Blue bus with tallgrass in foreground


Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve Podcast Library

Tallgrass Prairie

A collection of podcasts about the nature, history, and culture of Tallgrass Prairie NPres and the surrounding region.


1. Discover the Wonder of Tallgrass


Discover the Wonder of Tallgrass, a ten-chapter guided exploration of the tallgrass prairie ecosystem at Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve.

Program written and produced by Park Ranger Eric Patterson of the National Park Service, United States Department of the Interior.

• Introduction.

On behalf of the National Park Service and The Nature Conservancy, welcome to Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. We hope you enjoy the journey and find meaning that is uniquely yours as you Discover the Wonder of Tallgrass.

A good place to begin this journey of discovery is with a timeless quote from noted environmentalist Rachel Carson’s 1964 book, The Sense of Wonder, which can help bring focus to this and many other excursions into the natural world:

Exploring largely a matter of becoming receptive to what lies all around you. It is learning again to use your eyes, ears, nostrils, and fingertips, using your senses. For most of us, knowledge of our world comes largely through sight, yet we look about with such unseeing eyes that we are partially blind. One way to open your eyes to unnoticed beauty is to ask yourself: What if I had never seen this before? What if I knew I would never see it again?

• Chapter 1: Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve establishment.

In June 1994, US Senator from Kansas, Nancy Landon Kassebaum-Baker, became a driving force in the preserve’s establishment. She encouraged a private nonprofit group, the National Park Trust, to assist in the creation of a national park by purchasing the Spring Hill Z Bar Ranch located five miles north of Cottonwood Falls, Kansas.

On November 12, 1996, the ranch became the 10,894-acre Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, the 370th national park unit, standing out as the first national park area specifically established to preserve grass for its own sake, as well as the first national park area set up as a shared, cooperative, landowning partnership.

At the preserve’s dedication, Senator Kassebaum-Baker called the partnership a “model for the nation,” demonstrating how the public and private sectors can cooperate to achieve a shared goal. The National Park Service currently owns the Visitor Center, most of the historic buildings and the lands around them, approximately 34 acres and can own up to 180 acres total, thereby leaving the majority of the preserve’s land in private non-profit ownership.

In April 2005 the National Park Trust completed its mission at the preserve by transferring its land ownership to The Nature Conservancy, with the help of another private non-profit group, the Kansas Park Trust.

The Nature Conservancy now works closely with the National Park Service on a wide range of tallgrass prairie management and restoration projects.

A major part of the park’s cooperative mission is to be a destination for one-on-one, hiking-boots-on-the-ground contact with the tallgrass prairie, making the park one of the largest and most publicly accessible areas of tallgrass prairie in Kansas, if not the entire country.

• Chapter 2: Amount of tallgrass prairie remaining in North America. Looking out over the wide-open spaces of the Flint Hills, it’s hard to believe that any landscape that stretches from one horizon to the other could ever be considered vanishing and endangered, but that is exactly what the tallgrass prairie ecosystem has become.

In fact, on a percentage basis, more of the Florida Everglades, both inside and outside of that national park, remain intact than native tallgrass prairie.

This is astonishing when you consider just how much native tallgrass prairie at one time covered North America, upwards of 170 million acres, roughly the size of Texas. However, it has been reduced to around 4% of its original size, roughly the size of the Hawaiian Islands.

This 96% reduction makes the North American tallgrass prairie one of the most humanly altered ecosystems on the planet, reflecting the great peril that grasslands face worldwide.

Today, these lands have been transformed into agricultural use, growing the food that millions of people in the United States and around the world depend upon every day.

However, most of what remains of North America's tallgrass prairies is found here in the Flint Hills Ecoregion of Kansas and Oklahoma.

• Chapter 3: Ecology.

A great deal goes into preserving tallgrass prairie in the Flint Hills, as we'll discover during this program, but it all really boils down to a single word, ECOLOGY.

Now this word is a fairly new word to the English language, coined in the 1870s, from the Greek roots oikos, -meaning home, and ology, -meaning the study of.

Placing these roots together gives us oikos, ology, or ecology, the study of one's home.

However, it hasn’t come into widespread popular use until the 1970s and now you can hear it everywhere.

It’s a very timely subject these days, but it still has that science fiction ring to it whenever you hear someone talking about electric cars, wind turbines, or anything with “eco” in front of it.

Simply put, ecology deals with the shared set of relationships that living organisms have with their environment, our shared home. It’s how the Earth’s various lifeforms interact with one another and how they interact with weather, climate, geology, geography, landscape, etc., creating the vast array of interconnections that weave the web of life here on Earth.

• Chapter 4: Flint Hills geology and erosion.

The literal foundation of the Flint Hills region is its geology, with its subtle but solid influence demonstrating that just because you're small and seemingly insignificant or satisfied to do your best work behind the scenes, doesn't mean you're not also very, very important.

Science describes that these layers were laid down nearly 300 million years ago during a time scientifically referred to as the Permian Period of the Paleozoic Era, when present-day Kansas was covered at various times by a vast, inland sea.

As this shallow sea rose and fell, layers of carbon-bearing sediment and the calcium and silica bearing remains of marine plants and animals were deposited in alternating layers at the bottom, eventually solidifying into layers of shale & limestone, with flint, also known as chert, found within the limestone.

