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July 2024
10min read

The wheels of westering settlers moved through an ocean of grass. It was a rich natural heritage, but within a century we almost destroyed it

“As far as the eye could reach, in every direction, there was neither tree, nor shrub, nor house, nor shed visible; so that we were rolling on as it were on the bosom of a new Atlantic, but that the sea was of rich green grass and flowers, instead of the briny and bottomless deep.” Thus James Silk Buckingham, a British traveller, described America’s Great Plains in 1837. This was the same “Atlantic of grass” that the homesteaders saw, and the longhorns when they spread over the open range up from the South—an ocean of grass to be grazed. There were homesteads to be developed, cattle empires to be expanded, and wheat fields to be plowed deep and combined. The grass grew naturally; it did not need to be cultivated. Who could imagine the broad green ocean drying up?

The Great Plains used to be one of the richest natural grasslands of the world. From the SaskatchewanManitoba line it extended south along the ninety-eighth meridian to the Gulf of Mexico and all the way west to the Rockies, taking in eastern Montana, Wyoming, Golorado, and New Mexico, the western part of the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, and Oklahoma, and the Texas Panhandle—“The Great American Desert,” it was designated on the maps of the early iSoo’s. And it was all public domain. AVe owned the grass and had a rich heritage, but within a century after Buckingham’s visit we had almost destroyed it.

The grass kept the Plains in place, kept them from becoming a real desert. It was as simple as that. Jn an environment with a maximum annual rainfall of only twenty inches and an evaporation rate as high as sixty per cent, there was a hairline balance between sun, water, rivers, soil, wind, and grass. The grass—putting down its roots four, even six feet into the soil, improving its structure, ventilating it, letting water penetrate it, keeping moisture loss low—held the balance of power and kept the environment from destroying itself. During the summer months the rain fell in thunderstorms, hailstorms even; water rushed in torrents down from the Rockies, carried by the Red River, the Platte, the Missouri. Against that force of water nothing could stop the erosion of the soil, nothing but a good thick carpet of grass to hold it down.

Through the ages, nature had laid dosvn such a carpet—native grasses capable of withstanding the special conditions of the environment. They lay dormant through drought and came back above ground when water came again. Some grasses grew in the warm seasons, others in the cool. They could grow with little moisture, hoarding what they got. Over the centuries they had struggled for survival in the Great Plains, adapted to the environment, and thrived.

The environment is diverse. The Great Plains are not all on one level: from an altitude of 5,500 feet up against the Rockies they flatten out going eastward at ten feet per mile. They embrace sand hills, loessal plains, buttes, “badlands,” depressions, and rolling Oatlands treeless and without protection from the sun except for the grass. The precipitation is uncertain. Temperatures range from 60° below to 120° above. The Plains were formed when the great Cretaceous seas withdrew along the continent and the Rocky Mountains were uplifted, preventing moisture from the Pacific from penetrating eastward. The area gradually dried up; mountain streams cut valleys and ridges through it and grew into rivers that spilled out onto the Plains. There evaporation was so high, rain so scarce, and the land so flat that the rivers lost their force, deposited their burden of mountain soil in aprons over the land, and dribbled on into shallow streams and mudholes or buffalo wallows, where many a settler’s wagon got stuck up to its axles.

The grasses that took root and kept the soil from washing away were of several types. In the Northern Plains (roughly Montana, Wyoming, and the western Dakotas) and in the High Plains (the eastern third of Colorado and Xcw Mexico and the western part of Oklahoma) there were the short grasses: bulfalo grass, blue grama, three-awns, curly mesquite. Farther east, the longer mid-grasses took root: little blucstem, needle grass, wheat grasses. In the Low Plains—the region’s eastern third, along the twenty-inch rainfall line that runs from the eastern Dakotas southward to western Texas—big bluestem and other tall grasses thrived. The plainsman will recognize minor grasses in the kingdom with colorful names like bottlebrush, red ray, fool hay, pancake, jungle rice, panic grass. The environment created these grasses; they are natives—the original natives, which were there even before the bulfalo and the Indian came.

Coronado saw the grasses in 1541 in his abortive search for gold in the Seven Cities of Cibola. He and his army almost got lost among them; as soon as they passed, the grasses straightened. Men who wandered away from the army train got lost. Finally Coronado gave up on the Plains; there was no gold there, and it was too cold. The grass was good for the expedition’s cows, but there was no civililation there to conquer.

