One third of North America, stretching from what is now Indiana in the Midwest westward to the Rocky Mountains and northward from Texas deep into Canada is a mosaic of bustling cities and towns, cultivated farms, and ranches. But this was once uninterrupted prairie, where Plains Indians hunted free-roaming bison, elk and antelope.
A "sea of grass," the first Europeans called the never-ending prairie. Others called it the "great American desert," thinking that nothing but flowers and grasses could grow there. Now, the true prairie is the rarest and most fragmented ecosystem in North America.
Two tiny pieces of the continent's most spectacular grassland, the great tallgrass prairie, survive in the Flint Hills of eastern Kansas. This was once a prehistoric seabed, whose limestone and shale later eroded into grass-covered hills too rugged to farm.
Ranchers brought their cattle here to graze where millions of bison once tramped.
In 1996 the nation's only tallgrass preserve was established when the owners of the Z Bar Spring Hill Ranch sold their 4,000-hectare property. Sold it not to the federal government but to a private organization called the National Park Trust. Louise Carlin of the trust says people just did not want the government to get a foothold in these parts. "They were afraid that once the government acquired so much land, they would spread out and want more land," she said. "The statement they used was, 'We do not want anyone to tell us what we can or can't do on our own land.' "
So the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve became the nation's only privately owned national park. But government employees like National Park Service ranger Daryl Meierhoff manage it. They point visitors to nature trails and give bus tours along the preserve's rutted dirt road. "People will come out here, and they're sometimes disappointed, because they want to see the tall grass," said Daryl Meierhoff. "And they've read stories, historically, where they talked about the grass getting as tall as the saddlehorn of a horse. What they have to understand is that's the seed-producing comb or shoot of the grass. The leaves of the grass sometimes would only get to your waist. It depends on how deep the soil is, and how much moisture you've had that year."
This was one of the dry years, when it barely rained a drop in June and July. Mr. Meierhoff, a former high-school biology teacher, says, whatever the weather, there's plenty to see, any season of the year. "At times you get a wonderful winterland icescape with our ice storms," he said. "When the sun gets lower in the horizon, there's wonderful plays with shadow. So it has a real subtle beauty, even in the winter landscape."
Eldon and Shirley Johnson of Memphis, Tennessee, took the bus tour, during which Ranger Meierhoff often bounded out to show his guests a lizard, a wildflower, or a precise strain of grass - big bluestem, little bluestem, switchgrass, or Indiangrass. Mr. Johnson, who grew up farther west in the flatlands of Kansas, was impressed. "I'd like to own it, myself, if I had the money, he said.
Mrs. Johnson liked what she saw, too, up to a point.
Johnson "It's beautiful but very barren. No trees. But it's beautiful in its own way."
Landphair "Can you imagine living out here?"
Johnson "No. Always windy. Blows the hair."
Ninety kilometers to the north of the Tallgrass National Preserve is a larger, 3,500 hectare remnant of the prairie on another former cattle ranch. This one gets few visitors because it's operated as a research facility by nearby Kansas State University and the Nature Conservancy, a worldwide conservation organization.
It's the Konza Prairie Biological Station, named for a Kansas Indian tribe. K State University issues research permits to scientists studying three critical influences on the tallgrass prairie: climate, grazing by large ungulates like bison and antelope, and fire. Plains Indians and cattlemen alike routinely set fire to the prairie, because nitrogen-rich shoots - tasty to roaming bison or cattle - emerge following a burn. Assistant director Eva Horne says Konza scientists also set controlled fires every one, two, five, or 20 years in various parts of the prairie. "When the fire starts up the hill it creates its own wind," she said. "So it goes straight up the hill very fast. And the temperatures in the head fire, which is the one that goes in front of the wind, can get up to 2,000 degrees [1,100 degrees Celsius]. So it's a very hot, very fast fire."
Ms. Horne says some animals of the prairie survive fires by burrowing underground. Others run for their lives. She says there's even a species of hawk that lives for the moment there's a fire. "Any time there's smoke, they're there," said Eva Horne. "And anything that runs out of the fire, looking for shelter or hasn't made it to shelter, then they'll catch those."
Fire is the reason one sees few trees on the prairie. Grasses and flowers regenerate after a blaze, but woody plants are wiped out.
The Konza Prairie Biological Station runs more than three hundred bison on the grounds, studying their effects on the prairie. For instance, bison roll in mud and dirt to deter insects. Their depressions in the earth, or wallows from two centuries ago can still be seen here. Wallows become miniature water habitats: rainwater fills them in springtime, and insects and frogs breed there.
Ms. Horne, who's a reptile specialist, often walks the tallgrass prairie, marveling at the sudden and sometimes violent changes in weather, and imagining the time when animals by the millions had the prairie to themselves. "I've also been scared. Had a deer jump up right beside me and snort in the grass," she said. "And to think about people walking through this, going west! I twist my ankles every other day out here on the rocks. Just to imagine what it was like to live here when it was 20 below zero, and you're in a sod house, and the wind's howling outside. Or it's 100 degrees [38 degrees Celsius] in the summertime with no trees for shelter back then. It would have been a rough life."
Scientists from Africa and South America often visit the Konza Prairie to compare the ecology.
Like parts of the savannah and pampas, the Konza and the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve are native prairies. They have never been plowed. The conservation groups that own them intend to keep it that way, so that what one writer called "earth's eternal lullaby" the diminishing tallgrass prairie can endure.