Great Plains, America’s Lingering Wild, is a PBS documentary based on the book by Michael Forsberg of Lincoln, Nebraska. Every image of this film, from the collection of grass seeds to the exotic dances of Prairie Chickens, speaks directly to my soul.
Forsberg takes a close look at that segment of central United States known as the Great Plains. Just 200 years ago, the Great Plains covered more than a million square miles and was perhaps the largest grassland ecosystem in the world. The area stretches from Montana to Texas ranch country, from New Mexico, Wyoming and Colorado to western Iowa, site of a small remnant of grasslands.
Some of the critical issues of our times – scarce water, climate change, food production, energy generation and pipelines – are playing out in this special area. Great Plains looks closely at this unique part of our country and recognizes what has happened there and what is lost. It examines what individuals and organizations are doing to preserve and protect its unique aspects and to bring back at least some of what is lost.
A look at water resources leads off, centered on the Great Platte River waterway. Topography is examined, showing how the pocks and playas contribute to returning water to the Oglala Aquifer, once one of the largest water sources in North America. These water collectors are far fewer in number due to the same practices that have destroyed grasslands.
Overgrazing and over-cultivation have taken their toll on preservation of precious water. The show points out that while droughts are periodic to the territory, prevalent agricultural practices make them much worse.
I saw again the majesty of waterfowl streaming through the Platte River flyway and the endangered whooping cranes still putting up a fight, and from Wyoming to Iowa the fascinating Prairie Chickens, numbers greatly reduced, are still doing their exotic dances. The numbers of colorful fish and plants in the trickling streams of the Flint Hills rival the waters of coral reefs.
Elk, prong horned antelope, deer and many other mammals still roam the plains, again mingling with bison, now being brought back to the area in great numbers. It was stunning to see a herd of new generation bison being released into the surviving grasslands of western Iowa!
Prairie dogs are reviving as are the endangered black-footed ferret. Who knew prairie dogs had been so drastically diminished by organized efforts to wipe them out and that the ferret is close to extinction?
But it’s the grass – the multiple species of tall grasses – and how the dedicated organizations and individuals are working so hard to re-establish it that impresses me so much. My wheat-growing ancestors were among those responsible for destroying thousands of acres of grasslands, subsequently aggravating the droughts and dirt storms in Kansas.
As documented in a full-page photo feature in Life magazine in the Forties, one of my great uncles had the largest single, unbroken wheat field in the world, except possibly for one in Russia. Because of that and the many other ancestors who abused their land with similar practices, It means a lot to me to see so many folks determined to bring back the grass.
So many times since moving to the Deep South, I have tried to explain to those who don’t see it how beautiful the Great Plains are and how important it is that some are finally trying to protect them – perhaps “just minutes” before the Great Plains disappear forever.
People in Southeast U.S. from East Texas to the Atlantic Coast know the significance of losing the virgin pine forest that once covered this area. They know what it meant to have early developers clear-cutting acres and acres of trees.
What the timber saws were to Southeast U.S., so were the huge 8-bottom plows and abuse of water resources to the Great Plains.
With the establishment of national forests and parks, many acres of forests and other natural resources are protected throughout the U.S. The great grasslands ecosystem, however, is the least protected of all systems. This situation must change.
I hope the showing of this documentary, sponsored by many Nebraska-based entities among others, reaches thousands of citizens, especially children. Presenting educational sessions for groups of school children is one of the many – and perhaps most important — activities of those who seek wider protection and more aggressive restoration of grasslands.
Climate change and scarcity of water means the last minutes of the grasslands ecosystem may be close – way too close. Stop the encroachment of the pipelines and bad energy production practices and start now to protect the heart and soul of this country.