National Forest Foundation

National Grasslands: A Not So Hidden Treasure

The National Forest System

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To form our National Grasslands our prairies required a long list of influences, and it still took eons. Unique in the world, the National Grasslands of North America are less well-known than other public lands but no less dynamic. Too wet for most trees to grow and too dry to be a desert, America’s grasslands are welcoming more and more people. Could this be the year you discover our National Grasslands?

Scanning a grassland’s landscape, it’s not hard to imagine its origin. Our grasslands started as shallow inland seas that 15-foot-long carnivorous fish and other gigantic creatures inhabitated about 70 million years ago. Fossils of those ancient creatures and ripple marks caused by wave action provide evidence of this past.

With the age of dinosaurs, the inland seas started to recede and plant life began to cover the land as the environment became more humid. The planet was changing. The movement of the earth’s tectonic plates forced mountains skyward, causing changes in weather patterns. 

Those towering mountains blocked the moisture seen during the age of dinosaurs causing the climate and land to dry out. After eons, grasses replaced trees and odd looking grass-eating mammals such as mammoths, Saber-tooth cats, and Glyptodon roamed the landscape.

Although humankind has wandered on American grasslands for a very short period of time, homo sapiens have had the greatest impact on this unique environment. At the beginning of the twentieth century a “perfect storm” occurred for American grasslands. Following Native Americans relocation to reservations, the prairie opened to the white man settlement under the Homestead Act. Next came the technology of motorized farming equipment to replace the horse, mule, oxen and plow, allowing farmers to plow, cultivate, and reap more. America’s farmers were encouraged to obtain more land, buy more equipment and plant more crops. 

A slogan used at the time was “Rain follows the plow.” It seems everyone believed the slogan, even though agricultural science classified grasslands that received maybe 15-inches of rain annually as “sub-marginal.” Science proved to be the more accurate predictor. In the 1920s, a period of drought hit the country and demand for farm crops plummeted. The over-worked land, having lost its protective mat of prairie grass, dried up and the “Dust Bowl” days rolled in.

The devastation of the land reached critical conditions as farmers just up and left their homesteads, many defaulting on their mortgages and other loans. The once rich prairie soil blew across the country right into the halls of Congress, who then acknowledged the disaster by establishing the Land Utilization Program (LUP). The LUP bought homesteads from bankrupt farmers and returned the land to public land status. 

Then the Work Program Administration (WPA) and Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) enrollees helped stabilize the eroding soil by planting trees in wind breaks, sowing native grasses, and developed soil conservation practices. Their successes are visible today. The WPA and CCC also established recreational opportunities, such as lakes and campgrounds, on the recovering grasslands. 

In the 1950s, LUP holdings were assigned to the USDA Forest Service for management and protection by Congress. Over the years, Congress established 20 National Grasslands and one tallgrass prairie, all of which are managed by the Forest Service. Each grassland is special with its own personality. Some display ancient history in multi-colored stripes of mudstone, volcanic ash, and sandstone. Others shelter and protect endangered plants and animals. While some are vast expansions of grass blowing like the waves of a deep ocean. 

And the quiet of some grasslands is so profound you might even hear the Man-in-the-Moon yawn. Such sights and experiences are waiting when you discover our national grasslands and tallgrass prairie. 

The American author, Willa Cather said, “Anybody can love the mountains, but it takes a soul to love the prairie”. On the other hand, nineteenth century author, Francis Parkman called the same landscape as “a barren, trackless waste”. Come and discover the uniquely American environment called our national grasslands and form your own opinion.

Visit ForestCamping.com to learn more about camping opportunities on your National Grasslands.

Written by Suzanne Dow, co-author, U.S. National Forest Campground Guide | forestcamping.com


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