The rain and water flowing on the surface and from over 200 springs at the park, as well as the countless springs throughout the Flint Hills have in fact, put the "hills” in the Flint Hills, demonstrating what can be achieved when small, determined efforts are consistently combined together.

This process, called differential erosion, gives the hills their distinctive steep slopes, flat-topped mesas, and stair-step appearance, due to shale eroding faster than the limestone.

Now within perhaps 18 to 24 inches of the surface is where thick formations of shale & limestone begin to emerge. These thin soils, full of eroded pieces of flint, prevented plowing these lands for crops, except for the deeper soils and flatter terrain in the bottomlands along streams and rivers.

This situation helps to maintain many of the Flint Hills’s original characteristics, making them very well suited to growing grasses, wildflowers, and other tallgrass prairie plant life, which have nursed and nurtured a great many lives and livelihoods in the Flint Hills for hundreds or even thousands of years.

• Chapter 5: Origins of the name Flint Hills.

Although the Spanish conquistador Francisco Vazquez de Coronado explored what is now central Kansas in the mid-1500s, the American explorer Zebulon Pike is credited with naming this area “Flint Hills,” crossing through this area in September 1806, toward present-day Colorado.

He kept detailed journals of his travels and wrote at the time that he had been traveling through quote, rough hills of flint, unquote.

In the present-day “Flint Hills” is the name given to this large area of east central Kansas that influences around 25% of the state.

It starts about 100 miles north of the park near the Nebraska border and extends southwards, soaking up most of the space between Salyna and Topeka, narrowing down to the west of Emporia and to the east of Wichita and then enters the Osage Nation in Oklahoma, where they are called the Osage Hills.

This combined area of intact tallgrass prairie measures over THREE TIMES the size of Yellowstone National Park, highlighting the unassailable fact that most of the intact tallgrass prairie that remains in North America, as well as any hope for its future, falls outside of any sort of public, protected boundary.

• Chapter 6: Legs of the Tallgrass Prairie.

Many of the views throughout the park and the Flint Hills provide a look back in time to 500 or even 1,000 or more years ago.

And over this long stretch of time, the various peoples of the Flint Hills have found ways to succeed that cooperate with what the ecosystem needs for its survival, combining the realities of living, with the necessities of life.

For the most part, the same three powerful ecological processes that have sustained the tallgrass prairie in the past, moisture, fire, and grazing, continue to do so in the present, forming the “legs of the tallgrass prairie.”

These three strong legs are like the three legs of a stool. If one or more of the legs are damaged or broken, the stool would be quite unsteady and could collapse.

Something similar could happen to the tallgrass prairie ecosystem if its legs are not balanced with one another, and with the human element being capricious and unpredictable at times, maintaining such a tenuous balance becomes an even greater challenge.

This challenge begins with moisture. The Kansas Flint Hills region receives an average of around 24 to 36 inches of total precipitation a year.

Since the amounts will vary widely, due to weather variations and increasing climate change, the plants animals and people of the tallgrass prairie ecosystem must find ways to adapt to this and the many other challenges of this environment or be eliminated by them, a cleansing that while harsh and severe, is nevertheless quite effective at building grit and fortitude.

Fire, a natural grassland process, has been adapted for use by both the Indigenous peoples of the Flint Hills and by incoming European and American settlers.

Fire burns away old plant growth or “thatch” and gives the roots of tallgrass prairie plants greater access to sunshine and moisture.

At the same time, fire stimulates tallgrass prairie grass species to grow, because grasses have their growth parts right on or just below the soil’s surface, protecting them from fire.

The ash left behind becomes a soil nutrient and the darkened ground absorbs the sun’s heat after a burn, helping to kickstart the growth process.

What is burned away is only the top 20 to 25% of the total grass plant.

Most of the plant is found in the roots, protected underground, which are then prompted to grow a new shoot on the surface.

Grazing is another natural grassland process.

Elk, pronghorn, deer, and bison provided the major grazing presence in the tallgrass prairie ecosystem for thousands of years. Calcium from the eroded limestone makes the Flint Hills especially nutritious for grazing animals.

In the 1500s, Spanish explorers and colonists brought horses, cattle, and cattle culture to North America.

Over 300 years later, in the 1870s, European and American settlers began building cattle ranches in the Flint Hills, using the Spanish example from centuries earlier as a model.

In fact, the English word “ranch” comes from the Spanish word “el rancho” or livestock farm.

This transformation, from open range grazing to enclosed pastures, established cattle grazing as a cornerstone of the Flint Hills economy, with a firm understanding that there cannot be a functioning economy without a functioning ecology.

Although the grazing activity of cattle is somewhat different than that of native grazing animals, their grazing activity can still be beneficial to the tallgrass prairie ecosystem.

When done in balance with the other forces at work, this built-in challenge encourages the lifeforms within the ecosystem to become stronger and more resilient.

And then the grasses, far from being burdened by these challenges, are strengthened by them, very much like we humans, we are only as strong as the challenges we face daily.

And if all the challenges are checked and balanced with each other, everything tends to remain in equilibrium.