The Indians inhabited the Plains before Coronado came and remained after lie passed. Thirty-one tribes held sway there, eacli somehow able to read the landscape so that they recognized one another’s territories. We can order the succession of invaders of the Great Plains like this: first, the soil came from the Rockies, then the grasses grew, then the buffalo came down from the north for the grasses, then the Indians followed the buffalo. The tribes themselves—Blackfoot, Crow, Cheyenne, Pawnee, Arapaho, Apache, Comanche—had an ideal relationship with their environment: the Indian lived off the buffalo; the buffalo lived off the grass. Colonel Richard Irving Dodge reported seeing a herd of buffalo numbering over 500,000. The grass could sustain herds that big without danger of being overgrazed, for by instinct the buffalo moved with the seasonal growth of the grass.

Sometimes, to make their hunting easier, the Indians burned the grass, but the homesteaders, who began to come in 1862, were the first to break the sod. They had to, first to make their sod houses and then to cultivate their 160 acres. Pioneers came in great numbers from the East, from Europe, even from Australia, encouraged by Congress and the railroads. A small registration fee and a five-year occupancy were all Congress required before giving away the land. And the homesteaders plowed away.

The first sight of the tall grasses waving over an expanse of rolling land often inspired the newcomers with a kind of “seasickness,” or fear, or exhilaration, or loneliness. In 1837, Buckingham had noted: “I never felt so strongly the sense of loneliness as here.”

For the homesteaders it was the same. Beret Hansa, in O. E. Rölvaag’s Giants in the Earth , exclaimed: “Why there isn’t even a thing that one can hide behind!” From the door of her sod house the plainswoman looked out on grass whispering in the wind, scorched by the sun, and if she dared go out herself she would get lost. Or the wind would turn her face to leather, as it was turning her man to leather as he plowed up the land around the sod house. The walls of that house were held together by the roots of the grass, and the mud floor was strewn with grass. Sometimes, twisted into hanks and tossed into the stove, the grass even heated the house. The homesteader’s wife worried about water; soon the windmill would bring her water from deep below the topsoil. But what would bring water to the soil?

This was in the eighteen sixties. In 1873, the settlers were hit with the first bad drought. In 1874, the locusts came, Rocky Mountain grasshoppers which ate the leaves and stems of the grasses—and not only every green thing but even the clothes off the line. The settlers panicked; some left, convinced that it would take a special kind of human being to stick it out here in an environment they themselves knew nothing about.

Meanwhile, in southwest Texas, longhorn cattle, originally raised on the old Spanish missions, now roamed wild. The North, hungry after the Civil War, was screaming for beef. Northward cattle drives had begun as early as the mid-1830’s, but those herds were small compared with these that were now beginning. As the buffalo was killed off (and the Indian with him, practically), the longhorns, the cowboys, and the cattle ranchers took over as much open range in the Plains as they could manage. But unlike the buffalo, the longhorns did not move with the seasonal growth of the grasses. They were either fenced in by the ranchers near water, or fenced out by homesteaders protecting their farms. Overcrowding of the range began. Ranchers, finding the grass cheap fodder, let their longhorns graze all year round, and fought for water rights with the homesteaders—who now, under the Desert Land Act of 1877, could have an entire section, 640 acres, provided only that they would irrigate it. (The irrigation provision, alas, was often met by throwing a bucket of water on the grass.)

By the mid-1880’s, cattle ranches had spread north into the short-grass country, into Colorado, Wyoming, and Montana. In his pioneering survey of the Plains presented to Congress in 1878, John Wesley Powell had pointed out that this vast area of public domain was not being properly used. In an arid and subhumid climate most of the soil does not contain enough moisture to permit farming by the usual methods. Most of the region, Powell felt, was not suitable for farming at all; grazing was its best use. But not the kind that was then going on: letting the cattle graze all through spring, summer, autumn, and winter, never giving the grass a chance to renew itself. Powell recommended that pasture lands be parcelled out in lots of 2,560 acres and held in common, with all the participating ranchers responsible for the right use of them.

But western politicians in Congress, land speculators, and cattlemen, all of them in a hurry to profit from the bounty of the region, could not halt for planning. Cattle grazing was causing more injury to the land than farming, Powell said. And then there were the sheep. Both the farmer and the rancher turned on the sheepman; they said his animals’ thin muzzles and sharp teeth cropped the grass to the ground, while their spiky hoofs pockmarked the soil.

All—homesteader, rancher, sheep farmer—were busy destroying the grass.

Then, in the eighteen nineties, the sod was really stripped away as huge wheat farms were established in the Red River valley in Minnesota and North Dakota—farms sometimes as large as 65,000 acres.

Drought struck in the 1890’s, and again in 1900, in 1910, and in 1917. But the World War I years were good for the wheat farmer, and he survived. By 1924, in spite of the dry spells, Plains farmers were growing seventeen million more acres of wheat than they had grown in 1909. Arid, short-grass regions of Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Wyoming, and Montana, where plow should never have furrowed a sod, were being farmed.

The day of reckoning had to come.

