Undulating seas of tallgrass prairie -- a tawny expanse that awed early pioneers pushing west and made up part of what James Fenimore Cooper called the ``thoroughfare of the interior'' -- once covered 400,000 square miles of the American Midwest. Today, less than 2 percent of these wild grasslands remain. Now new efforts are under way to rescue the remnants and preserve what some conservationists consider one of the last great unprotected features of the American landscape.
The steps include a renewed attempt to set up a national tallgrass prairie preserve, as well as intensifying local efforts to conserve small swatches of virgin grassland.
Traditionally, prairies have not inspired the kind of preservationist sentiment that has greeted mountains, rivers, trees, and other wilderness areas. Yet conservationists assert that support is building for saving what's left of the rolling grasslands as a unique part of the nation's heritage and culture.
``It is the big missing link in the national park system,'' says John Flicker, vice-president of the Nature Conservancy, a nonprofit conservation organization. ``It doesn't hit you the way a mountain does. But it is equally as rich and diverse.''
At one time, the tall grasslands -- the ``king of the prairies'' -- stretched across the nation's midsection from Texas to Canada. To pioneers pushing west, they symbolized the vastness of the New World. The prairies were festooned with hundreds of kinds of multi-hued flowers and vegetation that served as a shelter for bison, elk, prairie chickens, and other animals. The grasses were tall enough to be tied over the back of a horse.
Today, only isolated fragments of wild prairie remain, the result of encroaching civilization and agricultural development. The drive to save these vestiges derives in part from their historical value. Yet the tall grasslands are also considered ecologically significant.
To this day, they shelter some 300 kinds of birds, 15,000 insects, and 80 species of mammals. ``The prairie contains more life than any other American habitat except the tropics,'' says Wes Jackson, co-director of the Land Institute in Salina, Kan.
Out of this teeming landscape also sprang the basic genetic structure of today's hybrid wheats, corns, and other key agricultural grains. Saving remaining prairie lands, conservationists contend, will help maintain a diverse gene pool of natural plants.
Scientists believe, too, that the prairie could lead to alternative methods of farming that might improve food productivity without contributing to soil erosion and without the use of pesticides. Botanists, for instance, are studying perennial prairie plants that could substitute for once-a-year seed crops like wheat and corn on highly erodable lands. One variety has been identified, eastern gama grass, that contains three times as much protein as corn.
Efforts to preserve sections of prairie at the federal level have been tried since the 1930s and spurted again in the 1960s and '70s. Little became of these attempts, however, largely because of opposition from ranchers and Indians in Kansas and Oklahoma, where the only large tracts of tallgrass prairie remain and where major preserves have been proposed. Opponents feared a federal land grab.
This time around, however, a compromise has been worked out that conservationists believe could lead to a national tallgrass preserve being set up in the hill country of northern Oklahoma. Last month, a task force appointed by Sen. Don Nickles (R) of Oklahoma and made up of all the major local interest groups unanimously recommended that up to a 50,000-acre preserve be set up in Osage County. The site would be managed by the National Park Service.
Such a preserve would be smaller than many earlier proposals had called for, which has appeased some local opponents. Ranchers would also be able to use the land for grazing, while the Osage Indians would retain oil- and gas-drilling rights. Moreover, options on most of the parcels are already held by conservationists, which eliminates the need for federal condemnation.
Nevertheless, the issue continues to divide Indians and cattlemen in the area, who are suspicious of any federal intrusion.
``There is still a fair amount of animosity from some sectors,'' says Harvey Payne, a lawyer in Pawhuska, Okla., and a task-force member. But, he adds, ``many more people support it'' now than before.
Senator Nickles plans to sponsor legislation in the next year to create the preserve, which is expected to cost up to $15 million for land acquisition.
The general concept of a tallgrass prairie preserve has also been endorsed by the new head of the National Park Service, William Penn Mott Jr., who says he will push for adding such a resource to the national park system.
``Botanically, environmentally, historically, these areas are priceless,'' Mr. Mott says of the tallgrass prairies. ``And people have a right to know what America used to look like.''
Other efforts are under way to save remaining prairie fragments. The Nature Conservancy, for instance, has bought up several thousand acres of tall grasslands over the past decade. The Grassland Heritage Foundation, a nonprofit group, is trying to raise $670,000 to buy a 300-acre site outside Kansas City and rescue it from suburban sprawl.
Although it would be beneficial, some conservationists worry that these scattered plots would not be enough to protect the diverse plant and animal life that has traditionally thrived in these environments from competing ecosystems.
``What we're doing is saving islands,'' says Mr. Jackson. ``That is not the same as saving a prairie.''
Second of two articles on proposed national parks. The first story ran yesterday.