The Robert MacNeil Report; Preservation of Tall Grass Prairies
MacNEIL: Good evening from Kansas City. Jim Lehrer is off tonight. For anyone with a special cause Kansas City was the place to be this week. Some people worked up about abortion or the Panama Canal could take their case before the Platform Committee of the Republican Convention. But people pushing more modest causes had to content themselves with operating on the fringe of the convention, staking out hotel lobbies, demonstrating, handing out literature. One of the many groups trying to catch the attention of the Republicans was an organization concerned to preserve the tall grass prairie. Originally huge tracts of land from Canada to Texas, from Ohio to Kansas, were prairie. it vanished as America expanded west under the plow, under cities and highways, and the grazing of great beef herds. Today only one percent of the original tall grass prairie remains, most of that in the Flint Hills of eastern Kansas. To the accustomed eye, the tall grass prairie is the most beautiful landscape in the United States. Walt Whitman thought it filled the aesthetic sense fuller then spectacular sights like Niagara Falls and Yellowstone.
But to environmentalists this great sea of grass is not only beautiful, it provides a unique eco-system supporting a vast range of plant and animal life. More than 100 species of grass: blue grass and Indian grass growing to nine feet tall; switch grass and porcupine grass. There are more than 300 species of birds, some unique like the prairie chicken and the upland plover. Native wildflowers like the pasqueflower, black-eyed Susan`s, coneflowers, and sunflowers. Cattle now graze where Buffalo, bison and elk once lived although deer, weasels, squirrels and coyotes remain. No one wants to see this unique American landscape disappear, but there`s real disagreement about how to preserve it. Some people want the federal government to buy up sixty thousand acres in the Flint Hills area as a national park, and a lot of other people don`t want that at all. Larry Wagner is a life-long resident of Kansas and is on the Board of Counselors of the organization called Save the Tall Grass Prairie, Incorporated. Mr. Wagner had polio a number of years ago. I understand that band around your head is associated with your breathing?
LARRY WAGNER: Yes, as a matter of fact it is. I pull against it in order to lift my chest.
MacNEIL: I see. I hope this doesn`t make you uncomfortable.
WAGNER: It will not.
MacNEIL: What is wrong, Mr. Wagner, with leaving the prairie as it is right now?
WAGNER: To us it is a managed economy. That is it is not a prairie in the full sense. A prairie is an eco-system, and an eco-system without part of its component is incomplete, and that component is the large mammals, the bison, the elk, the antelope that once roamed there. Without them it is incomplete.
MacNEIL: And they are not there at the moment because those areas are being farmed and . . .
WAGNER: It`s all privately owned land.
MacNEIL: Why would the cattle that are there now behave any differently than the wild elk and buffalo and bison?
WAGNER: For one thing I think one difference is that the stocking ratio would be less with the wild animals than with the cattle, and for another thing, they have different grazing habits. At least in the ratio that animals were stocked by God in the original prairies, they did not eat the same grass year after year. They would leave some that they had grazed last year and eat that that hadn`t been grazed for two years.
MacNEIL: So what do you feel is actually happening to the prairie at the moment?
WAGNER: It is being well maintained in most respects by the ranching community. It is not being hurt precisely by what the ranchers do to it. We anticipate changes however in the next few years. Some of them are already on the drawing boards of our state universities dealing with agriculture.
MacNEIL: What kind of changes are those?
WAGNER: For instance, fertilization of prairie grasses. Fertilizer has never been very successful on native prairies largely because -- and Bill probably knows this far better than I --the other types of prairie plants, the forbs broadleaf plants, and to some extent the Kentucky bluegrass, will tend to use the nitrogen that`s in the fertilizer better than the tall grasses do.
MacNEIL: And that would distort the grass structure of what is there. Some grasses would grow, and other wouldn`t.
WAGNER: In other words, we`re getting stuck with less protein than more protein by fertilization. But the experiments that K.U. has been doing over the last four years indicates with the proper burning schedule, burning annually at the proper time, these other plants could be kept at a lower level and therefore not take over the prairie.
MacNEIL: What about the question of over-grazing which is raised? Are the present owners cr.` users of this prairie land harming it by grazing too many cattle on it?
WAGNER: Bill and I could probably talk for weeks on that point. I would say though, in all fairness to the cattle industry, no one intends to over-- graze. But when you have a certain number of cattle and the rains don`t come, the grass isn`t there. They eat what is there, and it may be more than the range land can stand.