However, when one force begins to dominate and dictate over the others, when community breaks down, imbalances and inequalities begin to emerge, which is why it's not called an "ego" system. It's called an "eco" system for a very specific reason.

Ecosystems are not concerned with the specifics of life or its expression, only with maintaining the balance of that expression.

And whether we human beings will be able to make a living, not just as a species, but as families and individuals, in the new balance of life forming around the planet is a wide-open question that many are finally now beginning to reckon with, and it's not a moment too soon.

One way the park is addressing this timely issue is to demonstrate different methods of regenerative and restorative types of agriculture that would return nutrients and resources to the soil rather than just continually extracting them.

Patch-burn grazing is one possible method that seeks to mimic what took place naturally on the prairie by burning small portions of pastures at different times of the year, rotating the affected areas and the timing every three to five years.

As these patches move around, grazing animals follow the fresh plant growth that arises, thereby naturally spreading their grazing activity over a wider area.

Virtual fencing achieves a similar goal, using sensory cues from a physical collar that delivers a sound or vibration when the cow nears a virtual boundary, a boundary that can be moved quickly in response to changing grazing conditions.

The areas that aren’t grazed as much are given a chance to rest, grow their roots, and store energy, while also serving as ground cover for wildlife, with the Greater prairie-chicken serving as a good example.

Reduction and fragmentation of the Greater prairie-chicken’s habitat due to agricultural use has severely reduced its numbers across its range.

However, from the time the park began patch-burn grazing, which creates a mosaic of taller and shorter areas of vegetation, the Greater prairie-chicken population on the preserve has tripled.

Areas of shorter vegetation can function as booming grounds, or leks, where male Greater prairie-chickens put on an elaborate courtship dance, fluffing their feathers, stomping their feet, and making a distinctive hooting sound to the female Greater prairie-chickens also gathered on these courtship grounds.

Nearby, taller denser areas of plant growth provide good nesting environments to hide away eggs and young chicks from predators. Ranchers and land managers often use a football to see if the prairie has enough ground cover for nesting.

If the football is hidden in the grasses, then the area supports enough grass to maintain good nesting habitats, providing cover for young chicks when a hawk or other predator is nearby.

The burned areas also give way to places where these little chicks can more easily forage for food.

Having these environments near each other helps to give the iconic Greater prairie-chicken a fighting chance for survival, demonstrating how people can choose to be a positive force for the environment.

• Chapter 7: Flint Hills scenery and uses for flint.

From most hilltops in the Flint Hills, you can gaze out on a horizon of more than 10 to 20 miles and by turning in a circle you can see a veritable ocean of tallgrass.

From this one view you will see more intact tallgrass prairie than you will see today in the states of Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, and Iowa combined.

This demonstrates just how much of the tallgrass prairie is being put to various agricultural uses and clearly illustrates the steep challenges of protecting the few unplowed areas that remain.

And the toughness of the area's namesake, the flint itself, helps make this possible.

Flint consists of silicon dioxide, microscopic quartz crystals, similar to sand, glass, and the quartz in a battery-powered wristwatch.

When flint is hit in some way, or knapped, a sharp-edged flake can break off, sometimes leaving behind a telltale scalloped-shaped dent in the stone.

These flint flakes can be quite sharp and in the hands of skilled flintknappers can become knives, scrapers, spearheads, and arrowheads, some of the many skills possessed by the area’s Indigenous peoples, the Osage, Pawnee, Wichita, and Kansa.

• Chapter 8: Indigenous nations of the Flint Hills.

The Osage, the Pawnee, the Wichita, and the Kansa, or KahnZay Nations shared the Flint Hills as communal hunting and gathering grounds and were some of the first people to adapt the environment to suit their own needs, many decades before European and American settlers arrived in the Flint Hills.

Being keen observers of their surroundings, these Indigenous peoples saw that bison and other grazing animals were attracted to the tender new plant life that grew immediately after lightning had set vast grass fires.

They adapted this natural process by setting grass fires of their own and waiting for bison and other grazing animals to find the new growth.

The practice of starting fires on the tallgrass to encourage grazing, long practiced by these Flint Hills tribes, continues in the Flint Hills today, establishing prairie fire as one of the oldest human activities in the region, a vibrant and living connection to the past.

However, this and other similarities between the incoming European and American settlers and Flint Hills tribes were overshadowed by their differences, with the name of this state providing a stark illustration.

The KahnZay, Kaw, or People of the Southwind, no longer live in the state that now bears their name.

Only eleven years after Kansas became the 34th American state in 1861, the Southwind People were removed from their lands in Kansas to present-day Oklahoma, a dismaying pattern repeated with each of the Flint Hills’s 4 main Indigenous nations.

• Chapter 9: Surviving ad-versity through di-versity.

Intact unplowed grasslands are some of the most robust and varied ecosystems on Earth, leading to the potent and poignant phrase, “surviving ad-versity through di-versity.

This plant and animal variety can be compared to having a good set of tools at home, in your car, or in your head, like knowledge, experience and judgement, meaning you can improvise, you can adapt, you can overcome a great many unknown unknowns, because emergencies rarely announce themselves beforehand.

But pride and complacency in one’s accomplishments can stifle creativity, so that when a real crisis comes along, the only tool available might be a hammer, and then everything and everyone looks like a nail.

