The National Grasslands Story
Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie
The Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie, located about an hour drive south of Chicago, Illinois, is not a “national grassland,” though the U.S. Forest Service manages it similarly. It is very unique, being the the first and only "national tallgrass prairie" in the United States. The Midewin was established in 1996 on about 30 square miles of land that was formerly the Joliet Army Arsenal, south of Joliet, Illinios. Midewin is undergoing a transformation as the U.S. Forest Service and several partners work to restore the native tallgrass prairie ecosystem, including the reintroduction of bison.
Native to central North America, tallgrass prairie once covered a large portion of the American Midwest, just east of the Great Plains, and portions of the Canadian Prairies. As its name suggests, tallgrass prairie’s most dominant features are the tall grasses that average 5 to 6 feet in height but can stretch as high as 8 or 9 feet. Beyond the waves of grass, however, tallgrass prairie incorporates a complex ecosystem, including forbs, flowers, some trees, and diverse bird, mammal, and insect life.
Flowing east of the Rocky Mountains, from the badlands of North Dakota to north-central Texas, spilling into the Great Plains, are 17 National Grasslands.
West of the Rockies, in the Great Basin states of Oregon, California and Idaho, are three more National Grassland expanses. These wind swept seas of grass and wildflowers, have witnessed the pageant of the frontier, the Dust Bowl, and Reclamation. There are 20 publicly owned National Grasslands totaling almost four million acres. The National Grasslands are administered by the USDA Forest Service.
The grass was eternal, teeming with abundant bison herds, elk and other wildlife. It was also home to many tribes including: Sitting Bull's Hunkpapa Sioux, Apache, Arapaho, Arikara, Assiniboine, Atsina, Bannock, Blackfeet, Cheyenne, Chippewa, Ojibwa, Bungi, Comanche, Cree, Crow, Hidsata, Kiowa, Klamath, Kootnei, Mandan, Metis, Modoc, Pawnee, Santee, Shasta, Shoshone, Teton, Wichita, Yankton, and Yanktonia.
The United States acquired most of the Great Plains and Great Basin from France with the Louisiana Purchase of 1803. Until the late 1860s, the Great Plains region was America's last frontier.
The Homestead Act of 1862 brought almost six million settlers by 1890 who tried to replace grass with crops more beneficial to economic aspirations. The settlers soon discovered, however, that while these vast grasslands were productive in wet years, they were also subject to serious drought and bitter winters. Land that should never have been plowed yielded its topsoil to incessant dry winds. Dust clouds rose to over 20,000 feet above parts of Oklahoma, Texas, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado and the Dakotas. Ten-foot drifts of fine soil particles piled up like snow in a blizzard, burying fences and closing roads.
During the same time, bison were largely eliminated by westward expansion. Ranchers filled the large open ranges of the plains and the Great Basin with cattle and sheep. Soldiers, prospectors, railroad builders, and a host of others seeking the West helped push back the last frontier as they crossed and settled these lands. By the early 1930s, the broad midsection of America was in trouble. Not only because of the Dust Bowls, but the Great Depression was reaching its economic depths.
Emergency measures were taken to save the farmers and settlers. The National Industrial Recovery Act of 1933 and the Emergency Relief Appropriations Act of 1935 allowed the federal government to purchase and restore damaged lands and to resettle destitute families. From these disastrous days, a hundred years after the Homestead Act on June 23, 1960, the National Grasslands were born.
Grass is the key to maintaining the productivity of these areas. Remove it, and the soil blows away. When rain falls, the barren ground can't absorb water and it runs off quickly carrying silt into streams and ponds. These grasslands must be used wisely for the benefit of the land and its inhabitants.
Our nation's 20 National Grasslands are an outstanding conservation success story. They are examples of progressive agriculture in arid grass country. Revegetated to provide for soil and water conservation, these intermingled public and private lands are managed to compliment each other and to conserve the natural resources of grass, water and wildlife habitat.
Clean water flows off restored watersheds to be used miles downstream.
Wildlife, including many declining, threatened or endangered species, thrive in reborn habitats.