MacNEIL: So your basic position is that some damage may be done now, but the real danger is that in the future with new technological developments like fertilizing from the air and so on, that there may be real damage to the prairie?
WAGNER: Yes, I think once fertilization occurs the prairie is gone as we know it.
MacNEIL: Right. The Bill you were referring to is Bill House who owns or leases a substantial amount of land in the Flint Hills where he raises cattle. Some of that land has been in his family for four generations, and some of it I understand is the land that the federal government would like to include, or those who are in favor of a national park would like to include in their national park.
Mr. House is a former president of the American National Cattlemen`s Association. Mr. House, what do you think about Mr. Wagner`s feeling that some damage is being done now by over-grazing and that in the future, with the sort of developments he`s talking about, the prairie could be seriously damaged?
HOUSE: I was raised in the prairie, and down through the years I`ve seen it improved considerably in my lifetime. At this point in Kansas we probably have the finest group of grassland managers that`s ever been developed anywhere in the world outside New Zealand.
MacNEIL: Could you explain how is it improved; why is it improved?
HOUSE: You see, before the white man came out here the buffalo roamed and the Indians used them and lived off of them. As I understand it, say in the latter part of the buffalo age, there were eighty million buffalo on the western side of the Mississippi River which is almost the same number as we have cattle today. But when the buffalo were slaughtered and the cattlemen moved in and brought the big steers and grazed them in the summer time primarily, we used the grasslands pretty much as the buffalo had used them previously and are still doing it. But we do have what we call control grazing because we have fences; we have distributed the water; they tend to graze off the land closest to the water and let the outside go. That was the original way the wildlife did. We now have control grazing through fencing, and we have developed a real knowledge in the Kansas area on how to preserve and restore the grasses. The Homestead Act originally destroyed the grasslands, and that was after the Civil War when the government gave everybody 160 acres that would stick a plow and plow everything he could get to and build a little cabin on it or a rock house. Now there was the original damage to the prairie, but the Flint Hills were so rocky that the plow wouldn`t go in. They are here today because they couldn`t plow. They`ve got to be destroyed some other way besides the plow because it won`t work.
MacNEIL: What about the ways that Mr. Wagner is worried they might be destroyed?
HOUSE: I recognize. I have seen the experiments with nitrogen fertilizer on the Phillip`s experiment station just over the line in Oklahoma from us. It wasn`t satisfactory. The native grasslands and the native grasses don`t respond. He is absolutely correct. The broadleaf plants responded, but the others didn`t, and it would be wrong to use it.
MacNEIL: In other words, plants like corn might grow up very well.
HOUSE: Or wheat. There`s seeds of the trees we call invaders, and weeds; many of them are invaders. if you fertilize them and they can use it better than the grass, then you`ve pushed the others out and competed for moisture and destroyed your grasses.
MacNEIL: Your position is Mr. House, that you guys who own or manage or lease this land at the moment are doing a good enough job of preserving it and in the case of over many years, restoring it. You don`t need anybody to help you to restore it.
HOUSE: Oh no. In fact, you see it`s economic to preserve and conserve the grasslands. We have found a rule of thumb, and most ranchers follow it very carefully although there`s always exceptions, but they usually are sooner gone. You graze two thirds and leave one third, and if you stock heavier than that, then you have to compensate the next year for it.
MacNEIL: Mr. Wagner, what do you think of his argument? Mr. House believes, and he is actually living on the land there, that they are preserving it, and they are restoring it.
WAGNER: I`ll have to agree that the type of management that you see in the grasslands today is far superior to that which occurred twenty-five years ago. It`s true also in all other forms of agriculture in this state.
MacNEIL: If you agree with that then, why do we need to go spending federal money in buying up a huge tract of this in order to preserve it if that`s what they are already doing?
WAGNER: As I mentioned earlier in our conversation, we were talking about a managed economy. Environmentalists think that out of this vast area of four hundred thousand square miles, there ought to be maybe a hundred square miles set aside as an unmanaged area. We`re not talking about something like four million acres of good prairie that`s left; we`re talking about sixty thousand acres of it, a hundred square miles. It really accounts for only one third of one percent of the grasslands of the state -- just in this state.
MacNEIL: What would this sixty thousand acres be used for? You say it wouldn`t be managed, but what would it actually be used for?
