Those who oversee most enterprises large or small will tell you they spend a fair amount of their time putting out fires. To his delight, Bob Hamilton--director of the Nature Conservancy's Tallgrass Prairie Preserve--gets to spend a lot of his time starting them.
"And I get paid to do it," he said, laughing.
Hamilton, who has been with the preserve since the day it was founded in 1989, is wrapping up an annual rite of spring at the sprawling, 39,000-acre site just a few miles north of Pawhuska in Osage County. For the past several weeks, Hamilton and the preserve crew have been conducting a series of prescribed burns designed to mimic those that swept across the prairie for hundreds of years before the coming of European settlers. Burning off the accumulated ground fuels, they frequently turn the early-spring sky black in March and April with a patch-burn approach that calls for burning one-third of the preserve's 23,000-acre bison unit each year. Other burns follow in late summer and mid-October.
"A good burn is where your feet never touch the ground," Hamilton said of the preserve's approach, which utilizes a fleet of converted military surplus vehicles and ATVs to keep blazes under control. Hamilton said crews sometimes conduct burns on up to four units a day, sometimes traveling 90 miles on a four-wheeler in that period.
It is a process designed to keep the preserve healthy and productive for the herd of about 2,700 bison and hundreds of other plant and animal species that now call it home. An ambitious project, the preserve's aimed at maintaining and restoring the remnants of an ancient ecosystem that once stretched for 142 million acres across the United States, sustaining tens of millions of animals and, yes, people.
The preserve is the largest protected remnant of tallgrass prairie remaining on Earth. According to the Nature Conservancy, less than 10 percent of the original ecosystem survives, most of it here in the Osage Hills in northern Oklahoma and the Flint Hills in Kansas.
"We're trying to replicate on 39,000 acres what happened on 142 million acres," said Harvey Payne, the preserve's longtime director who how serves as its community relations coordinator.
When the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve officially celebrates its 20th anniversary this fall, it will do so as an entity that its supporters believe has been wildly successful. Once feared by neighboring ranchers and members of the Osage Nation as nothing more than a conservationist land grab--many of whom sneeringly referred to its owner as the "Nature Conspiracy" --the preserve has managed to peacefully coexist with cattle, and oil and gas interests while achieving its intention of returning large numbers of bison to the territory and preserving sizable areas of native grasses and other plants.
Payne, who is also a lawyer, comes by his affection for this land through a lifetime of experience with it. His family has ranched in Oklahoma since 1891, and he first became acquainted with the tallgrass prairie from horseback as a boy. When the preserve was being formed in the late 1980s, his father was one of those who didn't think much of the idea.
"Now he brings people over here all the time," Payne said, citing his father's change of heart as an example of how other locals have embraced it, as well. "It takes a long time, and it takes consistent behavior to be accepted in a community... but eventually those fears of the unknown become replaced by 20 years of consistent behavior. I feel like we're pretty well accepted in the community."
Leap of Faith
Supporters overcame some rather long odds just to get the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve established. The origin of the idea for a preserve goes all the way back to the 1930s, Hamilton said, and an attempt to establish one in Chase County, Kan., in the early 1980s by the National Park Service was derailed by local opposition.
"The idea's been kicked around for decades," Hamilton said. "A lot of people thought a tallgrass prairie was the big missing jewel of the National Park Service crown."
The Park Service tried again in northern Oklahoma in 1988, but once more, local opposition led to the proposal's demise in Congress (though an 11,000-acre federal park finally would be established in 1996 in Kansas). At that point, Hamilton said, the state board of the Nature Conservancy in Oklahoma--established only a few years earlier in 1986--decided to pursue it.
"I think the mood on the state board at that time was, 'Well, the feds ain't going to make this thing happen. We'll have to do it ourselves,' " he said. "So they instructed the staff to look into the feasibility of it."
When the Nature Conservancy decided to take up the challenge, it needed to come up with $15 million, mostly to fund the acquisition of the targeted property, the Chapman-Barnard Ranch. Shouldering a project of that size represented a major departure from the way the organization normally did things.
"It was a huge stretch for a project that had only been around for three years," Hamilton said.
