Preserving US prairie lands is a hot issue

A great sea of tallgrass prairie -- tawny and frozen now in its midwinter cloak -- once covered more than a quarter-million acres of the American Midwest.

Conservationists long have believed that what remains of the tallgrass prairie should be preserved. But trees, rivers, and canyons have inspired support more easily.

Yet the prairie, conservationists say, is unique in its environmental and cultural influence on America: "All the aura of going west is in the prairie," says Patricia Goggin of the National Wildlife Federation.

To pioneers, the prairie bespoke vastness and plenty. Herds of bison (buffalo) and elk roamed unfettered. Mourning doves, prairie chickens, and scores of other animals rustled through the headhigh, multi-hued grasses.

"I had not dreamed the earth could so glow with rich tints," wrote Elizabeth Custer, the wife of Gen. George Armstrong Custer, in 1867.But in a cycle common to many natural areas, wilderness lost, bit by bit, to farming and development. What is left of the prairie -- estimated now at 1 percent of its original acreage -- constitutes "one of the last major physiographical regions not yet protected," Miss Goggin says.

Efforts to preserve sections of prairie as a national park began in the 1930s and enjoyed a surge in the 1960s and '70s. But landowners in Kansas and northern Oklahoma, where three major reserves have been proposed, have fought legislation allowing the government to expropriate land.

Fear of federal coercion, said the Salina (Kansas) Journal in a recent editorial, is "a feature which, understandably, drove ranchers right up the wall."

But a compromise approach requiring patience from landowners and conservationists now seems to be winning support. The idea, put forth in a bill introduced by US Reps. Larry Winn (R) of Kansas and Morris K. Udall (D) of Arizona, is to authorize the National Park Service to buy land for the three prairie reserves only from willing sellers.

Rather than creating a new park instantly, the tallgrass prairie reserves would be consolidated over the next 30, 50, 100 years or more. "The change in concept has opened the door," says T. Destry Jarvis of the National Parks and Conservation Association. "The other approach got nowhere. But this one recognizes that the majority of farmers and ranchers do care about the land and are good stewards."

"Families could retain ownership for generations, possibly forever," congressmen Winn and Udall say.

If, however, the property is used in a manner that is "substantially detrimental" -- such as rights-of-way for high- voltage transmission lines, housing developments, or excessive plowing -- the US Secretary of the Interior could acquire the property through condemnation.

The entire land-purchasing program would cost $150 million, spread over the coming years, with the Park Service allocating $10 million a year for purchases.

The pros and cons on prairie reserve in many ways resemble those on the Alaska lands issue, where conservations are opposed by local interests.

Opposition is led by Rep. Bob Whittaker (R) of Kansas, in whose district two of the proposed reserves would be located. His press secretary, Steve Lotterer, says that the tallgrass reserves are unnecessary and removing the land from county tax rolls would "be devastating" to the area.

Although a federal government program would provide payments to the county governments in lieu of taxes, Mr. Lotterer says compensation would not offset the amount that would have been received from taxes.

"That's the economic viewpoint," he says, "and the philosophical one is that there is no need for more parkland. Our position is that the farmers already have returned several million acres to their natural state, and there is no need to take more land out of production or to spend federal money to do it."

The land already is in safe hands, Mr. Lotterer says. Farmers would not attempt to overplow the thin topsoil, and industrial and urban development are far away from that part of Kansas.

Mr. Lotterer says a poll of residents last August indicated about 70 percent disapproved of the idea; opposition in the immediate vicinity of the proposed parks ran even higher.

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