WAGENR: It would be used to try to get the eco-system redeveloped the way it was when the first Spanish people came here in 1541. What they saw as they came over the last hill and looked at this beautiful grassland. It`s important to me that an eco-system as such be preserved as an eco-system, not as a managed, partial system of grasslands. Our rancher friends think of grass; we think of grass, several hundred different kinds of plants, hundreds of different kinds of animals, fifty or sixty different kinds of fish. Many of these things are finding it very difficult if not impossible to exist in certain areas right now.
MacNEIL: What you are after is really the kind of museum or time machine, a living museum of what it was like before.
WAGNER: Right. I think that is a good way to describe it.
MacNEIL: How would the people have access to that, and what sort of people and what numbers of people, and what would they do in it? Supposing I wanted to come out and see it?
WAGNER: I think it`s going to take a little trial and error to determine the kind of penetration by people that will be practical. The master plan of any national park is determined by the National Park Service, so you or I or no one else could sit here and diagram it and blueprint it for the future. But I think that the National Park Service will find in making their plan that they are going to have to experiment a little bit to see what kind of penetration, what number is possible. Because while it`s very tough in many respects, it`s very viable in other respects; it`s fragile. Obviously we couldn`t have hiking trails. At least I don`t think we could for hundreds of people each day walking the same path. Erosion would start before very long as Bill would agree I`m sure, and we would be destroying that which we were trying to preserve. Limited numbers of people could go in, and they would have to be educated not to walk in trails like one animal following another animal.
MacNEIL: Where would they stay, and where would they eat? I mean one thinks of the edges of national parks and you think of motels and hamburger joints and souvenir stands and roads.
WAGNER: Unfortunately that`s true. I would hope in future parks that are created this can be prevented, and again, perhaps in two ways. One: by the National Park Service acquiring scenic easements around the park per se so that within sight of the park, and in that open area that could be even quite a few miles, that nothing could be built on those areas except things that are inherent with the ranching business. Another way would be through county zoning done through local county officials.
MacKEIL: What do you think of this idea, Mr. House?
HOUSE: To tell you the truth, that ecology is fragile, and it`s being managed at this point by people who have been trained in it, as I say, for three or four generations; it`s being done with cooperation of college trained people, and I think we have done a wonderful job. And if that park is successful in drawing people, in my opinion it will be commercialized and they`ll destroy the ecology of that whole area rather than preserve it. I have felt that way all the time. Then, if it isn`t successful and nobody comes, it can`t be justified in the terms of public funds. So either way it`s a disaster in my opinion, and I think it`s terrible. Now, the great size of the Flint Hills is the primary value of it, and we have this turnpike that goes through and flows through actually from Emporia to Wichita which gives everybody in this nation who wants to see the Flint Hills in all their glory just as it was. The only substitution will be the cattle for the buffalo, and nine times out of ten they are out of sight, so all you see is the grassland country. And it will be the same way if you put some buffalo. We have 14 major buffalo herds in Kansas already. You can go see them if you want to.
MacNEIL: I wonder, because the question has been raised not only in regard to this proposed national park but to existing national parks, how good is the federal government at preserving and maintaining the ecology in the parks it already has.
WAGNER: I think the National Park system is good. They have done a good job. They have in many cases taken some knocks that they didn`t deserve because people have confused the national parks with the national forests. The national forests are not managed by the National Park Service. They are not national parks. They are part of the Department of Agriculture, and some of the land management techniques have been rotten. They have just been terrible. They have been very destructive of the land.
MacNEIL: What do you think about that Mr. House?
HOUSE: I think the record of the Park Service isn`t good, but it`s not because of personnel or knowledge; it`s because the public won`t permit the management of a grassland area the way it should be. Because they put too much pressure on it. The normal situation is to let too much wildlife multiply there. The first thing you know they have over-grazed the land more than the private operators because public pressure forces them to. I don`t think the federal government is in a position to transfer any grasslands today to a park service and have it capably managed. Not because the knowledge isn`t there, but because the system will not permit it. One public group will say, "I want in." Another one will say, "I want in; it`s public money," and the first thing you know the public pressures and the commercialization will come, and I still think that it will destroy what Larry wants to preserve.
MacNEIL: Mr. House, you`re interested in preserving your land.
HOUSE: You beta
MacNEIL: I don`t know whether you have sons or nephews or anybody you`re going to leave your land to, but some of your descendants, whether the land is sold or inherited, what is to stop them if they just happen to have a very different frame of mind than you from letting hydro people build across it, or highways, or for that matter, developments and cities. I mean how does one know if it is left in private hands that there is .any guarantee that thirty years from now the kind of things that Wagner wants to see will be there?
