Restoring our Foundational Landscape — The Misunderstood and Underappreciated Prairie
By Peter Carrels
A version of this essay appeared in the Sioux Falls Argus Leader, April 19, 2018
In early morning my friend Michael and I hiked through dense and dewy calf-high prairie grasses, carefully avoiding partially exposed stones embedded in the rolling terrain. Exploring those hillsides and summits we marveled at a sprawling native grassland –an authentic prairie with a great diversity of plants- that flourished because human ownership and management understood and respected the bounty of its soils and biology.
Although this was a working landscape, growing cattle and supplying grass-fed beef, it was also a place evidencing a timeless harmony by continuously nourishing a mantle of deep-rooted, perennial grasses and forbs that re-grew year after year after year. No re-seeding necessary. With each passing cycle of seasons the natural succession of plants thriving, expiring, decaying and then rising again enriched –not depleted- the soil. Synthetic, chemical fertilizers are not needed for perennial prairie to prosper. Neither are pesticides.
Hours later we ascended a long, steep slope, leading to what we hoped was our destination. We stopped near a compact stand of ragged-looking Russian olive trees to watch fen water trickle downhill, slowly eroding a modest crease through roots and sod, the beginnings of a charming stream.
This was the eastern edge of the Missouri River coteau, in modern-day south central Faulk County, and it was there we hoped to retrace a short portion of the route followed by Joseph Nicollet, a transplanted Frenchman who is considered one of the most important scientists and cartographers of his time. Nicollet and his expeditionary crew boated up the Missouri in the summer of 1839, debarking at Fort Pierre before journeying eastward. As a result of that trip –and several others- Nicollet created the first reliable map of our region.
We were aiming for the exact spot where Nicollet walked to a prominent hilltop overlooking the vast James River valley. Michael suspected it was near here, and his reconnaissance and permissions from landowners brought us to that place. The area where we hiked rises higher than any other location on a puffy ridge of bluffs, and when it stopped rising we eagerly stepped forward to admire a stunning sight. Below us, before us, the James River valley stretched as far as we could see in any direction.
One of Nicollet’s trusted scouts had brought him to that same vista, exclaiming as he presented the grand view: “You want geography. Look! There’s geography for you!”
We optimistically ventured that this indeed was where Nicollet stood. The well-traveled explorer later wrote that the James River valley and its magnificent prairielands was one of the most beautiful sights he had ever seen. He and his party then walked 40 miles from that promontory through a shimmering, colorful and fragrant grassland to a camping place in an oak forest along the James River, a waterway designated by Nicollet as the Riviere aux Jacques.
Prairie is a French word for meadow, though the word “meadow” fails to capture the immensity of the grasslands that dominated inner America when early pioneers ventured westward, leaving behind the leafy Alleghenies and Appalachians, and emerging into the wide skies of the American prairie frontier.
Those settlers who followed Nicollet and other explorers set to work hacking at the land and stripping away native grasses. Wheat was that era’s crop-de-jour, and most farmers and farm businesses overlooked the potential and virtues of prairie. Unfortunately, most still do.
The eco-region Sioux Falls resides in is technically termed “tallgrass prairie”, an expanse that once extended from Ohio to the James River valley. Beyond that to the west are mixed grass and short grass prairie regions. The grim truth is that tallgrass prairie is now our nation’s most endangered ecosystem. Originally, there were some 150 million acres of tallgrass prairie in what is now the United States. Today, less than one percent survives, and much of it is relegated to cemetery margins, ditches or small tracts that function as remnant patches to help us remember our region’s yesteryears.
Nowadays a family travels by highway across eastern South Dakota and one parent gestures toward the open landscape and declares to the children, “Isn’t the prairie lovely!” But the fields they pass rarely grow native grasses and forbs, and aren’t prairie at all. Some describe this misnomer as ecological illiteracy, but irrespective of why there is this confusion, our part of the world –the Northern Plains- witnessed the destruction of more than one million acres of prairie in just five years -between 2006 and 2011- to accommodate the latest grain boom. That rapid occurrence of such sizeable ecological transformation accelerated a trend that began many decades earlier. As prairie disappears we may be conveniently forgetting its true meaning. Prairie isn’t some superficial or trivialized descriptor of a rural lifestyle or place. It is a biological condition, not a topographic or demographic circumstance. It seems that the more we mislabel and misunderstand prairie, the less reluctant we are to plow it under.
Though there is a small, slowly growing collective of farmers practicing eco-friendly, prairie agriculture, today’s conventional agrarian paradigm mostly ignores perennial prairie plants. You’d think the natural advantages of prairie would stimulate a widespread, enthusiastic audience, inspiring, even demanding, meaningful research that seeks for perennial grasses and plants more and more economic and agricultural applications. Imagine if more of our nutrition and foods came from naturally reproducing, healthy prairie grasses and forbs. Imagine a perennial vegetation source for biofuel requiring no chemicals that harm water, land and wildlife. Imagine blending those priorities into our dream of energy independence.
Nicollet’s long gaze over prairie can only be recreated as a long gaze, for much of the prairie on the vast plain he viewed is gone. But restoration is possible. It’s a consideration we should be seriously encouraging through institutions, government and as individuals.
Peter Carrels serves on the board of directors for Friends of the Big Sioux River.