The United States is home to a catalog of great national parks, but there’s a type of land that often gets overlooked: the national grasslands.
From the Badlands of North Dakota to north-central Texas and a few areas scattered yonder, massive sections of grass are now federally managed and referred to as the National Grasslands.
Why would areas of grass be federally managed?
Well, when the land was improperly farmed in the 1930s, it resulted in the infamous Dust Bowl–maybe you’ve heard of it.
Of course, the Dust Bowl was the result of a few different reasons, but the mismanagement of these lands was a big part of it.
In this article, we’re going to go through the history of the national grasslands and cover eleven things you have to know about them.
1. What Are the National Grasslands?
The national grasslands are federally protected lands in the United States.
During the western expansion of the United States, most of these lands were acquired in the Louisiana Purchase.
Some sections of the national grasslands are used by private ranchers that are monitored by the federal government, and some of them are available for hunting, recreation, grazing, and mineral extraction.
They’re mostly located in the Great Plains, but a few of the regions are further east and west in Oregon, California, and Illinois.
Before people arrived, the national grasslands were full of bison and elk, but as settlers began altering the land, the populations of these species vanished.
When Americans first started settling in these regions, they mistakenly uprooted huge sections of grass to grow crops, which would later result in the large sandstorms of the Dust Bowl.
So, let’s now get into where these grasslands are and see just how many of them the United States has.
2. How Many National Grasslands are there?
There is a grand total of 20 different national grasslands.
Those 20 sections are located in 13 states and make up a total of 3,842,278 acres of land–all under the umbrella of the federal government.
However, 82% of the acreage of the national grasslands and 17 of the 20 sections are in seven of the Great Plains states.
Those states with the most national grasslands include North Dakota, South Dakota, Colorado, Wyoming, Kansas, Oklahoma, and Texas.
Here’s a list of all the states that host the National Grasslands:
Here’s a list of all the National Grasslands:
Black Kettle, OK, TX
Buffalo Gap, SD
Butte Valley, CA
Cedar River, ND
Crooked River, OR
Fort Pierre, SD
Grand River, SD
Little Missouri, ND
Lyndon B. Johnson, TX
McClellan Creek, TX
Rita Blanca OK, TX
Thunder Basin, WY
3. Why Do We Have National Grasslands?
In order to understand why we have national grasslands, we need to go back to around 100 years in the past.
When settlers made their way to the central part of the United States, they discovered the seemingly fertile grasslands and began cultivating crops.
When the Great Depression hit in the 1930s, there was a surplus of wheat and millions of Americans without jobs, driving market prices down.
So, farmers in the grasslands expanded their wheat fields to make up for their losses, but it created a problem.
The grass in those areas helps to naturally prevent droughts and reduce their impact when they do occur.
When massive amounts of that grass were ripped up and the severe drought of the 1930s began, there was nothing protecting the topsoil.
As a result, huge dust clouds that reached over 1,000 feet rolled across the Great Plains–the dust even made its way to Europe.
The dust clouds decimated the area and forced people to abandon homes and farms.
In 1933, Congress stepped in to provide relief to the affected farmers.
Under the National Industrial Act of 1933 and the Emergency Relief Appropriations Act of 1935, the federal government acquired major sections of the grassland to begin restoring them.
The government, through the Land Utilization Program (LUP), introduced new farming practices and focused on using the land for grazing instead of farming to reduce volatility.
In total, more than $102 million dollars was spent on transforming the damaged land, creating water storage facilities, new roads, flood and erosion measures, and the cleanup and widening of stream channels.
The project created around 50,000 jobs, which was massive for many people who lost everything during the Great Depression.
4. When Were National Grasslands Established?
In 1960, the Secretary of Agriculture turned just over 3.8 million acres of land into national grasslands.
The land became managed by the US Forest Service, and the department continued the restoration efforts.
The Forest Service conducted several surveys of the local flora, fauna, and sources of water.
As more and more recreation facilities were established, the National Grasslands Visitor Center was built in Wall, South Dakota.
Today, the US Forest Service continues to monitor the national grasslands and ensure wildlife populations are stable.
Although people don’t associate grasslands as being diverse ecosystems, there are hundreds of species that rely on the territory to survive.
For example, The Comanche National Grasslands has around 275 species of birds–a lot of birds, right?
Well, without the establishment of the national grasslands, there’s no telling how many of those species would have survived.
5. Are Grasslands Endangered?
Grasslands are disappearing.
According to a report in 2019, about 2.6 million acres of grasslands were ripped up between 2018 to 2019– that equates to about 70% of all of the national grasslands (keep in mind that the plowed land was not a part of the national grasslands).
In fact, less than 4% of the original tall grass prairie remains!
Grasslands are responsible for storing massive amounts of carbon, and when the land is plowed up, all that carbon is released into the atmosphere.
The areas being destroyed are also home to various nesting sites for birds and monarch butterflies.
For the most part, grasslands are being plowed to either harvest crops or build residential areas.
The problem with growing crops is that once the land has given everything it has, it can take centuries to fully restore the damage that’s been done to it.
Likewise, building residential areas means that large portions of the grasslands will never be recovered.
So, yes, the grasslands are endangered, and the desire to expand and build is the driving factor behind it.
The good news is that no corporation can come after the national grasslands as of now, but that doesn’t offset the excessive damage being done outside the protected areas.
6. What Animals Live in the National Grasslands?
The national grasslands are packed with wildlife.
Here’s a list of the various species that live in the national grasslands.
Lizards of various kinds
As the unprotected grasslands are plowed up, the homes of all of these species get smaller and smaller.
The US Forest Service has had a lot of success over the decades in restoring the protected regions to their native states, which is hugely beneficial for the wildlife there.
