A wildfire engulfs the sprawling prairie, burning out invading brush and trees and clearing away dead plants. Left behind is a charred landscape that within days will grow anew - lush, green and healthy.
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.
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
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
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."
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.
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."
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.
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
"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
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.
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
"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.
same way with any large ecosystem in the lower 48 states," Hamilton
said. "There is no functioning system left like it was in
Elizabeth Hudson lives
in Austin, Texas, where she covers Western issues for the