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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.

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.

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