Wild grasslands: A land to mark the sparrow’s fall

The following blog is one of a series of four reporting on WILD’s wins for biodiversity and wilderness in 2023. If you like what you see and want to help create more victories for nature like these, please consider a gift to support WILD’s programs here.

Too often, the vast expanse of lands known as the Great Plains is dismissively referred to as “flyover country,” the implication being that this is an inconvenient, forgettable space separating far more desirable cities on the East and West Coasts.

While the Great Plains may be an inconvenience, they are so only in the same way that a god is an inconvenience for they are something that, in their natural state, demand from us our commitment, our full attention, our very best. And what may be forgettable about the Great Plains now – endless rows of corn and wheat growing for as far as the eye can see – is almost entirely a product of our own doing, the product of a mass-produced culture of convenience and efficiency.

Before the intervention of an empire the plains were home to millions of the great North American Bison, the thunder of their pointed hooves at the base of the tall grasses an answer to the thunder of the sky.

Before domesticated plants domesticated the plains, wild prairie grasses’ hardy roots created some of the finest soils in the world, a talent that contributed to their demise. For a public conditioned to believe in their own “American exceptionalism” the ecology of the place must have seemed like a bountiful gift from a divine creator with a predisposition for European notions of agriculture.

Wallace Stegner wrote of the plains, “It is a country to breed mystical people, egocentric people, perhaps poetic people. But not humble ones…Puny you may feel there, and vulnerable, but not unnoticed. This is a land to mark the sparrow’s fall.”

The land that marks the sparrow’s fall has, in the early twenty-first century become “flyover country.” At WILD, the sadness of this transformation is an invitation for positive change.

Because we believe that the plains are more than flyover country, that their vast expanses can be home to far more than just grain farms, we have turned to partners who remember a different way and whose ancestors lived in harmony with the wild prairie grasses for millennia. We turned to the Lakota Nation and the Sicangu Lakota Treaty Council, in particular. For the Lakota, the wild plains were the foundation of their livelihoods. And at WILD we believe that the future of wilderness depends, at least in part, on understanding how we empower livelihoods that do not conflict with wild nature.

As a result of these conversations, the 12th World Wilderness Congress was born, with the Sicangu Lakota Treaty Council as host. “Flyover country” will be, in August 2024, the destination for thousands of committed wilderness conservationists as we convene with our Lakota and Indigenous allies to incorporate traditional ecological knowledge at the center of wilderness conservation practice.

We are also working with the Sicangu Lakota Treaty Council to build out a longer-term project that will help remove barriers to Indigenous-led bison reintroductions at a landscape scale, to help restore the prairies to their former glory. WILD will work at the discretion of our Lakota partners, as we do with the Yawanawa leadership council in the Western Amazon, to ensure that Indigenous principles are the guiding lights of our conservation efforts, and to restore the land in such a way that it also supports the traditional Indigenous lifestyles and lifeways as interpreted by Indigenous leaders in a new era.

To read more about what WILD has done in 2023 to empower livelihoods that support biodiversity, read our annual report here. As we look ahead to 2024, you can count on WILD thinking thoughtfully and strategically about the many places around the world that have become “flyover country” but that once were, and to some degree still are, homes to millions of diverse and majestic lifeforms. To prevent our planet from becoming a “flyover world” we are building the alliances and coalitions required to help keep Earth beautifully and unforgettably wild.

Our donors fuel WILD’s mission and vision. Every one of our successes belongs as much to them as it does to WILD. Please consider a gift to support WILD’s programs here.


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