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National Perspective | ENVIRONMENT

In Midwest, Prairies Have Become Grasslands of Opportunity

Residents are beginning to capitalize on the booming interest in virgin meadows. Preserving and restoring them have led to greener pastures for just about everyone.

May 25, 1999|STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

GRAYSLAKE, Ill. — It takes some time to appreciate a prairie.

A prairie can't awe with the grandeur of a redwood. A prairie can't seduce with the mystery of a canyon. Nor does a prairie entice exploration, the way a mountain range does. There's no glamorous surf in a prairie, no quirky rock formation, no spectacular waterfall tossing off shards of rainbow.

"We in the Midwest have always suffered a bit of an inferiority complex," said Alan Pollom, director of the Kansas Nature Conservancy. "We don't have oceans. We don't have mountains. We've thought, 'We don't have anything worth looking at.' "

No more.

Prairies, it seems, are in.

Across the Midwest, preserving and restoring prairies has become an urgent theme.

In Iowa, folks are pushing for a national park in the tall-grass prairie of the Loess Hills, which stretches for 200 miles along the state's western border. In northwest Missouri, environmentalists plan to reintroduce bison to an untamed stretch of pioneer-era prairie.

Prairie fans recently diverted a highway widening project in Illinois by successfully pressuring the governor to pave over prime farmland instead of virgin prairie. Illinois has even started planting prairie grasses by the freeways "to give people a sense of what they might have seen along the roadside 200 years ago," a spokesman said.

Kansas' Newest Attraction

In Kansas, meanwhile, the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve is gearing up for the summer hiking season as one of our newest national parks. It may not have the cachet of Yellowstone or Yosemite, but rangers expect thousands of tourists to commune with a landscape so bountiful that Native Americans lived off it with ease until pioneers began tamin--and destroyin--it as they marched steadily westward.

"It's such an integral part of our history," said Barbara Zurhellen, a director of the 11,000-acre preserve. "Visitors comment that they didn't realize there are still places like this, where you can just see for miles and miles and miles. People are enthralled."

On a smaller scale, too, the new prairie Populism is finding expression. More and more suburbanites are creating mini-prairies in their backyard--in part to cut down on mowing and watering, but also because, in the Midwest at least, planting prairies "is the right thing to do ecologically, and people get turned on by that," said Buddy Huffaker, a Wisconsin environmental activist.

"The fact that they need human help adds to their appeal," said Cindy Hildebrand, who owns two remnants of virgin prairie in Iowa. "We can feel we're working with nature, not against it."

Capitalizing on the booming interest in native grasslands, a development of 400 posh homes in this small town just north of Chicago weaves through acres and acres of reconstructed prairi--the views of tangled grass and treeless plains considered a major selling point.

The homes in this development, dubbed Prairie Crossing, are big and fancy, with hardwood floors, wraparound porches and prices of up to $400,00--no little prairie cabins, these. And the vistas are hardly pioneer pristine: water towers and telephone lines scrape the horizon, and at night, the lights from Six Flags Great America glitter.

Still, residents find ways to connect to the environmental heritage they came here hoping, in some small way, to reclaim. They may strew their lawns with black-eyed Susans and wild rye. Or they may pick the wrinkly chartreuse fruit of the Osage orange tre--which pioneers planted 150 years ago to fence in livestoc--and stash it under their sinks, where it's reputed to scare away cockroaches.

The bravest homeowners join the development's annual autumn prairie burn. It's become a social event on par with the Christmas party, with residents hoisting tanks of water on their backs and trudging through waist-high grass to set the fires a prairie needs to regenerate.

"Any time grown people can start fires without getting into trouble," resident Cathy Morgan said, "you know it's fun to have prairies."

Although most environmentalists welcome the prairie boom, a few skeptics worry that the increasing popularity of "reconstructed" prairies will divert attention from the critical loss of untouched, or virgin, prairies.

Estimates vary, but experts figure we've plowed or paved up to 99% of the tall-grass prairie that once cloaked the Midwest. Short-grass prairie, which tends to be more arid and less suited to farming, has fared a bit better. Still, about 80% of it is gone.

Set against these bleak statistics, reconstruction efforts are "a postage stamp on a billboard," said Frank Oberle, a Missouri-based photographer who is traveling the Midwest documenting endangered wildlife.

What's more, reconstructed prairies host at most one-tenth of the 150 to 200 plant species typically found on virgin land. They don't nurture as much wildlife, either. It's simply impossible for scientists to re-creat--on land that's been plowed for a century or mor--the intricate diversity of an untouched Midwest prairie.

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