Think of wilderness, and common images that come to mind are towering, ice-shrouded mountains, skyscraper forests, or spectacular waterfalls.
Not many think of grasslands. More should. Our species came of age when our ancestors in the deep past came down from the trees, stood up on the grasslands, and looked afar to take the measure of their world. Grasslands have supported us in many ways ever since.
Many of the wild grasslands that once spread across the continent's midlands are gone, swept away by ideas about development and manifest destiny. Still, there are a few grasslands that people of the plains or westward-ho travelers from yesteryear would recognize. There's a strong case for adding some to the National Wilderness Preservation System, the lands and waters that, in outbreaks of wisdom, we set aside as places where we can clear our minds and let nature take its course.
Since 2001, sportsmen, conservationists, tribes, and others have put forward a proposal to designate some 50,000 acres in South Dakota's Buffalo Gap National Grassland as wilderness. The designation of three candidate sites - Chalk Hills, Indian Creek, and Red Shirt - would be the first wild grasslands to win a place on America's wilderness map.
Come to these places and see what they offer America's natural heritage library: Windy table lands, remote badlands, buttes, sheer cliffs, weird rock formations, raptors, mule deer, and remnants of those seas of grass where elk, wolves, grizzly bears, and armies of bison once roamed.
The grasslands also carry memories, which bear on our obligation to be good stewards. Grasslands helped shape an awareness about nature's gifts and a moral imperative that protecting wild lands and wildlife is a duty that citizens today owe to their fellow citizens who have not yet been born. Out in the Dakota Territory, recovering from grief, a young Theodore Roosevelt tramped through the prairies - hunting, observing, exploring, and forming ideas about stewardship that, during his presidency two decades later, blossomed into the great conservation legacy that is ours to keep and pass on today.
It's time to add some of our remaining wild grasslands to that legacy.
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