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THE ELUSIVELY BEAUTIFUL PLAINS

by Dan Flores, the A.B. Hammond Professor of Western History at the University of Montana-Missoula

By any standard measure of aesthetics, the Great Plains is not an admired part of America these days, a beloved landscape like the Rockies, Sierra-Nevadas, or the Southwestern deserts. Anyone who has driven across the country sees a vast emptiness of space. The wind buffets and rocks your car. Billboards unintentionally advertising the Plains social order -- Jesus, cowboys, farm machinery -- become welcome breaks in the monotony. A pervading notion characterizes such drives: "I wish to God I'd have flown."

A century or two ago, the reactions were very different. Washington Irving was enthralled with the Plains. So were James Fenimore Cooper, George Catlin and John James Audubon. In 1831 Albert Pike, having stripped the Sangre de Cristo and Jemez and San Juan ranges of beaver, looped out across the High Plains, hoping vainly for undiscovered beaver streams. After months out on the great horizontal sweeps, he wrote:

The sea, the woods, the mountains, all suffer in comparison with the prairie. . . . The prairie has a stronger hold upon the senses. Its sublimity arises from its unbounded extent, its barren monotony and desolation, its still, unmoved, calm, stern, almost self-confident grandeur, its strange power of deception, its want of echo, and, in fine, its power of throwing a man back upon himself.

What happened to make reaction to the Great Plains so different now?

In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the Great Plains underwent an extraordinary transformation. A 10,000 year-old ecology was all but dismantled in the space of half a century. At a time when government had not progressed to the point of protecting species from eradication and science did not grasp the values and balances inherent in ecological diversity, hunters blessed by the free market devastated the most singular wildlife species of the Plains. Thirty million buffalo, perhaps in excess of 50 million pronghorns, tens of thousands of wild sheep and untold numbers of elk were slaughtered. The very last wolf on the Texas Plains ended up gutshot with a .22 by picnickers near Amarillo in 1924.

A century after the assault on Plains wildlife commenced in earnest, there are 55 threatened or endangered grassland species in the United States, and an astonishing 728 candidates (including black-tailed prairie dogs, which once may have comprised the single largest living biomass on the Plains) considered as possible or likely listings. The one Great Plains fauna that still seems abundant, its birds, declined 25 to 65 percent in the 1980s, the largest population loss of any species group on the continent.

Conservation biology now holds up the tallgrass prairie, which on the Southern Plains has been reduced by agriculture to less than 1 percent of its original coverage, as the greatest disaster perpetrated against nature in modern continental history. Texas has an average of 20 percent of its prairie today, although the central Llano Estacado is in far worse shape. Lubbock County by the 1980s had lost 97 percent of its native grasslands. Literally all that remained was in Yellow House Canyon, country too rugged to plow up and plant cotton.

Once we thrilled to the Great Plains. Then we wreaked havoc on its ecology and many of us came to despise the result. For the past three-quarters of a century, however, a third phase has been building momentum. Environmentalism and conservation biology now recognize natural grasslands and prairie ecosystems as among the most under-preserved natural regions around the world. Groups like the Southern Plains Land Trust in southeastern Colorado want to restore High Plains acreage, and the Great Plains Restoration Council in Denver, which acts as an information clearinghouse, hopes to create a million-acre Buffalo Commons. Even the Sierra Club, for decades interested only in mountains until it discovered the Colorado Plateau in the 1950s, is now a prairie advocate, with an evolving proposal for High Plains biological corridors linking preserved "core" areas that is modeled on the Yellowstone-to-Yukon idea for the Northern Rockies.

Aside from Ted Turner's buffalo ranches, the most successful small-scale efforts have been those of the Nature Conservancy, whose 30,000-plus-acre prairie acquisition near Tulsa may finally serve as the core area around which a Tallgrass Prairie National Park will get established. Indians, especially on the Northern Plains reservations where tribal land bases still exist, have become major players in prairie restoration, too. The Inter-Tribal Bison Cooperative has managed to place bison herds with nearly 40 tribes over the past decade. The Blackfeet, the Gros Ventres/Assiniboines and the Cheyenne River Sioux also have been able to pursue prairie endangered species recovery programs (for Swift foxes and ferrets, for example) more adroitly than any federal land managers.

As has been the case in American environmental history for more than a century, federal initiatives give prairie advocates the most hope. Pressure has been mounting for a decade now for a large Plains park that would quite literally restore the old Plains that excited Audubon to speechlessness -- as far as the eyes can reach tens of thousands of wild bison and elk back out on the undulating sweeps and prairie dog towns and predators such as wolves and grizzlies right there with the ferrets and foxes. Conservation biologists say that such a park should cover at least two million acres, about the size of Yellowstone, although 10 to 20 million acres would be a more effective size. This would be an act of conservation statecraft comparable to a Yellowstone or a Wilderness Act, a worthy goal for a new century.

In the meantime a smaller version might emerge from the Clinton administration's recent proclamation of a Missouri Breaks National Monument centered on the White Cliffs section of the Wild and Scenic Missouri River. Merge the 377,000-acre monument with the 150,000-acre Charlie Russell National Wildlife Refuge downriver, as prairie advocates are hoping, and federal managers would have a sizeable chunk of the last sanctum sanctorum of the bison plains, handily located in a state that already has wolves and grizzlies in its mountains and a buffalo source available on nearby Indian reservations.

Ecologists Fred Samson and Fritz Knopf, writing in Bioscience, have argued that for preserving biological diversity in North America, the Great Plains has now become "a priority, perhaps the highest priority." Such a statement might strike many Americans, utterly bored by the Great Plains in its present, skinned form, as preposterous, a joke perpetrated by geeky scientists who don't quite get that it's not funny. But among those of us who know some history, who have read Lewis and Clark, Albert Pike and Audubon, among others, nobody is laughing.

Note to Editor: Flores is the author of Horizontal Yellow: Nature and History in the Near Southwest. This op-ed was excerpted from his address April 7 at the Sharp Symposium in History at Southern Methodist University, "The Future of the Southern Plains," sponsored by the William P. Clements Center for Southwest Studies and the Clements Department of History.


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