Tuesday, January 4, 2011

Plains and Praires

By training, I’m a grasslands ecologist. All my university years were spent in the plains and prairies. I’m attached to them. I appreciate them close up, marveling at the tremendous diversity of plants and animals even within a fraction of a square meter. I appreciate hiking over rolling hills, watching the changing patterns of plant life that match the terrain and scanning the horizon several miles away. I even appreciate them flying over at 35,000 ft. For me, there’s nothing that matches an expanse of rolling grassland, especially if it is clear of roads, buildings, fences, communications towers, wind turbines, and other human aspects of the landscape. Don’t get me wrong. I get to the prairie and plains over roads. I take advantage of buildings. I’ve put up a fence or two. I use the services of the communications towers. And I am not altogether opposed to wind power. I don’t buy into the plan to put the entire swaths of the Great Plains into a ‘buffalo commons.’ But I am glad there are some areas that one can still gaze out over the sea of grasses. It fuels my imagination unlike any other landscape does.

In the central part of Kansas lies such a place. The Flint Hills owe their open lands status to the resistant layer of chert which makes for bluff-like topography and thin soils. It’s not plowed extensively. It’s not criss-crossed by section line roads. In fact, you can pick out the area on Google Earth by the absence of such roads. They owe their open lands status to good stewardship of generations of ranchers. This grassland is dependent on fire and grazing. In the absence of fire, it becomes juniper scrub. There’s not enough rain for the oaks and hickories of the forests just to the east, but enough rain for the junipers. And enough rain to grow big bluestem, indian grass and switchgrass as high as you can reach. In the absence of grazing a small number of plants come to dominate. Light to moderate grazing allows a wide variety of plants to flourish. Poor grazing management -- too much or too little --reduces diversity and productivity.

I’ve been visiting the Flint Hills since I was in high school and still look forward to a swing through as we travel to visit family in Kansas, even if it’s just a passing view from I-70 near Manhattan, Kansas. Over the past few decades, the Flint Hills have become more widely appreciated. The National Park Service established the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. Prior to that, the Nature Conservancy established two large reserves, one near Manhattan and one in Northern Oklahoma. A tourism association promotes the cultural, historical and natural features. The book PrairyErth and follow-on media interpreted the history and landscape to a wide audience. I hope there’s been some increased tourism to help the local economy, but I don’t think there’s any danger of the place being over-run with tourists. If you find yourself traveling across I-70 through that part of Kansas, look up, look around, take in the prairie. Better yet, take some additional time and travel south on K177 through the small towns and down to the Preserve. Or just let your imagination go in any grassland setting even a small patch of grassland in your region.

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