In the Flint Hills, over 70 different species of grasses & grass-like plants and over 500 species of trees, shrubs, and broad-leafed herbaceous plants called forbs or wildflowers, can be identified.

Most tallgrass prairie plant life, 80% or more, are grasses, which account for only 20% of the total plant species, highlighting the tremendous influence of grasses.

However, 80% of the total plant species are forbs, wildflowers, or other non-grass plants, while accounting for only 20% of total plant life.

Dozens of different species of reptiles, amphibians, birds, and mammals can be identified, such as collared lizards, gopher snakes, and bullfrogs, greater prairie-chickens, upland sandpipers, and meadowlarks, coyotes, badgers, and bison.

Dozens more fish and aquatic invertebrates, and thousands of insect species can also be identified, like bluegill, catfish, and Topeka shiner, crawfish, clams, and freshwater mussels, lubber grasshoppers, dung beetles, and monarch butterflies.

And tens of thousands of microbial species can be found in the living soil, with more individual bacteria found in a cup of tallgrass prairyerth than there are people on the planet.

It would be impossible for these various lifeforms to get along with each other if they were all attempting to gather the same resources in the same ways at the same time.

But throughout the Flint Hills, a balance has been struck among the various lifeforms, because they have each found a place, or niche, where they can take only what they need and give back only what they can, and thereby support the entire community of life, a self-sustaining and self-repairing equilibrium.

Simply put, they survive ad-versity through dye-versity by living in ways that reduce the head-to-head winner-take-all pursuit of limited resources by mixing in a dose of cooperative competition.

A good illustration of this is suggested by the often-asked question, "Where is all the tallgrass?"

The phrase, short in the spring, tall in the fall, hints at an answer.

Most of the region’s seasonal prescribed burning takes place in March and April, preparing the ground for cattle grazing, although tallgrass prairie plant life can benefit from burning throughout the year.

Although wildflowers bloom throughout the growing season, May and June are where they tend to congregate.

Most are only 12 to 20 inches tall at best and grow rather bushy and broad, meaning that they would have a much harder time growing if they had to compete for sunshine and nutrients with denser stands of taller plant species.

They would then not be able to do all the beneficial things that they do, such as nitrogen fixing, done by a special kind of plant called a legume.

These beneficial plants, such as wild alfalfa and leadplant, play host to bacteria on their roots, forming a symbiotic relationship where the two lifeforms live together for mutual benefit, the bacteria taking nitrogen from the air and fixing it into the soil as a nutrient.

The increased nitrogen and other nutrients encourage more root growth, which provides more living space for the bacteria, which encourages more nitrogen fixing, which encourages more root growth, and so on.

However, farmers often must artificially add chemical nutrients and fertilizers to the soil, unlike the natural processes at work here.

July and August are often the hottest and driest months of the year with many plants altering their growth to match the growing conditions, using their stored energy to survive until better growing conditions develop.

Some plants will take advantage of this situation, like ironweed, broomweed, and curly-cup gumweed, and are often some of the few plants seen blooming in July and August.

These quick-growing native plants can often be found in areas that have seen disturbance, use, and activity, like around ranches, roads, trails, and grazed pastures.

They are successional plants, filling in areas that have seen use and activity and acting like a bandage, healing over an area.

This activity can be temporarily protective until the disturbance passes, giving the native plant community time to rebalance and strengthen itself.

However, if the disturbance doesn’t pass or increases, the successional plants can use the opportunity to spread and as a result, become what many people call weeds, placing additional stress on an already weakened native plant community.

September and October are when the tallgrasses can finally take center stage, 48 to 72 inches high, given the right combination of growing conditions and location.

The taller wildflower species, such as blazingstar and goldenrod, can also be seen blooming at this time, adding a welcome splash of color.

The root systems of tallgrass prairie plants provide another good illustration.

Many tallgrass prairie wildflowers have deep taproots which, like leadplant for example, can be ten feet or more in length.

These act like pumps, drawing moisture and nutrients from deep in the ground for their own benefit, while bringing trace minerals closer to the surface where the tallgrasses can reach them.

Because tallgrasses don’t have a single taproot, but rather a dense network of thin root fibers close to the surface, they bind the soil together like steel in concrete, forming something like a sponge.

For example, a cubic yard of big bluestem sod can contain twenty MILES of root material, the distance between the park and Emporia Kansas, creating a spongy reservoir that stores moisture and nutrients to benefit all of the tallgrass prairie’s lifeforms.

Furthermore, the sheer number of different native plant and animal species combine their cooperative ways of living with the competition they have with one another for resources.

This helps the tallgrass community maintain equilibrium, share limited resources, resist disease, and control the growth of undesirable, invasive, and non-native species, like cheatgrass and Serecia lespedeza, that could upset this fragile ecological balance, highlighting the fact that any life form can grow to troublesome numbers, given an unopposed opportunity to do so.

• Chapter 10: Bison.

Estimates vary, but there could have been upwards of 30 to 60 million bison living in North America at the start of the 19th century.

By 1890 however, due to rapid settlement and widespread hunting, there were less than 1,000 bison remaining in existence.

But they are making a limited comeback in portions of North America on various preserves, parklands, refuges, and tribal nations.

