Friday, September 01, 2006

Tallgrass Prairie report

Like the Everglades, Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve is a place of subtle beauties.

At first glance, it’s no more than a beautiful limestone barn and prairie house on nearly 11,000 rolling acres of grazing pasture. It takes literally a walk in the park – or a ride with a ranger – to appreciate the delicacy of this ecosystem.

Ranger Jeff Rundell is the guide on today's bus trip into the prairie land. The ranch was created in 1878 by Stephen Jones, who built the barn and the Second Empire-style home, and later the one-room school house. It was a time when the prairie was changing from an open range system to one of private ownership and large, enclosed ranches, and the government paid 40 cents for every 16 feet of wall that a rancher put in. Jones had to pay his laborers 50 cents, so the net cost to him was a mere dime – a good deal even at that time.

The land Jones and subsequent ranchers tamed was once seabed, but for the past 8,000 to 10,000 years it is much as it appears today. More than 60 grasses are here, though none is really that tall. “We get a lot of people who come out here and expect it to be taller,’’ said Rundell. At places it can grow to six feet, but the current three-year drought has kept the grasses low.

The preserve is also home to collared lizards, snakes, birds, prairie gophers, mice and some 60 varieties of grasshoppers – a total of 400 plant and animal species.

The preserve is a rare partnership between the National Park System, which owns 35 acres, a private trust and the Nature Conservancy. The parks system can no longer afford to buy new units, and even sold this one off a few years ago in a budget crunch. A Kansas trust was formed to purchase the land; the Nature Conservancy manages land use in the tract. The Parks Service does what the others can't: Provide educational programs and make the land available to the public.

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