Lighting a Fire for Prairie
Forty-five years ago, a small group of Missourians held a meeting at Boone Tavern in Columbia to talk about prairie. Or rather, the disappearance of it.
This was 1966, nearly 100 years after the introduction of the first steam-powered tractor, which marked the beginning of accelerated land conversion to row crops. Even before statehood, the plow had begun turning over Missouri’s inheritance of 15 million acres of tall grass prairie. By mid-20th century, 1 percent of the state’s original prairie was all that remained. The vast native grasslands that once rolled unbroken across much of Missouri were gone, and remaining fragments were isolated, their wildlife value much diminished.
Members of the group were alarmed at the loss of prairie—an ecosystem that once covered at least one-third of the state. Among the citizens in the group were its founders, Bill Crawford and the late Don Christisen, who were also career biologists with the Department of Conservation.
“In those days, the Department’s funding for prairie acquisition was limited,” said Crawford, “and there was little awareness among the public about how quickly prairie was disappearing. So we asked, ‘What about prairie?’ and citizens all over the state signed up as members. We started a fire. Prairie had been a forgotten resource, but the Missouri Prairie Foundation came along at the right time.”
The Missouri Prairie Foundation’s first members, including its first president, the physician Dr. Maurice Lonsway of St. Louis, were determined to save prairie and help Missourians understand the importance of doing so. An article in the Missouri Conservationist helped inform the public about the new organization.
In 1969, the Foundation had enough money to mail out a typewritten member newsletter, but not much else. So when it borrowed $10,000 to buy the 40-acre Friendly Prairie that was for sale in Pettis County, it was a big deal. “That purchase,” wrote long-time Foundation member Joel Vance, “showed the world that [the Foundation] was serious about putting cash on the line.”
A few years later, the Foundation went on to buy Golden Prairie in Barton County, named a National Natural Landmark in 1975. Golden, now 630 acres, is today part of a 1,100-acre block of private land managed by the Foundation.
Through the support of its members and other private sources, the Foundation has continued to acquire and protect land over the past four decades. The organization now owns 2,600 acres of