Tallgrass

A third of Missouri once was covered with tallgrass prairie - about 15 million acres. Now, about 80,000 acres remain. More than 99 percent of our prairie heritage has vanished under the plow and development.

But landowners, from the urban dweller with a tiny lot to the farmer with a yen for history, can reclaim a bit of that past...and profit in the doing. Not only are native grasses good for livestock and wildlife, they make attractive complements to native wildflowers in a natural garden.

And the presence of a mini-prairie, even a few feet of it, is a reminder of what we've destroyed and an incentive to get involved with prairie preservation in the state.

Until recently, there was no national area set aside to preserve native tallgrass prairie. Many vast areas in the West contain shortgrass prairie, but most states that once had great tallgrass prairies have lost much of it.

Oklahoma and Kansas have probably the largest chunks of tallgrass remaining, especially the Flint Hills section of Kansas.

Proposals to establish a Prairie National Park stumbled over landowner objections for years. Finally, the National Parks and Conservation Association and the National Park Trust bought a 10,894-acre ranch near Strong City, KS, which will be turned over to the federal government as the official Tallgrass Prairie National Park. The Nature Conservancy has recently established a 40,000 acre tract in the southern Flint Hills.

The largest protected area is 52,000-acre Tallgrass Prairie Preserve near Pawhuska in north-central Oklahoma. The area is owned by the Oklahoma Nature Conservancy. Illinois is developing about 19,000 acres of a former federal arsenal near Chicago as a National Grassland. It would be the largest prairie reserve east of the Mississippi River.

Missouri's largest remnant tallgrass prairie is 2,678-acre Prairie State Park in Barton County. Some native prairie occurs on Conservation Department land - notably 1,680-acre Taberville Prairie in St. Clair County. The Conservation Department bought the land in 1959 and added to it in 1961. In the years since then, the Conservation Department has purchased and conserved dozens of smaller prairie tracts.

Retired Conservation Department biologist Don Christisen, a longtime prairie enthusiast, was a driving force behind the founding of the Missouri Prairie Foundation in the mid-1960s. Early on, he enlisted the late G. Andy Runge, a Mexico attorney who ultimately became both the Foundation president and a conservation commissioner.

The Foundation raised money to buy undisturbed tallgrass prairie, starting with tiny (40-acre) Friendly