The story of the Dust Bowl is well known. There had been dust storms in the Plains before, but never anything like those that began to darken the sky in the early nineteen thirties. Black clouds of prairie soil were blown as far eastward as Washington, D.C. And farther: the dust was visible two hundred miles at sea.

The grass was gone, and there was nothing to prevent the dust from blowing. Farmers and cowboys, trying to work in dust, got only failed crops, thin and dying cattle, and mounting debts. Nearly four and a half million people lived in the Plains in the early nineteen thirties before the drought; within five years, forty thousand families moved out, leaving vast areas of the land not only denuded but uninhabited.

Finally, where individuals had failed, Washington took a hand. With the Bankhead-Jories Act of 1937, the federal government reacquired some of the lands that had been vacated, and made loans to farmers who stayed on, to begin soil conservation measures.

Biologists like F. W. Albertson and ecologists like T. E. Weaver now began to help in the study of what had been ignored, for the most part, all along: the grasses themselves. Many of the recommendations in the Great Plains report of 1936 were aimed at one end: restoring the grasses. But that was a big job: nature had taken ages to put them there. Scientists—and the Department of Agriculture, with its Soil Conservation Service and Forest Service—set to work. First, surveys were made. Next, the government acquired large areas of range and granted use of them, under rules of controlled grazing, to permittees. Water resources were developed through a series of dams and irrigation projects. Finally, Washington sought the co-operation of local governments and private owners in projects to control erosion and promote proper grazing.

The program put into motion by the government—and by the private agencies and individual landowners whose co-operation it enlisted—had three objectives: converting essentially nonarable cropland back to range or natural grassland; re-establishing the native grasses on depleted and killed-out range areas or on worked-out farm land that had simply been allowed to go back to whatever vegetation developed; and encouraging the people of the region to adopt improved methods of land management.

For the conversion and re-establishment processes the first requirement, of course, was a supply of seeds. In special Plant Materials Centers set up by the Soil Conservation Service throughout the Great Plains, various strains of native grasses—such as the gramas, bluestems, switchgrass, and indiangrass—were produced. The process was far from simple: strains of little biuestem which thrived in Texas, for example, might not survive in the Dakotas. The Agriculture Department’s Agricultural Research Service, notably the center under the direction of Dr. L. C. Newell at the University of Nebraska, made a major contribution in discovering which grasses would grow best in various Plains areas. Then, special machines were developed to plant the seed.

Finally, farmers were encouraged to stop plowing land that was not meant to be plowed, and to put it to its proper use: grazing. The Soil Conservation Service also suggested to them—and to ranchers as well—how the land ought to be grazed: rotationally, with grazing deferred on some grasses until early summer so that they could get a good spring start. Typically, a conservation plan for an entire farm or ranch would be developed, with the government sharing the costs of re-establishing the grasses.

The recovery of the Great Plains and the bringing back of the grass were not accomplished by human measures alone. Nature herself helped out. Beginning in 1941 with the coming of wet years again, the land itself began to go through its almost miraculous, ageold cycle. Weaver and Albertson observed and documented this recovery of the native grasses: first the primeval weeds came back—goosefoot, tumbleweed, and common sunflower; then a second weed stage began—little barley, peppergrass, and stickseeds; thereafter, early native grasses began to return—sand dropseed, western wheat grass, false buffalo grass; finally, the mature native grasses—the gramas, buffalo grass, three-awns—were seen again.

Today, driving through the Great Plains region, the traveller will often pass signs bearing the initials “U.S.,” with a bunch of grass between the “U.” and the “S.” This sign indicates he is travelling through National Grasslands. On June 20, 1960, nearly four million acres of federal lands were so designated. They are managed by the Forest Service and are set up as outdoor recreational areas, range land, wildlife habitats, and fishing preserves. These lands are public domain. Artificial lakes have been created for water sports and for conservation purposes; thirty campsites now dot the Plains and more are being prepared; hunters flock to the Dakotas each year for the ringneck pheasant, to Wyoming and Montana for geese, duck, and Barbary sheep. There are over three million acres of unposted land to which we have free access, and it is all covered with grass. The names of the new grasslands are old and familiar: the Comanche in Colorado, the Cimarron in southwest Kansas, the Pawnee in northeastern Colorado, the Oglala in Nebraska, the Kiowa in New Mexico.

But the National Grasslands are only the most visible results of what will go down in history as one of the major conservation efforts of modern times. Thanks to the croplandconversion, range-reseeding, and land-management programs, the grasslands of the ten Great Plains states are in better condition today than they have been for seventy-five years. The environment has come full cycle: once more a rich carpet of grass holds the Plains in place, letting the land fulfill itself—and the men who live on it and draw their sustenance from it.


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