"A prairie like that, one big enough to carry the eye clear to the sinking, rounding horizon, can be as lonely and grand and simple in its forms as the sea. It is as good a place as any for the wilderness experience to happen, the vanishing prairie is as worth preserving for the wilderness idea as the alpine forests."
— Wallace Stegner
Many people tend to associate wilderness and wildlands more with mountains than prairies. Montana’s high plains are too often cast in negative terms — boring, monotonous, empty. But anyone who spends time in eastern Montana knows that the plains are neither boring nor monotonous — they range from vast unbroken grasslands to island mountain ranges, large buttes and badlands, wetlands and prairie potholes, river valleys and ephemeral creeks.
Prairie wildlands: diverse, scenic, and historically rich
Written accounts by early EuroAmerican explorers and settlers make it clear that the landscape was vast, impressive and teeming with wildlife. The northern Great Plains also has diverse plant life, with almost 1,600 species. The varied vegetation is adapted to cycles of drought and includes shortgrass prairies, floodplain forests, woody draws, ponderosa forests, and sagebrush.
Montana’s prairie landscapes have a long, proud, colorful and sometimes difficult history associated with them. Montana’s earliest inhabitants likely arrived nearly 12,000 years ago when the glaciers receded. Those people were followed by the plains Indian tribes, then a little over 200 years ago by the Lewis and Clark Expedition, which in turn opened the door for fur traders, miners and finally homesteaders. All brought change and all left their mark on the prairie landscape.
Let’s protect the last of the best
We can’t return to the past or recreate the vast grassland wilderness that once existed, nor would most people want to. Changing patterns of land use demand that we preserve the best of what is left of this once-vast prairie landscape, by managing some of our public lands more for their wildland and wilderness values. Keeping some public lands as they are today generally requires some type of protective designation such as wildlife refuge, park, wild and scenic river, national monument, or wilderness area. All exist to some degree in Montana, and all help to make central and eastern Montana unique and special.
Unfortunately, the protected areas represent a very small part of the landscape. There are thousands of acres of public lands with outstanding wilderness values that warrant a protective designation. Opportunities to provide a level of protection for these lands can be obtained through agency planning processes, such as BLM Resource Management Plans, or where appropriate, through legislative processes.
Studies show that protected public lands attract and hold residents, and provide stability to local economies. Protecting and reviving our diverse public prairie lands will preserve that which is unique and special about eastern Montana.
For more information and to find out how you can get involved, contact us today.