Between Montana and Missouri stretches a region that invokes ideas of vastness, of development, and of opportunity. Words like roam, grain, buffalo and flat come to mind.
In the expedition we begin this week — traversing the Great Plains to focus attention on grassland conservation — Sebastian Tsocanos and I will ride the 1,370 miles separating these states on horseback.
We will dig into these words, and tease out their dimensions:
• Where did the buffalo, America's most quintessential symbol of the West, disappear to, and why? How will they come back?
• What grains? Where do they go and how do they grow?
• How exactly do we, as stewards of this land, roam on this land? What has our legacy been and what will it become?
• Are our opportunities flat, or are they vast?
While "Rediscovering the Prairie," we'll sift through these questions and others allowing them to shape our story, and us theirs. The project will bring public attention to the critical role of grassland conservation in North America today.
We've selected this particular region because it is impossible to approach conservation on this continent without first understanding the current state of the American Prairie.
Last week, as I flew on a plane over the landscape we will soon be crossing at a glacial 15 miles per day, I read Trevor Herriot's Grass, Sky, Song, a chilling celebration of the rapidly disappearing grassland birds native to the prairie. Flying over land that was in crop from horizon to horizon, I read a description of what Herriot imagines a pre-settlement landscape would look like to a hawk flying above it:
"The vista below unfurls in softly shaded wrinkles, folds, and dimples that shift without visible boundaries from one texture or colour to another in an impossibly complex and subtly brocaded fabric. But more than fabric, the earth shimmers and vibrates like something lit from the inside, as erotic and radiant as any living thing."
The description, in juxtaposition to the geometric pattern of squares and circles that stretched below me as far as I could see, was powerful. Once plowed under, the grassland ecosystem is permanently altered. I realized just how bizarre this stitched-together landscape is, especially when compared to its pre-settlement state. It dawned on me that we have made of the earth a quilt of our settlement and crossing. And this has had unparalleled consequences.
Within the Great Plains, a minuscule 1 percent of the central tall grasslands remain. Nearly all tallgrass prairie ecoregions were destroyed during their conversion to agricultural use during the 20th century.
An excellent indicator of the plains' ecological health are the birds that once showered the prairie in what Stuart Houston, ornithologist and conservationist, describes as "a canopy of song." Today, the population of around 80 percent of all grassland birds is in decline.
No one industry or event is responsible, but rather a combination of interrelated factors: the destruction of habitat for the cultivation of non-native plants (i.e., wheat, corn and soybeans) and improper grazing and land management, including fire suppression (a force that is crucial to the health of prairie ecosystems). Add the extra stress of toxins introduced into the environment, West Nile disease, urban sprawl, damage induced by energy-extraction industries, and drought brought on by global climate change, and it is an outright miracle that a few birds are still hanging on.
Herriot concludes the first chapter of his award-winning book by noting of the prairie, "This, I thought, was a good place to be: in the shifting, indeterminate territory that eases us out of the trees and into the dream of a grassland that is all but forgotten, and awaiting its chance to return."
It is into this territory that we will delve, and these are the stories we will seek — and bring to you right from the horse's mouth.
Follow 2012 Colorado College graduates Robin Walter and Sebastian Tsocanos at rediscovertheprairie.org. They are partnering with CC's State of the Rockies Project to produce a documentary film. This, along with photography and writing, will allow them to share the stories they encounter along the way.