In that era, Payne said, the Nature Conservancy tended to concentrate on "postage stamp-size" projects, which were much easier for the state chapters to complete, due to the little national fund raising taking place. The decision to establish the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve--the largest project the Nature Conservancy had ever attempted on land it intended to keep, Payne said--required a leap of faith, particularly for a chapter that had trouble simply raising enough money to keep its office open.
"At the time, that seemed like all the money in the world. Now it seems like a pittance," he said, adding that if the organization tried to buy the property today, the cost would be prohibitive.
But the value of the project was obvious to anyone who understood how an ecosystem that once largely defined the interior of the North American continent was on the verge of disappearing forever. Hamilton said the reality of that led the Nature Conservancy to essentially redefine its mission.
"It kind of dragged the organization in a new direction," he said. "I called it, 'Think big, do big.'"
Mike Fuhr, the group's state director, said the preserve set the bar much higher for future projects.
"It got the Nature Conservancy thinking on a much larger and more appropriate scale for conservation," he said.
Rather than just relying on Oklahoma donors, the organization went national with its appeal for funds, and during the next five years, the money rolled in. Payne said a large donation from then-Kerr-McGee CEO Frank McPherson seemed to open the floodgates.
The Nature Conservancy paid $6 million to the trust that controlled the ranch and benefited the Barnard family, which had placed the land on the market. The remaining $9 million was used for start-up costs, renovating some existing buildings on the land and establishing an endowment fund of $3 million for an operating fund, a figure that has since grown to around $6 million.
"A lot of people from coast to coast made this the success it is," Payne said.
Nature Conservancy officials purchased the 29,000-acre Chapman-Barnard Ranch--at one time a 100,000-acre spread founded by a pair of oil-rich Texas cowboys in 1915 and one of the largest remaining patches of tallgrass prairie left in existence, since it had never been farmed--as the cornerstone of the preserve in November 1989, making their idea a reality. Another 9,000 acres have been purchased since then at a cost of what Payne estimated at $4.5 million. The preserve leases another 1,000 acres, bringing the total size of the project to 39,000 acres.
What the Nature Conservancy got for its money is not really quantifiable in terms of hard assets. The preserve features no paved roads, few fences and only a handful of buildings. The terrain ranges from upland prairie to lowland hardwood forest. Aside from the odd drilling rig or utility line, the land doesn't look much different than it probably has for centuries. Its broad, unbroken views stretch for miles, leaving some visitors unfamiliar with that kind of landscape with the feeling that they are in the middle of a vast emptiness, a downright spooky sensation, as some of them have described it to Hamilton.
But for those who know and love the tallgrass prairie, its wonders are priceless, particularly this patch of it.
"Chapman and Barnard were excellent stewards of the land," Payne said. "They really took care of the prairie. They left us a real good legacy, ecologically speaking."
Each season on the preserve features its own charms, he said, but late spring might be the best. With the seasonal prescribed burns over and rainfall plentiful, the grass is lush and green, the wildflowers are ubiquitous and playful bison calves frolic alongside their mothers. The atmosphere can be positively spellbinding, according to Deborah Batson, the Nature Conservancy's associate state director in Oklahoma City. She joined the organization a couple of years ago and saw the preserve for the first time in April 2007.
"Everything was green as far as we could see," she said. "There were bison everywhere. It took my breath away. And it still has that effect on me when I see it."
Batson is hardly alone in that feeling. The New York Times' Timothy Egan, whose compelling 2005 book "The Worst Hard Time: The Untold Story of Those Who Survived the Great American Dust Bowl" should be required reading for anyone who has ever called the prairie home, seemed just as taken with it during a visit last spring, despite some initial doubts. He concluded his visit by writing: "So even with the sky here in Oklahoma rumbling and clacking, menaced by twisters rolling down Tornado Alley, there is just enough of the original plains at the Tallgrass Preserve to make flatland believers out of skeptics.
"You can see in the remains of a day the reason why people who came here a hundred years ago were so lonely--and, also, why they fell in love with the place."
But don't expect to be able to soak in all the preserve's beauty on a quick, drive-through tour. After all, this is a landscape whose mysteries lie in its subtlety, rather than in the overwhelming, awe-inspiring sights that mark such heavily trafficked attractions as the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone National Park.
