October 10, 2008

Saviors of the Prairies


Tour the Tallgrass Prarie Preserve. tulsaworld.com/photos

Colombians visit Pawhuska to learn how to save their own lands.

PAWHUSKA -- Two hundred years ago, bison herds of unfathomable immensity thundered across the tallgrass prairie as it stretched uninterrupted throughout central North America.

The ecosystem that supported them has nearly disappeared.

This month, a group of activists from Colombia visited one of the last vestiges of this landscape, in northern Oklahoma, to learn conservation techniques as they work to protect a similar ecosystem in their country. Over the course of a weeklong tour of protected lands in Oklahoma, the Colombians and their American counterparts exchanged ideas and discussed the changing face of the conservation movement worldwide.

The Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, near Pawhuska, is the world's largest remaining tract of tallgrass prairie. Since 1989, the Oklahoma chapter of the Nature Conservancy, one of the world's leading conservation organizations, has maintained the 39,000-acre protected area, encouraging a return to its natural state. The Conservancy hopes to similarly protect an area known as the Orinoco River Valley in Colombia.

"Grasslands are the least-protected ecosystem in the world," said Mike Fuhr, state director of the Nature Conservancy for Oklahoma. Because they are well-suited to agriculture and human settlement, these fragile regions have been exploited rather than protected, he says. With years of fire suppression, fragmentation of the landscape with roads and fences, introduction of invasive plant species and near extinction of the bison, the prairie has been converted into farms, ranches and suburban subdivisions.

Fuhr believes it is worth protecting.

"The tallgrass prairie is a really important part of our heritage here in Oklahoma -- it's what brought people west."

It filters groundwater and hosts plant species with potential medical uses, he says. Fuhr added that the open prairie has an intrinsic value all its own.

"It's a great place to go to recharge the batteries," he said.

On a cool morning, the sun radiating on the horizon, the Colombian and American conservationists awoke at the bunkhouse on the reserve for a classic American breakfast with a twist. Over scrambled eggs, bacon, biscuits and gravy, they sipped steaming Colombian coffee and discussed conservation in the 21st century.

"The old way that conservation was done was by buying lands -- the challenge is to find other venues," said Jaime Erazo.

"We must conserve to produce, and produce to conserve," said Lourdes Panuela, leader of a nongovernmental organization that builds bridges between conservation and private enterprise.

"The idea is that production and conservation can become the same thing," she said through an interpreter.

Jay Pruitt, Conservation Director for the Nature Conservancy in Oklahoma, agreed.

"It's all about working with the landowners," he said.

In the past, conservationists mostly sought to create sanctuaries devoid of human interference. This group sees the future differently. Though havens remain important, they believe the natural world can be protected more effectively by working with the private sector.

In some ways the new approach is more natural.

Looking onto the vast and ancient prairie, it's easy to see idyllic visions of a pre-human past. The prairie is a reminder that humans are as much a part of the natural world as any other animal.

"Humans created this landscape," said Bob Hamilton, science director at the preserve. Fires started by humans became an integral part of the ecosystem, injecting biodiversity and renewal into the cycle, he said.

"We are just the recipients of 12 or 13 thousand years of great ecological management," he said

Panuela said she felt at times she was looking at her own country. "Well, we don't have bison," Erazo noted.

The herd of more than 2,600 is one of the largest in the world.

Harvey Payne, who has been involved with the preserve since its inception, encouraged the Colombian group to act now to protect their remaining grasslands, adding, "Today. it's as easy as it's going to get."

Denver Nicks 581-8475

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Originally published by DENVER NICKS World Staff Writer.

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