Gov. Kathleen Sebelius and the Nature Conservancy on Friday announced the donation of a conservation easement encompassing 10,000 acres [of tallgrass prairie in the Flint Hills].
The tallgrass prairie once stretched in a giant sea of grass from Alberta down to Texas, a continuous swath of grass across the continent. Pioneers describe having to stand in their stirrups to see over the grass. Giant herds of bison migrated across it, with native people and the prairie wolves trailing the herds.
A prairie lives in its roots, with more biomass below ground than above, and that’s how the prairie survived the fires that swept across it. Every few years, the prairie burned, and any woody invaders went up in smoke. But the grassroots survived, and each spring the prairie grew back.
It wasn’t John Deere started selling farmers a polished steel plow that the prairie’s roots gave way. Plowing through that mat of roots destroyed the prairie through much of its range. Today, the Flint Hills region, mostly in Kansas, is the largest unplowed chunk of tallgrass prairie. Prairy Erth by William Least Heat-Moon is a great treatment of the heart of the Flint Hills.
Historically, the Flint Hills survived because of their soil. The chert (not flint) that studs the soil blocked plows, so the area was used for ranching. Grazing cattle aren’t quite the same as bison, but close enough that the uplands of the Flint Hills retain a lot of the character of the old prairie. The lowlands have enough topsoil for plowing, so the fertile areas where big bluestem once stood taller than a man on horseback are gone for now.
The Z Bar Ranch/Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve is the only National Park administered land in Kansas, and the only federal park designed to protect that ecosystem. The Nature Conservancy administers the Konza Prairie along with Kansas State University and is working to expand the tallgrass prairie protected from development by 70,000 acres.
A Nature Conservancy/Kansas Biological Survey assessment found that only 4% of the historic tallgrass prairie still exists, 80% of it in Kansas. That realization lead to a broader effort to preserve not just individual species, but habitat over all. That’s a great and vital approach to conservation, one I hope more groups and agencies start to take very seriously. I’ve argued before for an “endangered habitat act” (recognizing the political problems which would block such an effort), and administrative policy is one way to establish the needed protection without passing a new law.
The challenges to the Flint Hills are manifold. The beauty of the area makes it an attractive site for housing development, though it isn’t quite commuting distance to anyplace just yet. It also is some of the best land for wind farm development, and that creates an awkward clash within the environmental community. People who want to see more wind power are pushing for county and state rules that would encourage wind farming in the Flint Hills, while others want badly to protect that historic relict for posterity, free of visual pollution from turbines.
I’m siding with the wind farms on this one. I’ve previously suggested the idea of a visual preserve, perhaps centered on the National Park, so that there will be a part of the Flint Hills where a person can stand next to an old one-room schoolhouse and see what the settlers saw. But we can’t block sustainable industries, industries that can give family farms a little support through tough times, to keep the Hills exactly as they were.