A Prairie Vision

Tom Tidwell, Chief
Bison Media Event
Midewin, IL
— October 23, 2015

Good morning! It’s a pleasure to be here together with our partners from the National Forest Foundation. On behalf of the entire Forest Service, I would like to thank the NFF for everything you’ve done to help make this event possible.

The Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie is a remarkable place. Right here before our eyes, a dream is being fulfilled—the vision of a restored tallgrass prairie. That vision was held by none other than Aldo Leopold.

Leopold spent the early part of his career working for the Forest Service, and he was intimately familiar with our mission. He knew that part of our work was to protect America’s wildland heritage. That’s why he was an early proponent of wilderness. Under his influence, the Forest Service set aside the nation’s first wilderness area in 1924, the Gila Wilderness in New Mexico.

But Leopold also dreamed of restoring native prairie here in the Midwest. As you know, almost all of our native tallgrass prairie was long ago converted into agricultural land. In 1931, Leopold recommended, and I quote, “the purchase and reversion to original conditions of a ‘Virgin Prairie Park.’”

And that is exactly what is happening here at Midewin. Our goal is to recover a part of America’s outdoor heritage by giving our citizens an opportunity to see what a native tallgrass prairie covering thousands of acres might have looked like to the American Indians who originally lived and hunted here.

And that is why we are introducing an experimental herd of bison. The American bison is what’s known as a keystone species due to the way it moves and grazes, which is different from nonnative cattle. The impacts of bison herds were great enough to shape the prairie ecosystem, creating certain kinds of plant and animal communities. We want to make bison a central part of prairie restoration here at Midewin.

But there’s also another reason to introduce bison here at Midewin. Our job at the Forest Service is to serve the American people by giving them opportunities to learn about their outdoor heritage and reconnect with the land. We serve not only rural communities but also great urban centers like Portland, Denver—and, yes, Chicago. The restored prairie here at Midewin will let us connect to urban residents in the Chicago area by giving them an opportunity to come and see bison in their native habitat.

And that brings me back to Aldo Leopold’s vision for the land. In an old abandoned graveyard in Wisconsin, Leopold discovered prairie plants, including the cutleaf silphium, a yellow flower that grows on stalks as tall as your head.  That set him to wondering, and I quote, “what a thousand acres of silphiums looked like when they tickled the bellies of the buffalo.” But that, he said sadly, was “a question never again to be answered, and perhaps not even asked.”

In this one thing, Leopold might have been wrong. Here at Midewin, we are gradually restoring more than 20,000 acres of prairie. Thanks to the National Forest Foundation and others, with their vision for the future, Americans might one day again see a thousand acres of silphiums and other native prairie flowers waving in the sun—and “tickling the bellies of the buffalo.”

And that will be a truly unforgettable experience.