In praise of a typical prairie

FOR 108 years, from the spectacular grandeur of Yellowstone National Park in 1872 to the soaring peaks and brooding glaciers of Alaska's Wrangell-St. Elias National Park in 1980, the United States National Park Service system has attempted to maintain and defend areas of dazzling scenic beauty or uncommon recreational potential. We have reason to be proud that most of America's ``scenic wonders'' have been afforded at least some modicum of protection. But what about those parcels of land lacking extraordinary geographical features? Consider the situation with the proposed Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in Osage County, Okla. The 50,000-acre hoped-for addition to the park system would preserve something other than spectacular vistas that we have come to associate with our national parks. Here, a rolling prairie of grasses and herbs would be maintained - a prairie whose beauty is far more subtle but no less majestic than the peaks of Denali National Park in Alaska or the sculpted recesses of Canyon de Chelly National Monument in Arizona. The proposed Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, unlike most federal preserves, includes no single, unique feature of the American heartland. It would save a portion of the tallgrass prairie ecosystem that originally stretched in an undulating sea from Ohio to Colorado, from Minnesota to Oklahoma. One goal of such a preserve is once again to permit native bison and elk to wander freely on the great plains of North America.

Although a prairie preserve has been actively discussed in conservation circles for decades, real progress has been lacking. In large part, this is because such a preserve has no single outstanding landmark that lawmakers can point to. Conservationists were optimistic this year when three ranchers agreed to sell the government enough land to create the reserve and when enabling bills were introduced in both the House and the Senate. But their hopes were dashed when Rep. Mickey Edwards (R) of Oklahoma withdrew his support for the plan, upsetting the delicate balance established between members of the Oklahoma congressional delegation and the conservation community. Representative Edwards is opposed to the proposed controls on oil and gas development in the protected environment, and the bills will not be acted on without his support. Since the land might soon be sold to other interests, the chance to create this preserve might well be permanently jeopardized.

As the native landscape cover of North America becomes increasingly developed and fragmented, we lose a sense of how these ``typical'' ecosystems operated. If we fail to protect the remaining fragments of these habitats, we will forever lose the opportunity to study the biological processes responsible for our continent's ecosystems. And we will lose a piece of our own history; only standing in the middle of a tallgrass prairie, buffeted by the winds sweeping across the plain, can we obtain a glimpse into the lives of the early pioneers. No similar view can be realized in a museum or from a book.

Perhaps we will never love a tallgrass prairie as much as we do Yellowstone or Yosemite. But examples of such ``typical'' ecosystems - which, by virtue of their former abundance, were subjected to a host of abuses - deserve a place in our national park system. Learning to admire and respect an environment that has historically been seen as typical, even uninteresting, challenges our basic conceptions of nature. It also encourages us to seek beauty in subtlety, to value ecosystems for their own sake, and to recognize that our American heritage is best expressed in those landscapes most typical of our continent's primeval state.

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