Lightning strikes used to produce these violent, spectacular wildfires that roared for miles. Today people play the part of nature by strategically setting and controlling these fires.
Last spring more than 24,000 acres were burned in the Osage Hills of northeastern Oklahoma in preparation for the return of a once-vast, now lost ecosystem, the tallgrass prairie.
Covering 35,000 acres, The Nature Conservancy's Tallgrass Prairie Preserve is a microcosm of an ocean of grass that once covered 220,000 square miles of the mid-United States. At their peak, 60 million bison roamed the great prairie that stretched from Canada to Texas. For centuries buffalo were the life support of Native Americans who used the animals for food, shelter, clothing and spiritual ceremonies.
Then the white settlers came with the great Western expansion of the 19th century, and discovered that beneath the tallgrass was a fertile soil ideal for farming. In just a few decades the tallgrass prairie had become the cornbelt of the world.
At the same time, a hunting frenzy on buffalo, often encouraged by the U.S. government, reduced their numbers to an estimated 300. "The disappearance of the buffalo meant starvation and disease for the Indians," said Geoffrey Standing Bear, an attorney in nearby Pawhuska and assistant tribal chief of the Osage Indians. "Between 1872 and 1890, the Indian population was reduced by 75 percent."
With the loss of the buffalo and the rise of farming, the tallgrass prairie ceased to exist. The Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in the Osage Hills, which represents the last great surviving piece of the prairie, very nearly did not happen, despite decades of efforts by activists to create just such a preserve.
"It has a long, tortured history," said Bob Hamilton, director of science and stewardship for the preserve. "The National Park Service has been trying to add a tallgrass component to the Park Service for 30 years or so."
But well into the process, the Park Service encountered stiff opposition, Hamilton said. The Osage Tribe, which owns mineral rights on the land, was afraid of losing oil income. Oil and gas producers feared a government bureaucracy, and local ranchers were opposed to government ownership of nearby land. Only the chamber of commerce and main street merchants in Pawhuska supported a national park.
"It was an emotional and bitter fight," Hamilton said. Then the local congressman withdrew his support in Congress, thereby killing any chance for a national park.
The Chapman-Barnard Ranch, which covered 35,000 acres of the Osage Hills, went up for sale and despite a $15 million pricetag, The Nature Conservancy bought it. "We knew we couldn't afford it," said conservancy board chairman Joe Williams of Tulsa at the time of the purchase, "but we also knew we couldn't afford not to buy it."
The most precious asset of this vast expanse of the Osage Hills is the underlying layer of limestone, rendering the stretch of prairie unsuitable for plowing or building.
Airline pilots call it the black hole because, passing over the 70-mile-wide swath of prairie from Oklahoma through the Kansas Flint Hills at night, no lights dot the landscape. Because the land has never been plowed, the original vegetation is still intact, making possible a return to its tallgrass origins.
"It made a significant difference to the people who opposed a national park that we were locally accountable," said Hamilton, referring to the preserve board's inclusion of Osage Indians, ranchers and townspeople. "We also continue to pay property taxes on the land, which keeps money in the community."
No tax dollars were spent on the preserve, added Harvey Payne, a native of Pawhuska who, as a high schooler, ran cattle on the ranch and today is director of the preserve. "We're also here for a scientific conservation purpose," he said. "Tourism is a part of that, but not on the scale that a national park would be."
The last great component of the tallgrass prairie materialized last October with the ceremonial release of 300 buffalo, marking the first time the buffalo has roamed on its native prairie since the turn of the century. After their near-extinction, bison were relegated to nature preserves and private ranches. Today about 135,000 of the animals are in herds throughout the United States, and there is a growing demand for buffalo meat.
The grazing style of the buffalo is essential to the survival of the tallgrass prairie. A buffalo, which can weigh up to a ton, consumes about 30 pounds of grass a day and, unlike cattle, which will eat anything nearby, is very selective about what it eats, moving constantly in search of better grasses. This movement gives plants time to regenerate.
"Fire played a big role in how buffalo grazed," Hamilton said. "It made lush areas for them to graze, and where they grazed, they created fire breaks."
Watching the buffalo break out from their pen and return to the tallgrass prairie, Standing Bear spoke for many Native Americans. "My family hunted in this territory for hundreds of years," he said, "but we haven't had a buffalo hunt in 120 years. The buffalo remind us of our ways."
Though he sees a long, successful life for the tallgrass prairie preserve, Hamilton knows its survival will always depend on humankind.
"It will never be a nature-takes-its-course thing," he said. "It will be our continued responsibility to manage, to mimic the system - for putting in the fires and managing the herds."
Because the major predators such as the plains grizzly and the prairie wolf are now extinct, "we will be acting as predators," Hamilton said. Each autumn his staff will round up the herd for vaccinations and to pull out some for sale to private ranchers and breeders, simulating a role the predators would have played.
"It's the same way with any large ecosystem in the lower 48 states," Hamilton said. "There is no functioning system left like it was in pre-settlement times."
* Elizabeth Hudson
Elizabeth Hudson lives in Austin, Texas, where she covers Western issues for the Washington Post.