Hundreds of thousands more bison are raised privately as livestock for human consumption. Today, around half a million bison are alive at any given time in North America, outnumbered by cattle roughly 200 to 1, with only a small fraction of the bison population, perhaps 20,000, in protected custody.

In October 2009, the National Park Service and The Nature Conservancy reintroduced bison to the park after a 140-year absence, beginning with seven male and six female bison from Wind Cave National Park in South Dakota, which cares for a population of around 400 bison.

These Wind Cave bison, originating from bison transferred in 1913 from the Bronx Zoo in New York City along with several others from Yellowstone National Park in 1916, turn out to be some of the most genetically pure bison remaining in North America, having been some of the first bison to receive such protection.

Bison and cattle are distant genetic relatives, belonging to different genuses. They can however, still have offspring and transmit diseases to one another. As a result of crossbreeding experiments in the late 19th century, most bison have at least some cattle introgression into their DNA.

The Wind Cave bison herd is culled every few years and the surplus animals are transferred to suitable sites in North America, creating genetically pure satellite herds, enabling the park to participate in one of the oldest environmental conservation movements in the world.

The Windmill and West Traps pastures at the park could be home for up to 100 bison year-round, with the park sharing its population as needed with herds of similar genetics, providing much needed living space to help preserve this rare bison lineage.

Caring for these animals, however, involves more than just releasing them into the park, for while they might look like cattle, with both belonging to the family Bovidae and both possessing a four-chambered ruminant stomach, they are in fact, quite different animals.

Not being native to North America, cattle, scientific name Bos taurus, brought grazing habits from Europe and elsewhere with them and one of them is a taste for forbs, or wildflowers.

Although most of their diet is in the grasses, perhaps around 70%, the remaining 30% is in wildflowers which tend to grow in their densest concentrations in the spring, which is also when Flint Hills ranchers put out most of their cattle to graze for a three to six month grazing season.

If not watched closely, the cattle can graze too heavily in the wildflowers and consume most of the beneficial legumes, which decrease under heavy grazing.

This strains the ability of the remaining legumes to fix beneficial nitrogen into the soil.

Also lost is the trace mineral conduit for the tallgrasses, further upsetting the resilient but delicate balance in the tallgrass prairie plant community.

However, since bison are the native grazing animal, they prefer to graze among the grasses almost exclusively with around 90% of their diet in the tallgrasses, especially the dominant four species, big bluestem, little bluestem, indiangrass, and switchgrass.

This helps control their growth and encourages the growth of other beneficial plants, like the legumes, further maintaining balance in the tallgrass prairie plant community.

Another challenge to bison restoration is related to their intense instinct to create and defend space for themselves.

Although bison have keen senses of hearing and smell, their eyesight is quite poor beyond 100 yards, and as a result can be especially sensitive to sudden movement, becoming very edgy and irritated if they find themselves crowded into a small group in a small space or crowded by curious onlookers, either on foot or in vehicles, with the bison’s own behavior directly reflecting the state of their living conditions.

This sharpened awareness often drives them to act out in self-defense, with unpredictable, sometimes lethal explosiveness, for while bison can grow to 1,000 to over 2,000 pounds as adults, they are still prey animals with those powerful survival instincts very much intact.

Also, if the bison really do think the grass is greener on the other side of a fence, they might investigate for themselves, another intact and forceful survival instinct, for while bison can live on less-than-ideal forage, they are more eager to seek out better grazing.

This instinct drove bison of the past to migrate for hundreds and hundreds of miles across the Great Plains in a relentless search for food and water.

One more thing, in casual conversation the terms “bison” and “buffalo” are relatively interchangeable.

Spanish-speaking explorers, some of the earliest Europeans to explore North America and document their observations in writing, already had a word, “el bufalo,” to describe a large grazing mammal that was not a cow, or “la vaca.”

They continued this naming practice as they explored portions of North America in the mid-1500s, making the word buffalo one of the many dozens of Spanish words that have entered the English language, a subtle reminder of the continued Hispanic influence on the continent.

However, scientific studies conducted 300 years later in the mid-1800s, determined that the North American buffalo was actually closely related to the wisent, or European bison, scientific name Bison bonasus. As a result, Bison bison is now the scientific name for North America’s largest grazing animal, but the term “buffalo” remains a popular common name for the bison in North America.

• Conclusion

Imagining planet Earth as a living organism, consisting of many interconnected parts, like oceans & lakes, rivers & wetlands, deserts & forests, polar & tundra regions, & grasslands, evokes a well-known Latin phrase, E Pluribus Unum, from diversity comes unity.

And to maintain this unity they all need to operate very efficiently together, much like the many interconnected parts of your car.

For example, your car’s waterpump might be leaking, putting your car's cooling and other systems under increasing strain. You might be altering your behavior to deal with the inconvenient changes, making repairs hoping they last, or just ignoring the changes and their root causes altogether. And then the day comes when your car can no longer deal with all that has been asked of it and simply stops working, with circumstances finally making the hard choices all too clear.

A similar fate could befall our planet if one or more of its many interconnected parts don’t function well with one another.

And grasses are spectacular in their shared capabilities, for they are indeed the meek who have inherited the earth.

