Tallgrass Prairie Preserve

Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, OK US National Park

I could hear the crackling and sizzling of singed plants. Both my nose and my taste buds sensed the acrid, dizzying stench of smoke. My eyes watered from staring through the view finder into the flames. And when the wind blew my jeans against my legs my reflexes sent me false messages that made me want to pat out phantom embers on my skin.

All my senses were screaming FIRE! My body was telling me to back up and get out of the line of flames heading my way, but my mind was reassuring me that the fire would not cross the back line, and if I wanted to get my photos I needed to stay where I was and keep shooting.

The grasslands of the Great Plains have historically had a couple allies in fighting off the encroachment of trees and woody plants. The first was millions of bison feeding and trampling their way across the plains. Grass quickly rebounded, trees did not. The second ally was fire. Nature or Natives set fires on a regular basis. The fires swept across the landscape. Trees burnt and died in the flames, but grass burnt and then rose up from the ashes, and thrived after the fire..

Excessive hunting of bison to almost extinction, the advent of agriculture on the Great Plains, and the suppression of fire have all colluded to almost wipe out the tallgrass prairie from the Great Plains, almost but not quite. Tallgrass prairies are now missing from well over 99% of their historical range. But scattered throughout the Great Plains groups of devoted naturalist and volunteers are doing amazing work to help the grasslands make a comeback.

Today I'm in the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve in Northern Oklahoma. Over 2000 bison roam freely across the 24,000 acres of the preserve, clipping down the grass and then moving on to other parts in a cycle similar to the one that bison played thousands of years ago on this same landscape.

And another ally is helping restore and preserve the prairie - fire. Controlled burns are used to keep out trees and also return nutrients to the soil for the native prairie plants to use. Trees have their areas of growth at the ends of their stems and twigs and they have a difficult time overcoming fire. But grasses have their areas of growth near the ground by their roots. The roots of grasses survive the controlled burns and quickly send up new, lush growth once the fire is over.

The people that perform controlled burns first use drip torches to create a "back burn". This is a back line where the grass is burned away before the main fire is started. By burning away the back line there is a firebreak where no fuel is left for the main fire, so the main fire burns out once it reaches the back line. When the backline is done burning then the main fire is started upwind from the back burn.

The managers doing the controlled burn have to have very limited conditions of wind and dryness before they will do a burn, but when conditions are right they are able to start the front line burning and the fire moves across the grassland to the back line and then stops burning.

Like a Phoenix, the Prairie rises up from the flames and ashes of the fire. And then the Prairie is able to gain a little more foot hold, taking a step forward towards the complicated beautiful ecosystem that it once was, and soon can be again.

These images are a part of an article for next winters edition of the digital publication Nature of the Wild on ways that water has carved the desert.