HOUSE: I`ve had a good deal of experience. I`ve had pipelines and getting them to clean it up and leave it in the state it was before we had problems. We have the highlines which worry me. They are unsightly, and I wish there was more regulation on an environmental basis. What they do to the ecology, and I wish Larry and I were together on that and saw that everything that was done was done in a manner that was complementary to nature as it is today. And I`m just as unhappy as he is with it. But when it comes to turning a lot of this country and this special grassland area with the trained operators to the government, it just makes me sick, because I`ve seen the way that they have treated so much grassland. They own six hundred thousand acres, the federal government in Kansas already, various departments. They have let them all destroy themselves through neglect, and when I find this, that the Park Service can always get money for acquisition but not enough for operation. We put money back, a lot of money that we have already used, personally sometimes just to live, we put back on the land to make it the way it should be. And I have seen this land improve for 35 years, year by year.
MacNEIL: Mr. Wagner, if this is true, the federal government owns all this land in Kansas, why can`t it use some of that? I know you are not a spokesman for the federal government, but why can`t it use that?
WAGNER: Actually it does own nearly seven hundred thousand acres. That`s about 1.3% of the land in the state. Relatively low in terms of land ownership by the federal government. Alaska is 96%. Idaho I think is something like 8896. Nevada is somewhere in that neighborhood. Even Oregon has 42% owned by the government. Ours is relatively small potatoes by comparison, and virtually none of the land that is owned by the government is prairie in suitable condition, and partially because of what Bill is saying. It has been poorly maintained, but not by the National Park Service. I would like to get that point made. The Corps of Engineers.
MacNEIL: The Corps of Engineers. Okay. We are just coming to the end of our time. I just want to know quickly what the situation is on legislation. It has been proposed-over a number of years, and the bills never seem to get anywhere. If a national park is such a good idea here, why does it have such a hard time in Congress?
WAGNER: I think because Bill`s group has been more successful than mine.
HOUSE: We have been able to point out primarily to some of the committees in Congress that weather wise alone is enough to kill this because the beautiful time is hot and humid, just like it is in Kansas City right now, only a little more so. Then we go into the dormant period for six months when nobody really cares, but we have a fire hazard if they did. So really it does not fit into the type of park program that we have had in the past in the United States. You would be departing from the old and getting into a new field, and there are some things the government cannot do as well as private people.
MacNEIL: A final word, Mr. Wagner.
WAGNER: Certainly. I think that Bill is entirely wrong about the utilization and the time of the year. I`ve been in those prairies every day of the summer, and even with 100 degree temperature there is always a good breeze, and I have enjoyed every minute of it. I don`t mind sweating.
MacNEIL: Okay. We will have to leave it there, and we will watch very interestedly how it comes out. In the meantime we envy you for having those grasslands. I`m Robert MacNeil; Jim Lehrer and I will be back on Monday night. Good night.
- The Robert MacNeil Report
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- This episode features a discussion on the preservation of the tall grass prairies in the Midwest. Included are guests Larry Wagner and Bill House interviewed by Robert MacNeil. Wagner is part of a preservation of group that advocates to preserve the tall grass prairies, of which only 1% remains, most of it in the Flint Hills of Kansas. The prairies are part of a larger, delicate ecosystem that include endangered animals and native wildflowers. Some people wanted the federal government to designate these lands as a national park, advocated by Wagner, because they see a danger in the future with overgrazing and technological developments in farming techniques. Bill House raises cattle in Kansas on prairie land, and his land is in danger of being taken by the federal government if they were to designate a national park. House believes himself, other ranchers, and local organizations are more equipped to be stewards of the land than the federal government.
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Host: MacNeil, Robert, 1931-
Producing Organization: NewsHour Productions
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Identifier: 96247 (NARA catalog identifier)
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- Chicago: “The Robert MacNeil Report; Preservation of Tall Grass Prairies,” 1976-08-20, National Records and Archives Administration, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC, accessed October 16, 2019, http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_507-jm23b5x31t.
- MLA: “The Robert MacNeil Report; Preservation of Tall Grass Prairies.” 1976-08-20. National Records and Archives Administration, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Web. October 16, 2019. <http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_507-jm23b5x31t>.
- APA: The Robert MacNeil Report; Preservation of Tall Grass Prairies. Boston, MA: National Records and Archives Administration, American Archive of Public Broadcasting (WGBH and the Library of Congress), Boston, MA and Washington, DC. Retrieved from http://americanarchive.org/catalog/cpb-aacip_507-jm23b5x31t