Perhaps 30% of the planet’s land surface can support grasses in some fashion, making grasses the dominant plant life form on Earth, 10,000 species strong on over 11 billion acres worldwide, or a combined area nearly 5 times the size of the United States.

These areas are known worldwide as the African Savanna, the European and Asian Steppe, the Australian Outback, the South American Pampas, and the North American Prairie, providing ample space for grasses to rapidly grow, capture, and quickly recycle tens of thousands of megatons of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere if not overwhelmed by agricultural needs.

This emphasizes the tremendous importance of protecting grasslands where they still exist as well as the fate that could befall our planet if its grasslands are lost.

For our planet’s survival and our combined futures could very well hinge on the survival of its grasslands.

For grasslands have nursed and nurtured humanity for perhaps as long as there has ever been a humanity on Earth.

They now look to us, their children, for help.

So thank you for your help today, because life for "We The People," is what we choose it to be.

And with your visit today you have done exactly that; choosing to come together as a tallgrass community, bravely and boldly demonstrating what E Pluribus Unum could still be in America and around the world, because ultimately, Mother Nature always bats last and she never, EVER, strikes out.

So with apologies to dead poets, past, present, and future, please accept this short verse as a farewell and as one final challenge:

Gather ye rosebuds, enjoy their perfume, But pay heed to this omen-tide. Tomorrow lives not for us to bloom. But our fruit's florescence, shall abide.

In other words, "Carpe Diem Cordia Sapienta." or Seize the Day with a Wise Heart.

So on behalf of The Nature Conservancy and the National Park Service, thank you very much to you all. Thank you.

An in-depth discussion about the nature, history and culture of the tallgrass prairie ecosystem.

Tallgrass Prairie NPres Orientation Film Audio


Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve VISITOR CENTER VIDEO This film has been made possible by a gift from the Fred C. and Mary R. Koch Foundation.

“Whenever you stop on the prairie to lunch or camp, and gaze around, there is a picture such as poet and painter never succeeded in transferring to book or canvas. [We] ought to have saved a Park in Kansas, ten thousand acres broad-the prairie as it came from the hand of God, not a foot or an inch desecrated by “improvements” and “cultivation.” It is only a memory now.” -- D.W. Wilder, editor of the Hiawatha World, Kansas, 1884

Welcome to one of the most magical places on earth, America's Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, established November 12, 1996. This magnificent "sea of grass" once covered almost one third of North America. This landscape of subtle beauty was named “prairie” - the French word for “meadow.” At this moment, you sit in the heart of one of the most remarkable stretches - a unique place that is being preserved by those who have banded together in their love of the prairie, setting aside a place for all to enjoy, a jewel in our National Park system.

Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve: Once an Inland Sea Over 250 million years ago this area was covered by a vast inland sea that left behind sediment and sea creatures to form layers of limestone, shale, and flint. The Flint Hills are the result of differential erosion. This process eroded away the softer shales and limestones, leaving behind the hardened flint and eroded shelves. These layers of flint and limestone enabled natural springs to form, which provide entire aquatic habitats, home to crayfish, turtles, frogs, and fish. Three types of grasslands occur in North America, ''tallgrass, mixed grass, and short grass prairie", each dependent on a specific amount of rainfall; the four main grass species - big and little bluestem, switchgrass, and Indian grass, provide a nurturing habitat for hundreds of prairie animals. There are magnificent stands of wildflowers - with different ones brightening the prairie every few weeks throughout the growing season. In the rich bottomland the grasses grow taller, where the deposited soils are deeper and more fertile and hold more rain runoff. What has made the tallgrass prairie truly thrive for thousands of years are two surprising factors: Fire ... and grazing. Nature allows tall grasses to grow to several feet high. Fire reduces shrub and tree encroachment, inhibits exotic plant species, and removes dead plant growth. This "thatch" blocks sunlight from reaching the soil - choking off new plants. Nature's solution for this dilemma is fire. Throughout the tallgrass prairie's history, lightning would strike the dead undergrowth and start a fire. These fires would race unchecked across the prairie for hundreds of miles, until they came to a river wide enough to stop them. What was left behind looked likethe surface of the moon with the limestone against the blackened prairie.

Plains Indians and the Prairie Long before the settlers came to the prairie, it was home and hunting grounds for numerous Plains Indians -Wichita, Osage, Pawnee, and the Kansa. The word "Kansa" has been translated to mean "people of the southwind". The value of bison to the Plains Indians is well documented. This magnificent animal provided food, shelter, weapons, tools, medicine, and figured prominently in ceremonial life. American Indians knew the potential of these grasslands and were “managing” the grasslands using fire, or "red buffalo" to attract bison. They watched as the bison herds sought out the fresh new shoots in the recently burned areas. Fire also improves plant palatability to grazers. Large grazers of the past included bison, elk, and pronghorn.