Under a nurturing shield of vegetation, once wounded soil rebuilds its fertility. The construction of livestock ponds has expanded the range of many wildlife species by providing water where none existed before. The scattered watering ponds allow more cattle grazing throughout the grassland and also benefit wildlife habitat. Private farmlands within the National Grassland boundary add diversity to the prairie habitat.
The presence of prairie dog colonies creates habitat favorable for such wildlife as burrowing owls, which use the abandoned burrows. The almost extinct black footed ferret used to prey on the prairie dogs and use their burrows as well. Rattlesnakes are the only poisonous snakes found in the grassland. They are seldom seen during the heat of the day.
National Grasslands are rich in mineral, oil and gas resources. They also provide diverse recreational uses, such as mountain bicycling, hiking, hunting, fishing, photographing, birding, and sightseeing. Fossils, prehistoric and historic resources, as well as many cultural sites are being discovered. The National Grasslands are being managed to protect these important legacy resources. The National Grasslands are important lands managed for sustainable multiple uses as part of the National Forest System. They have made important contributions to conserving grassland ecosystems while producing a variety of goods and services, which, in turn, have helped to maintain rural economies and lifestyles.
National Grassland Facts
- The Cedar River National Grasslands, in North Dakota, offers a wide range of recreational opportunities - hunting, fishing, bird and wildlife viewing, sightseeing, camping, picnicking, photography, hiking, horseback riding, and boating
- Offering the same activities, just below in South Dakota, is the Grand River National Grasslands. During the autumn hunting season, deer, antelope, grouse, and waterfowl are favorite game.
- The Little Missouri National Grassland in North Dakota is the biggest, with 1,028,051 acres.
- The Sheyenne National Grassland is the only National Grassland in the tall grass prairie region and has the largest population of the Greater Prairie Chicken in North Dakota.
- Located in southwest South Dakota, the Buffalo Gap National Grassland was inhabited millions of years ago by a strange collection of both marine and terrestrial wildlife which are known today only by their fossilized remains.
- The Ft. Pierre National Grassland in South Dakota gets the most rainfall of all the grasslands: 18 inches per year on average.
- The largest coal producing mine in the world (Thunder Basin) is on the Thunder Basin National Grassland in Wyoming.
- The Oglala National Grassland, encompassing 94,400 acres of land in the Nebraska panhandle, has a diverse landscape including badlands and toadstool formations.
- The Comanche National Grassland has approximately 275 different species of birds and the longest dinosaur track-way in the world.
- Part of the route of the Santa Fe Historic Trail runs through the Cimarron National Grassland, which contains 108,175 acres and is the only land administered by the Forest Service in the state of Kansas.
- The smallest National Grassland is McClelland Creek in Texas with 1,449 acres.
- The Black Kettle National Grassland is just across the border in Oklahoma, offering five lakes, 670 acres of warm water fishing.
- The Caddo National Grasslands in Texas, as well as the LBJ National Grasslands, provide forage for more than 1,584 head of cattle on 3,050 acres of improved pasture and 19,600 acres of native pasture.
- The Caddo and southwestern LBJ National Grasslands in Texas are within a four-hour drive of four million people.
- Wildlife on the Rita Blanca National Grassland, which includes 77,463 acres in Texas and 15,860 acres in Oklahoma, varies as much as does the climate over the wide expanse of country.
- The Kiowa National Grassland includes part of the Canadian River canyon west of Mills, New Mexico, a rugged 900-foot-deep canyon forms a wildlife habitat island in the prairie for mule deer, bear, Barbary sheep, Siberian Ibex, ducks, geese, and provides warm water fishing.
- The Crooked River National Grassland on the Ochoco National Forest 15 miles southeast of Madras, Oregon, is characterized by sagebrush and juniper areas. It is often referred to as high desert, supporting a small herd of antelope, numerous mule deer, quail, and chukkars.
- The 18,756-acre Butte Valley National Grasslands in northern California, near the Oregon border, is a part of a study about the declining Swainson's Hawks in California.
- The Curlew National Grasslands near Malad, Idaho, are known for their upland game birds.
- The Pawnee Buttes in the Pawnee National Grasslands in Colorado, is an interesting landmark. Sedimentary rock formations, one-half mile apart, rise 350 feet above the plains to an elevation of 5,375 feet.