American prairies finally earning some respect

Preserving and restoring grasslands is newest trend


GRAYSLAKE, Ill. -- It takes some time to appreciate a prairie.

A prairie can't awe with the grandeur of a redwood. A prairie can't seduce with the mystery of a canyon. Nor does a prairie entice exploration, the way a mountain range does. There's no glamorous surf, no spectacular waterfall tossing off shards of rainbow.

"We in the Midwest have always suffered a bit of an inferiority complex," said Alan Pollom, director of the Kansas Nature Conservancy. "We don't have oceans. We don't have mountains. We've thought, `We don't have anything worth looking at.' "

No more.

Prairies, it seems, are in.

Across the Midwest, preserving and restoring prairies has become an urgent theme.

In Iowa, folks are pushing for a national park in the 200-mile-wide prairie of the Loess Hills. In northwest Missouri, environmentalists plan to reintroduce bison to a stretch of untamed pioneer-era prairie.

Prairie fans recently diverted a highway-widening project in Illinois by pressuring the governor to pave over prime farmland instead of virgin prairie.

Illinois has started planting prairie grasses by the freeways "to give people a sense of what they might have seen along the roadside 200 years ago," a spokesman said.

In Kansas, the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve is gearing up for the summer hiking season as one of our newest national parks. Rangers expect thousands of tourists to commune with a landscape so bountiful that Native Americans lived off it with ease until pioneers began taming -- and destroying -- it.

"It's such an integral part of our history," said Barbara Zurhellen, a director of the 11,000-acre preserve. "Visitors comment that they didn't realize there are still places like this, where you can just see for miles and miles and miles. People are enthralled."

On a smaller scale, too, the new prairie populism is finding expression. More and more suburbanites are creating mini-prairies in their back yards -- in part to cut down on mowing and watering but also because, in the Midwest at least, planting prairies "is the right thing to do ecologically," said Buddy Huffaker, a Wisconsin environmental activist.

"The fact that they need human help adds to their appeal," said Cindy Hildebrand, who owns two remnants of virgin prairie in Iowa. "We can feel we're working with nature, not against it."

Although most environmentalists welcome the prairie boom, a few skeptics worry that the increasing popularity of "reconstructed" prairies will divert attention from the loss of untouched, or virgin, prairies.

Estimates vary, but experts figure we've plowed or paved up to 99 percent of the tall-grass prairie that once cloaked the Midwest. Short-grass prairie, which tends to be more arid and less suited to farming, has fared a bit better. Still, about 80 percent of it is gone.

And reconstructed prairies have at most one-tenth of the 150 to 200 plant species typically found on virgin land. They don't nurture as much wildlife, either.

It's simply impossible for scientists to re-create -- on land that has been plowed for a century or more -- the intricate diversity of an untouched Midwest prairie.

"Symbolically, [reconstructed prairies] might be right on target because they'll have the tall grasses and the gaudy array of flowers the pioneers saw," said Steve Apfelbaum, who designs prairies large and small. "But they're not up to the biological diversity [of the originals]."

Still, many environmentalists insist any snippet of prairie is better than none -- and certainly better than a lawn sprayed with chemicals or a farm that dumps toxic agricultural runoff into watersheds.

A prairie's beauty is subtle, admirers say, best appreciated by crouching low to study the fantastic diversity or by standing tall to gaze at the endless vistas.

The more time you take to wander, the more the prairie will reward you. You'll see butterflies spinning across purple flowers, birds darting through blooms, flowers aptly named "prairie smoke."

If you look closely at the ground, you'll see dozens of insect species creeping across land so thickly woven with plants that not an inch of dirt is visible.

"The prairie is just as thrilling as any novel," said Terry Evans, a photographer who has produced two books on the prairie. "It's so astonishing. So dense. So sensuous."

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