A Young America Moves West In 1806 Zebulon Pike and his party camped on the east bank of the Cottonwood River, below Florence, Kansas close to the preserve. He unknowingly named this area through a journal entry: "Commenced our march at seven o'clock. Passed very ruff flint hills. My feet blistered and very sore. I stood on a hill, and in one view below me saw buffalo, elk, deer, and panthers." Once considered the "Great American Desert" early explorers and traders rushed through the prairie's vast reaches for the rich soils of Oregon or even richer gold fields of California. Eventually however, this prairie land was found to be rich with nutrients and suitable for farming. Sodbuster plows tilled the North American tallgrass prairie and within a generation these vast grasslands began to disappear. Today, less than 4 % remains - mostly here in the Flint Hills of Kansas. As the westward settlers expanded into Kansas, peace officers and plowshares began to tame the "wild" west. With the vanishing bison, also came the end of nomadic tribes as they were removed to reservations and the land was settled, primarily by Euro-Americans. Not long after settlement people realized the grazing potential of the Flint Hills. The land was quickly purchased and fenced, thus ending the open range.

Spring Hill Farm and Stock Ranch One of the most significant ranches in this area was the Spring Hill Farm and Stock Ranch, where you are today. Beginning with 160 acres in 1878, Stephen and Louisa Jones grew their holdings to 7,000 acres as they developed a self-sufficient farm and stock operation. The house was completed in 1881 for the sum of $25,000. The outbuildings, including the three-story barn were completed in 1882 for $15,000. These buildings were built using local Flint Hills limestone. In addition to the stone buildings, Mr. Jones donated land for the construction of the Lower Fox Creek School in 1882. To enclose his land and divide into pastures, 30 miles of stone fence were built. Jones raised Durham, Galloway, Hereford, and Polled Angus cattle. A variety of other livestock was also raised. Large gardens, orchards, and vineyards occupied the bottomland across from the house.

A Preserve for All Today at nearly 11,000 acres the preserve is a partnership between the National Park Service, ·The Nature Conservancy, and the Kansas Park Trust. Together they are working to preserve and enhance a nationally significant remnant of the tallgrass prairie ecosystem, along with the cultural resources of the preserve and the heritage associated with former ranch property. The ranch headquarters area, comprised of the limestone buildings, is open to visitors year-around, including special events that highlight the natural and cultural heritage of the Flint Hills. By making such a magnificent piece of our natural and cultural heritage a reality, it is now available to be experienced and enjoyed by all. So, go .... experience the trails, breathe in the air at Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve; you are in the heart of America's tallgrass prairie ...

D.W. Wilder's vision is more than a "memory now". The Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve is waiting for you to discover its beauty, vastness, and significance to our nation's history. The prairie is beckoning ....

Audio from Tallgrass Prairie NPres orientation film

Spring Hill Ranch House Tour Stop 1: Introduction


Welcome to the Spring Hill Ranch House at Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. The grand 4-level ranch house forms the centerpiece of the Spring Hill Farm and Stock Ranch. Completed in 1881, it stands as a beautiful example of French Second Empire Architecture, a style popular in the late 19th century. This large, stately home is also an example of great change in the American West, the transition from small ranches on the vast open range to large, enclosed ranching businesses, laying the foundations for the present-day American cattle industry.

Introduction to the Spring Hill Ranch House

Spring Hill Ranch House Tour Stop 2: Beginnings


Historic Spring Hill Ranch House Beginnings

Born in Tennessee on November 6, 1826, Stephen F. Jones, his wife Louisa, born in Georgia on January 6, 1833, and daughter Loutie, born in 1871 as the youngest of five children, all came to Kansas in August of 1878 to start a cattle ranch in the Flint Hills, building on success found in the cattle business while living in Texas and Colorado from the 1850s through the 1870s.

The ranch house, built with native limestone, faces east, making a dramatic first impression. The French Second Empire style of architecture was very popular in the 1870s and 1880s, with many public buildings, like the Chase County Courthouse and other large homes, sharing the style. This architectural style is notable for the mansard roof enclosing the upper story, with dormers and projecting gables, as well as stone cornices, brackets, and quoins adding to the elegance of the style.

Constructing the four-level, eleven room ranch house cost $25,000 and, according to local records, took 20 men working night and day to complete the home. In fact, so much activity occurred during construction, that travelers often thought they had reached Strong City, Kansas, two miles to the south, and would try to find a room for the night.

Jones came to Kansas with $100,000 to use in building the Spring Hill Farm and Stock Ranch, named for the many springs he found on the property. He eventually acquired 7,000 acres of land and built 30 miles of limestone fences to enclose the ranch.

Origins of the Spring Hill Ranch House at Tallgrass Prairie NPres

Spring Hill Ranch House Tour Stop 3: Formal Entry, Parlors, and Interiors


Historic Spring Hill Ranch House Formal Entry, Parlors, and Interiors

The formal entry and two parlor rooms were the most elegantly decorated areas in the entire ranch house. The large formal entry doors, ornate walnut staircase, custom built for the house, and tall foyer, add to the grand feel of the space.

The parlor furnishings were donated to the preserve in 1995. None of the original furnishings survive to the present. However, the mantelpieces in both parlors, as well as the basebords, the woodwork with faux walnut paint finish, the doors and windows and associated hardware like handles and doorknobs, and most of the plaster crown molding still survive and can be found throughout much of the house.

The parlors were used for both formal and more casual gatherings. A newspaper reporter visiting the ranch in 1882 described the house as "one of the most elegantly furnished in eastern Kansas," adding that the house is "richly furnished throughout. The floors are all laid with velvet and Brussels carpets, while large and costly mirrors and an ample supply of appropriate furniture for the various rooms convinced the visitor that rare good taste was employed in the selection."

