How to Save the Prairie, Acre by Acre

The vital Kansas ecosystem is rapidly shrinking. Its future depends on private landowners like Lorna Harder.

Before Harder and her husband bought their 100 acres, they rented their home and a couple of acres of the property. The rest was leased to a local farmer. “We watched the land those eight years before we bought the farm and we weren’t able to do anything,” Harder says. “It was overstocked with cattle. There was no tree removal. It was grazed down to the nub.”

Once they bought the entire acreage, they began building up the prairie. It was a time-consuming process: They cut trees and other nonnative plants from the never-cultivated ground, and used fire to clear spaces so that sunlight could reach the native plants that remained. With the open space and adequate sunlight that prairie demands, the plants grew from there.

Private conservation efforts like Harder’s are key, says Drew Bennett, a professor at the University of Wyoming who researches how conservation, private land ownership and agriculture can work together. The division of conservation and private lands creates “artificial silos,” says Bennett. “You can’t have conservation in Kansas without private lands.”