"If people want to gain the essence of a prairie, they have to invest in it," Payne said. "If they're here at sunrise or sunset, they'll see the spectacular skies, they'll hear the coyotes howling and they'll hear the wild turkeys gobbling. Then they'll understand what the prairie is all about."
Payne frets that Americans as a whole are losing their attachment to the land and sees some very real benefits to maintaining that connection.
"This is reality," he said. "What goes on here is not reality TV or 'Survivorman.' It's the truth. People who grow an appreciation for wild places and wild things make better citizens and better parents."
No Blueprint for Success
Of the many factors that contributed to the creation of the prairie, the two most important ones--fire and bison--continue to play an important role in efforts to keep it a functioning ecosystem today. Both are an integral part of the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve experiment.
For anyone who thinks there might be a note of artificiality to efforts to restore the ecosystem to its former glory, Payne has this bit of information: "We know without human influence and fire, this would be a forest," he said. "This was a spruce-jackpine forest 20,000 years ago. This was a human-formed landscape. It was shaped by fire and bison grazing."
In fact, the tallgrass prairie is only 10,000 to 12,000 years old, Payne said. Researchers have been able to piece together many of the elements that led to its creation, but it's an imperfect science, Payne said, and that means not everything the preserve tries is going to be a success.
"We don't have a blueprint to go by," he said. "Nobody was here taking notes when the tallgrass prairie was formed. We do what we do best and review the results."
Still, there's no denying the impact of fire on the landscape. The indigenous people who populated the Great Plains centuries ago quickly realized the huge bison herds that served as the basis for their survival preferred to graze territory that had recently burned. So they did their own prescribed burns--in the spring, summer and fall, as the current pattern mimics--in an attempt to lure the animals to a designated area, which would become their hunting ground.
It's a pattern that continues to this day.
Except for the hunting, which is limited only to the visual capture.
"The first growing season following a burn, the bison will graze that area almost exclusively," Payne said.
Preserve managers couldn't initiate their burn and grazing programs right away when the property was acquired in 1989. Payne, who came on board as the preserve's manager in 1990, said the land needed to be rested.
But within a few years, after the fuels had built up from a lack of cattle grazing, the time was right.
"It was a religious experience to see those fires in the spring of 1993," Payne said. "You would hear the roar of that fire, and it would sound like a herd of buffalo stampeding across the plains."
He said a prairie fire can be a deceptive phenomenon.
"It can produce temperatures up to 700 degrees a few feet over the prairie, but it warms the soil only a degree or two," he said. "It moves fast."
Fire serves a variety of functions on the prairie, Nature Conservancy officials say. It removes dead vegetation, controls encroaching woody vegetation and clears the way for other plant species to thrive.
"Without fire, the prairie will stagnate and die," Payne said. "It has to have fire."
Hamilton said a good deal of work must be done before the first spark is struck, most of it consisting of sitting down with aerial photographs and topographical maps to determine which areas are most suitable. In the spring, the preserve crew conducts approximately 20 burns, but those come only on the safest of days, when the forecast seems most suitable for an activity that easily can get out of control.
The ever-present Oklahoma wind, Hamilton said, is an all-powerful consideration that can never be underestimated. He and his crew usually make the final decision to conduct a burn the night before it is scheduled to take place.
"I have seen winds shift during a burn," Payne said. "And what was a back fire becomes a head fire. That can cause real concern."
Areas with the highest risk are burned first in the day, when the humidity is highest and there is less chance of the fire getting away from the crew. The process is highly mechanized, with six-man crews working on ATVs or 5-ton military vehicles equipped with sprayers. A typical burn takes six to eight hours, Hamilton said.
"We've never had a fire leave the preserve," Payne said proudly. "The preserve itself is actually a rural fire department, so we have the best equipment around here. We have to because of the investment we have here."
Contrary to its reputation as a destructive force, fire seems to yield immediate benefits on the prairie. On a warm, early-spring day in late March, Payne was escorting a visitor around the preserve and stopped his SUV to point out a herd of a dozen or so buffalo grazing contentedly on the west side of the road--a patch that had been burned weeks before and was now already covered in grass again. The east side of the road had not been burned in a couple of years and showed a great many more broadleaf plants.
"They're given ample room to roam," Payne said of the preserve's buffalo. "But if they're given their choice of what to eat, at least 99 percent of their diet is grasses. They don't eat the broadleaf plants."