History and description of the formal entry, parlors, and interiors of the Spring Hill Ranch House at Tallgrass Prairie NPres

Spring Hill Ranch House Tour Stop 4: Staircase and Original Wood Floor


Historic Spring Hill Ranch House Staircase and Original Wood Floor

With only minor modifications, the elegant walnut staircase remains as it was when installed in the 1880s. It was custom built for this house off-site, then assembled when the house was under construction from 1880 to 1881. Each of its 98 balusters was hand carved individually. The banister consisting of seventeen separate, hand-carved pieces of walnut, was assembled with the aid of Roman numerals on the underside of each piece.

Also, please note the original pine floorboards on the staircase landing. Most of the original pine flooring was replaced in the 20th century and is now covered in oak flooring.

History and description of the walnut staircase and original wood floor at the Spring Hill Ranch House at Tallgrass Prairie NPres

Spring Hill Ranch House Tour Stop 5: Former Kitchen Areas


Historic Spring Hill Ranch House Former Kitchen Areas

The former kitchen areas of the ranch house, separated from the parlors by a short set of stairs and doorway, illustrate the changes that have taken place inside the ranch house more than any other space. Later residents would transform the space by dividing it and creating the present-day utility room and bathroom

The Joneses prepared their food downstairs in the kitchen and then carried it up a short staircase and by dumbwaiter to a butler's pantry, where the food was put onto plates and served in the dining room. Later residents would modify the butler's pantry into a modern kitchen and remove the dumbwaiter.

The root cellar stored preserved fruit, vegetables and homemade foodstuffs for the Joneses in a cool, dry environment and doubled as a storm shelter. Stephen's wife, Louisa, insisted on a storm shelter she could get to quickly since she had a great fear of tornadoes and the damage they could cause.

Down the tunnel is the spring room, where the Jonses stored perishable food. Cool spring water was piped into the house from the cistern atop the hill west of the ranch house, where it was used in the kitchen, as well as diverted into this room, continually filling a shallow trough. Glass and ceramic containers of milk, cheese, and other perishable foods were immersed in this cold, spring water, helping to preserve them for longer periods. Cool air trapped in the spring room help keep foods from spoiling.

The water followed a channel around to the other side of the spring room and was piped into yet another cistern, located underground east of the spring room. From there the water was used to power a small fountain in front of the house and to irrigate gardens, an orchard, and a vineyard in the bottomland east of the ranch house.

History and description of the former kitchen areas of the Spring Hill Ranch House at Tallgrass Prairie NPres

Spring Hill Ranch House Tour Stop 6: Office/Bedroom and Back Porch


Historic Spring Hill Ranch House Office/Bedroom and Back Porch

The first use of this room was as the Spring Hill Ranch Office, complete with telephone service. People conducting ranch business would enter the office directly from the outside through the side door to the west. The back porch enclosure was added in the 1920.

Later ranch house residents would make good use of this back porch access to turn this room into a bedroom, with the quick access to the outside useful in case of any overnight emergencies on the ranch.

History and description of the office/bedroom and back porch in the Spring Hill Ranch House at Tallgrass Prairie NPres

Spring Hill Ranch House Tour Stop 7: Dining Room and Sitting Room


Historic Spring Hill Ranch House Dining Room and Sitting Room

The two rooms north of the back porch were the ranch house's original dining room and sitting room. A doorway to the north provided entry into the dining room from the outside. The sitting room located east of the dining room were where most evenings were spent when the parlors were not being used.

This room may have also become the primary household living room in the 20th century when the parlors downstairs were turned into storage rooms. The butler's pantry and the top of the staircase from the former downstairs kitchen are along the north wall. In the 1920s and 30s, the ranch house's kitchen was moved from downstairs into the butler's pantry. To make this possible, the butler's pantry was widened to accommodate a stove, refrigerator, and other modern appliances. A doorway was also added connecting the dining room to the sitting room/living room space.

History and description of the dining room and sitting room of the Spring Hill Ranch House at Tallgrass Prairie NPres

Spring Hill Ranch House Tour Stop 8: Upper Floor Rooms


Historic Spring Hill Ranch House Upper Floor Rooms

Three rooms on the upper floor were used as bedrooms and guest rooms. Although the Jones family still had to use an outhouse, the upper floor of the ranch house also featured a bathing room, complete with a copper bathtub and water holding tank.

History and description of the upper floor rooms of the Spring Hill Ranch House at Tallgrass Prairie NPres

Spring Hill Ranch House Tour Stop 9: Front Porch


Historic Spring Hill Ranch House Front Porch

Explore the front porch and view the impressive eastern face of the house and the lovely terraces and landscaping Mr. Jones constructed to enhance the look of his ranch. Along Fox Creek, marked by a line of trees east of the ranch house, Jones began building the Spring Hill Farm and Stock Ranch. In August 1878, he purchased 160 acres of rich Fox Creek bottomland for $2,000. He eventually purchased around 7,000 acres from local landowners and railroads and built.

History and description of the front porch of the Spring Hill Ranch House at Tallgrass Prairie NPres

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