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.”
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 heartland40 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.