Later, when Payne drove past an area that had been burned that morning, he stopped and watched a coyote lope across the blackened ground a couple of hundred yards away in search of a meal.
"He's looking for something that got cooked," Payne said. "Very little life dies in a prairie fire, but it does strip away their cover."
Preserve managers not only had to wait a few years to reintroduce fire to the ecosystem, there was also a delay before bison could be returned to the land. But in 1993, a herd of 300 was turned loose and has thrived, growing to about 2,700 head during the last 16 years.
It was no small moment when that herd was released from a caravan of trucks and set free, rumbling across the horizon. After all, the species had been absent from the area for almost a century and a half. Payne said the last bison that had been recorded in Osage County was one that was killed by a survey crew in 1851.
It was a decline that needn't have happened. Payne described the tallgrass prairie as an incredibly productive ecosystem. A student of history, he said many of the explorers whose journals he has read were puzzled that there weren't more bison living in the area before white settlers arrived, given the plentiful and rich grasses, including the ecosystem's signature plant species--the big bluestem, which can reach heights of eight to 10 feet.
"I think it's because there already were a lot of people here," he said, referring to the Wichita people who populated the area originally. "They were keeping the population of bison in check. This area has always been very conducive to human existence."
Eventually, those humans would hunt the bison to near-extinction before the species made a comeback in the latter 20th Century. The bison are no longer hunted at the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, but they are perhaps the main attraction for visitors. Reaching heights of six feet at the hump and weighing up to 2,000 pounds, they present a commanding profile, even at rest.
Calving season at the preserve is in full swing right now, but it won't be long before mating season is here in July and August. The bison will gather into herds of 1,000 or so animals, and the bulls will unleash a long, guttural call, roaring "like lions on the Serengeti plains," Payne said. Bison herds historically had a one-to-one ratio of bulls to females, Payne said, but on the preserve, there is only one bull for every eight cows. Perhaps that explains why they sound like souls in torment.
"Those bulls have their work cut out for them," Payne said, smiling wryly.
In the fall, the preserve stages one of its most exciting activities with the annual bison roundup. Working from pickup trucks, cowboys herd the animals into corrals, where each of them is then led into a narrow pen. Each animal has an electronic transponder attached to its ear that is read with a wand, revealing the animal's sex, age and other data that already has been stored. The bison are examined and vaccinated, and a DNA sample is taken to determine their genetic purity, as some test positive for cattle genes and need to be culled from the herd.
Even in the winter, when much of the activity on the preserve comes to a halt, the bison are worth seeing, with their great, shaggy coats often covered in snow and clouds of vapor emerging from their snouts. Payne said the animals make a strong impression on anyone who comes into contact with them.
"If they spend much time with bison, they'll come away impressed with the qualities of that animal," he said. "I raise some myself, and they're so well adjusted to life on the prairie and can take anything life throws at them. You can't spend time with them and not become attached to them."
Almost every bit of work that gets done on the preserve is recorded, charted and analyzed as part of its educational mission. A 6,000-square-foot research station--a joint project with the University of Tulsa--is the newest building on the preserve, providing researchers with laboratories, meeting space and offices. It is hoped that the successful programs initiated by the preserve can be duplicated elsewhere on the prairie, returning it to the widespread health it once enjoyed.
"If we can use the preserve as a research platform and develop grazing techniques here that are environmentally friendly and put money in ranchers' pockets, why wouldn't they do it?" Payne asked. "We have the luxury of using this as a big outdoor laboratory. If somebody wants to study the future of the tallgrass prairie ecosystem, this is the only place to do it."
Two decades after its founding, work at the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve is only beginning, in many respects. But it would be hard for anyone to argue the preserve hasn't already exceeded its original expectations.
Fuhr said the Nature Conservancy's gamble on the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve has demonstrated that the organization can take on a sizable, ecologically sensitive project and still work cooperatively with other local interests, like ranching, and oil and gas.
"We've shown we can work within the framework of the local economy," he said. "And that's what we're trying to do at all of our places."
Hamilton, who jokingly describes himself as "one of the old pieces of infrastructure" at the preserve, said the project has been a labor of love for him.
"Oh yeah, it's been a wonderful thing to be able to put your life into something so positive," he said. "This save-the-world business is pretty energizing."
