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The Lewis and Clark Expedition on National Forests and Grasslands

[graphic] A picture of the great plains, with large clouds throughout the sky.

The Great Plains – Grassland Abundance

Tall grasses rippling in the wind lead the eye and the mind toward infinity. On a moonless night, millions of stars illuminate the plains. A coyote chorus rises, descends and lingers. “Anyone can love the mountains, but it takes a soul to love the prairie.”

Anyone can love
the mountains
but it takes
a soul to love
the prairie

These grasslands, which at first might seem empty, teem with life. On September 17, 1804,Meriwether Lewis wrote,“this senery already rich pleasing and beatiful, was still farther hightened by immence herds of Buffaloe, deer Elk and Antelopes which we saw in every direction feeding on the hills and plains.” The plains were as rich as the African Serenghetti. Stretching 1,000 miles from east to west and 2,000 miles from north to south, the North American grasslands once formed one of the largest prairies in the world. Here grizzly bears and wolves feasted on the great bison herds that numbered in the millions.

As the expedition pushed up the Missouri River, Lewis and Clark noted the change in the landscape from tall grass to mixed grass, and finally to short grass prairie, coinciding with a gradually drier climate. Lewis identified trees and shrubs hugging the river’s edge, from cottonwoods and elms to wild rose and buffalo berry.

President Jefferson foresaw the westward expansion of settlement. He believed in a rural, agricultural America. In the years after the Lewis and Clark expedition, settlers streamed across the Mississippi River to homestead. Demand for wheat after World War I accelerated the cultivation of the Great Plains. By the 1930s, virtually all the prairie had been broken to the plow, converting grasses to farms growing significant food supplies for the nation and the world.

[graphic] An old picture of a run-down farm house and a man looking back at the house with his arm up on the fence.

Image caption: Sod Homestead, South Dakota
Courtesy of Library of Congress

But traditional farming techniques did not work everywhere. Farming the native prairie exposed fragile soil to incessant winds. Huge clouds of dust from the fields darkened the skies; in less than 20 years, many farms were bankrupt and deserted.

During the 1930s and 1940s, the federal government acquired over 11 million acres of ruined farmlands in 45 states.The Soil Conservation Service,which developed and applied many conservation practices used today, first managed these lands. In 1960, close to four million of those acres, mostly in the Great Plains states, were transferred to the U.S.D.A. Forest Service and designated as National Grasslands.