WY

Tall buttes, sheer escarpments, spires, sagebrush, dust devils, coyotes howling-according to the Sierra Club's Kirk Koepsel, this is "the real Wild West, the quintessential backdrop for old-time Western movies." Of all the proposed wilderness grasslands, this one is arguably the most scenic. Mixed-grass prairie carpets the flats. Ponderosa pines fringe the mesa tops. Golden eagles soar overhead. Occasionally, elk tracks are found in the pine forests.

Prairie paths: With wide-open grasslands and long ridges, this land needs no designated trails. Autumn, when the cottonwoods blaze yellow in the creek beds, is a beautiful time to hike here. Potential wilderness: 18,180 acres. Contact: Douglas Ranger District, (307) 358-4690; www.fs.fed.us/r2/mbr/thunder.htm.

Red Shirt

Buffalo Gap National Grassland, SD

A scraggly juniper silhouetted against the sky high on the mesacottonwoods in the draws down lowcolorful bands in the rock cliffs in between-such is the scene at Red Shirt. Known locally as "Shoemaker Canyon," Red Shirt is a bowl-shaped draw lined with small, often dry creeks. Two prairie-dog towns sprawl on the flats, and bison grazing in the far western portion lend the feeling that time stands still in this part of the plains. Red Shirt and Indian Creek (see page 68) are the only two of the 43 original roadless areas in the Northern Great Plains Management Plans Revision to be officially recommended for wilderness designation.

Prairie paths: The area has no developed trails, but is so wide open that you can hike just about anywhere. Try strolling along Red Shirt Creek, where you may find pools of water, even in high summer (a prairie rarity). Potential wilderness: 18,320 acres.

Contact: Fall River Ranger District, (605) 745-4107; www.fs.fed.us/r2/nebraska/bgng.html.

Indian Creek

Buffalo Gap National Grassland, SD

When summer sun bakes the rocks, Indian Creek shimmers in the heat. This area is known as the White River badlands, and unlike the terrain of nearby Badlands National Park, the land here is more rounded, and cut by three long ridges. Managed as a nonmotorized recreation area, off-road vehicles-even mountain bikes-are not permitted. Instead, you'll see mountain plovers, coyotes, golden eagles, and bighorn sheep. Since wilderness recommendation for Indian Creek was not strongly opposed by ranchers, Indian Creek and Red Shirt have the best chances of becoming the country's first National Grassland wilderness areas.

Prairie paths: No designated trails exist and hiking is rough. An old, two-track road that is used for "administrative purposes" takes you into the area. Since summer temperatures exceed 100:F and the area has little or no shade, spring and fall are the best hiking seasons. Potential wilderness: 24,670 acres plus a 7,650-acre proposed addition.

Contact: Wall Ranger District, (605) 279-2125; www.fs.fed.us/r2/nebraska/bgng.html.

Home On The Range

At first glance, a Great Plains grassland may look empty and lifeless. But take a closer look:

  • More than 7,500 species of plants and animals live on the prairie.
  • More than 130 species, from rattlesnakes to burrowing owls, make up a wildlife community centered around the plains' prairie-dog towns.
  • Once upon a time, 50 to 70 million bison, 50 million pronghorn, and more than a billion prairie dogs inhabited the plains. Their populations greatly reduced now, these creatures rely on grassland protection and restoration for survival.
  • Fifty-five threatened or endangered species, including the black-footed ferret (considered the most-endangered mammal in North America) and the western fringed prairie orchid, rely on prairies for their existence.
  • Another 728 plant and animal species in the plains are considered candidates for inclusion on the Threatened and Endangered Species list.
  • As many as half of the continent's ducks use the prairie's potholes for migratory stops or as breeding grounds.
  • National grasslands provide habitat for trophy mule deer, the largest bighorn sheep herds on the plains, and some of the best mating grounds of the greater prairie chicken.