Where Did the Tallgrass Prairie Go?

How 150 Million Acres of Grassland Disappeared in the Span of Three Generations

“What a thousand acres of Silphiums looked like when they tickled the bellies of the buffalo is a question never again to be answered, and perhaps not even asked.” -- Aldo Leopold renowned conservationist of the early 1900s

"Oh give me a home where the buffalo roam and the deer and the antelope play." The words to this classic folk song were written by Dr. Brewster M. Higley of Smith County, Kansas, back in 1874. Sometimes called the "unofficial anthem" of the American West, in 1947 it became the official Kansas state song. Who would have thought that between the time those words were written and the time it became our state’s song that the land referenced,150 million acres of tallgrass prairie, would be all but gone?

What happened to the tallgrass prairie? Between 1850 and 1910, the tallgrass prairie, which got its name from the native grasses that reached six to eight feet tall, was slowly converted into farmland. The rich soil was perfect for farming. With the introduction of mechanized farming equipment in the first half of the 20th century, farmland spread at an ever-increasing rate. By the late 1950s, this “ocean of grass” as the pioneers described it, was essentially gone. What wasn’t cultivated, was converted to pasture for livestock. Accounts vary, but the amount of tallgrass prairie remaining today ranges from about 4% to 13%. Kansas contains about 80% of the remaining tallgrass prairie in the U. S.

The Flint Hills in Oklahoma and Kansas (3.8 million acres) is the only intact remnant of this once expansive grassland. This prairie remains only because the steep slopes and shallow, rocky soil were unsuitable for farming. Efforts are underway to prevent further loss, increase awareness, and create tallgrass conservation easement programs in Kansas. One of the best places to see this prairie and learn more about its history and preservation is the Tallgrass Prairie National Reserve (180 acres of prairie) located about 90 miles southwest of Lawrence where you can enjoy bus tours, hiking, and, if you’re lucky, actually see the buffalo roam! The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve near Strong City, Kansas, is the U.S.'s only national park unit dedicated to the tallgrass prairie, privately owned by The Nature Conservancy and co-managed with the National Park Service.

Take a self-guided tour of the ranch. Stephen F. Jones named his ranch the Spring Hill Farm and Stock Ranch for the springs found on the hill west of the house. The house was built on a hillside with a two-story exposure on the upper side and a three-story on the lower level. The three-level limestone barn measures 60 feet by 110 feet and is built into the hillside. It originally was roofed with 5,000 pounds of tin and sported a very large double-header windmill. Other outbuildings make up the ranch complex.

Visit nps.gov/tapr/index and make it a day trip.

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