Batson, who spends much of her time raising money for the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve and the Nature Conservancy's 10 other properties in the Oklahoma, calls Hamilton and Payne the organization's "rock stars" for their ability to convey the preserve's story to visitors.
"Their passion just shines," she said.
Batson describes the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve as the Nature Conservancy's flapship property in the state and a model for other preserves across the country. So it's no surprise that she sees a strong bond between the preserve staff members and the land they care for.
"I get the sense that if they couldn't do what they're doing, it would be heartbreaking for them," she said.
Payne, whom Batson calls the preserve's "director emeritus" after he finally turned over the leadership reins to Hamilton two years ago, considers the project he has devoted so much of his life to an unqualified success. He also believes its importance will only continue to grow.
"It's not going to take many generations before you see pressures here like you do in other parts of the country that are experiencing rapid growth," he said of the prairie and the threats to its future.
"But I think humans need to feel a closeness to the land and know that places like this are here, even if you never see them yourself. There's a solace in knowing they're here."
Yearn to Learn
By Mike Easterling
Visitors to the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve now have a new way of accessing information about the preserve, thanks to the help of a sixth-grade history class at Tulsa's Holland Hall school.
Students in Karen Moore's sixth-grade history class installed a computer-based kiosk at the preserve's visitors center on April 18. The kiosk provides interactive, continually updated information about the preserve.
"The idea is to engage visitors and transfer information regarding the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve and the Nature Conservancy in a memorable and enjoyable way," docent coordinator Andrew Donovan-Shead said.
The kiosk will contain a computerized learning module about the preserve that eventually will be equipped with a touch-sensitive screen on a podium.
Moore, whose students will expand the preserve's data base of information about bison, tall grasses, butterflies, moles, voles, Chapman-Barnard Ranch history and prescribed burns, described the experience as active learning at its best.
"The amazing dedication these 11-, 12- and 13-year-old students have shown to this project is proof that they are experiencing the fund of being energetic and creative problem solvers," she said. "As with any project, the students encountered roadblocks and difficulties that had to be overcome, and they did so with perseverance and intelligence."
Visiting the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve
The preserve is open from dawn to dusk every day of the year. There is no admission fee. From the middle of March through November, its visitors center is staffed by volunteers most days and is open from 10am to 4pm. The center features displays and gift items.
Unpaved county roads take visitors through the heart of the preserve and its bison unit, which features a herd of approximately 2,700 free-roaming bison. Starting in and returning to nearby Pawhuska, the drive is approximately 35 miles and takes about two hours at a leisurely pace. Five scenic turnouts are featured along the route.
Nature trails are located near the preserve headquarters and marked by "Trail Parking" signs. There is a 1-mile loop and a 2-mile loop. Pets are prohibited. Picnicking is allowed near the preserve headquarters, with tables located just off the road along Sand Creek. Camping, hunting and fishing are not allowed at the preserve.
To visit the preserve from Tulsa, take State Highway 11 through Skiatook and Barnsdall to its intersection with State Highway 99. Take Highway 99 north to Pawhuska, then turn west on U.S. 60. Take U.S. 60 to downtown Pawhuska, turning north on Kihekah (at the corner with the triangle-shaped building). Tallgrass Prairie Preserve signs will direct you from this point the headquarters. For more information, call (918) 287-4803 or visit www.nature.org/wherewework/northamerica/states/oklahoma/preserves/tallgrass.html.
What is the tallgrass prairie?
The tallgrass prairie, which once spanned 142 million acres across 14 states, gets its name from the grasses that once covered its largely treeless expanse, such as the big bluestem, Indiangrass and switchgrass. Those plants can grow as tall as 8 feet in moist, deep soil, achieving their maximum height in August and September, according to the Nature Conservancy.
In addition to its trademark animal species, the bison, the tallgrass prairie is also home to hundreds of other species, including greater prairie chickens, bald eagles, coyotes, bobcats, white-tailed deer, armadillos, beavers, woodchucks, badgers and many small mammals.
Most of the terrain that once existed as tallgrass prairie has been converted to farmland, leaving less than 10 percent of the original territory, the organization says. The only significant, unbroken tracts of tallgrass prairie remaining exist in the Flint Hills of Oklahoma and Kansas.
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