Restoration projects have helped endangered species recover, but with so many unprotected acres of grasslands, there are still many problems to solve.
If you do visit the grasslands, keep your eyes peeled for wildlife.
Since the regions are fairly flat, the national grasslands are an excellent place to spot animals.
Just make sure to stay a safe distance away from wild animals–the last thing you want to do is enter the personal space of a bison (that’s a recipe for disaster).
7. What is the Largest National Grassland?
Little Missouri is the largest of the national grasslands.
Despite its name, the section of land is located in western North Dakota.
In total, Little Missouri National Grasslands is made up of 1,033,271 acres.
Keep in mind that the total amount of land in all of the national grasslands is just over 3.8 million.
So, Little Missouri makes up more than a quarter of the federally managed grasslands.
Some of the territories within its boundaries are privately owned or state-owned–cattle ranchers use the land for grazing.
Here’s a list of the counties the Little Missouri Grasslands runs through.
Little Missouri is also home to the famous Dakota Badlands.
The Badlands consist of rocky terrain, few sources of water, harsh temperatures, canyons, pinnacles, and spires.
The name Badlands comes from what the Lakota people called the region, Mako Sica, which translates to bad lands.
Traveling across the Badlands on foot or with horses and wagons was hellacious.
Today, thanks to roads and motor vehicles, we can enjoy the beauty of the Badlands without the fear of getting stranded.
8. What is the Smallest National Grassland?
Everything is bigger in Texas, right?
Well, not this time.
The McClellan Creek National Grasslands, located in Texas, is the smallest of the national grasslands by a lot.
It totals up to a whopping 1,449 acres of land.
Compare that to Little Missouri’s one million acres of grasslands, and you’ll get the idea of how small McClellan Creek is.
The second smallest national grassland is Cedar River, which comes in at 6,717 acres, located in North Dakota.
Despite McClellan Creek taking last place in size, 1,449 acres still offer a lot of space for activities.
There are hookups for RVs, campsites, wildlife sightings, hiking trails, fishing, and picnic spots.
The area experienced a severe wildfire in 2006 that decimated a lot of the land.
Slowly but surely, the McClellan Creek National Grasslands has recovered into a popular place for outdoor enthusiasts.
9. What State Has the Most Grasslands?
North Dakota is the king of the national grasslands.
In total, the state is home to just over 1.1 million acres of grassland.
A huge majority of that number comes from the million acres in the Little Missouri National Grasslands.
North Dakota has two other smaller national grasslands, Cedar River and Sheyenne, which add up to about 77 thousand acres of land.
In numbers, South Dakota is close to its northern counterpart, with a total of 868,156 acres of grasslands–made up of three separate national grassland units.
The two states were hit extremely hard during the depression and experienced severe dust storms.
There was so much dust that sand dunes nearly covered entire houses.
In 2023, there’s a new focus in North Dakota to use the vast grasslands to the state’s advantage.
Researchers have found that by preventing the conversion of grasslands and cultivating cover crops (plants that help reduce erosion, enhance the soil, and control weeds and pests), the state could reduce its carbon emissions by 31%.
It would be a huge step forward, but a big goal as large chunks of the grasslands are still being destroyed by traditional farming.
10. Why Do Grasslands Need Fire?
In order for grasslands to remain healthy, they need fire.
Controlled burns have several benefits for grasslands, and they’re responsible for keeping the ecosystems within them functioning.
After a fire, animals are attracted to the burned areas as the land experiences a lush regrowth.
During the regrowth, there’s an increase in wildflower diversity, benefiting all types of insects, such as moths, butterflies, and other pollinators.
Additionally, fires help clear out any dead leaves or overgrowth.
If an uncontrolled wildfire were to occur in an area that wasn’t being maintained by controlled burns, the wildfire would be much stronger and more difficult to put out.
Small, periodic fires are quite literally the lifeline for grasslands, but it’s a fine line.
Too much of a good thing could devastate the land and wipe out several endangered species.
11. What Are the Biggest Threats to Grasslands?
Thanks to the national grasslands being managed by the Forest Service, they aren’t at risk of being swallowed up by farmers or land developers.
But there are still a few threats the regions face.
Although grasslands need fires to remain healthy, massive wildfires can ruin the land and kill off all the species living there.
In the last few decades, the country has seen some of its worst fires, which is a huge threat to the grasslands.
That’s why it’s more important than ever for the Forest Service to do controlled burns to reduce the amount of fuel wildfires have to use.
When aggressive invasive species are introduced to an area, they can push out and kill the native species.
This can happen to flora and fauna.
If a new predator shows up, it can disrupt the food chain.
If a less nutritious type of grass takes over, it can decimate animal populations.
When people come to the national grasslands, they inadvertently disrupt the environment with motorized vehicles and trash.
One of the biggest problems is off-highway vehicles, such as ATVs, dirt bikes, and dune buggies, which can cause erosion.
They also introduce invasive species as seeds from one location get stuck to the tires and fall off at a different location.
The national grasslands might not be talked about as much as national parks, but they are an important part of the country’s geography with a fascinating history.
After the dark years of the Dust Bowl, the country was able to rethink the way the grasslands were managed.
Although there is still a lot that needs to be done, the national grasslands are a great reminder of how important it is to prioritize regenerative agriculture practices and simply respect the land.
So, if you have the chance, head over to the national grasslands and get a firsthand look at the stunning regions.
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Disclaimer: we are not lawyers, accountants or financial advisors and the information in this article is for informational purposes only. This article is based on our own research and experience and we do our best to keep it accurate and up-to-date, but it may contain errors. Please be sure to consult a legal or financial professional before making any investment decisions.