National Geographic : 1980 Jan
arms were useless; he could barely move his legs. He spent six months in an iron lung. He travels with a respirator now. It's not essen tial, just handy, but still he says, "I have to think every time I take a breath." His chauffeur is his 81-year-old father, Ray, who looks 65 and drives like 18. We raced off down country roads in a cloud of dust and gravel to inspect the "park." Larry Wagner calls it the park, as though park status were already an accomplished fact. As our van pulled up on a high ridge overlooking a great sweep of country, he pulled air from the respirator's hissing tube and gazed down. "A feeling of vastness-I get it more here than anywhere else," he said. Cloud shadows drifted before us, gliding across rounded hills. Over a landscape en compassing perhaps 200 square miles, the grass was waving, waving in the wind. Here Buffalo Could Roam Again On this ridge, Ray Wagner thinks, the American explorer Zebulon M. Pike reined in one September day in 1806. Pike wrote in his journal, "In one view below me [I] saw buffalo, elk, deer, cabrie [pronghorn] and panthers [cougars]." Of these, deer remain in the proposed park area and pronghorn have been reintro duced. All day long, as we drove through the high empty country, Larry Wagner was mentally repopulating it with bison and elk, Franklin's ground squirrels, even river otter and big-eyed chub. All these, and more, could flourish there. We bounced across a stream in a shower of water. "These wooded valleys would real ly be useful to elk in winter," Wagner said. Elk roamed the prairie once, foraging pri marily on grass but using trees and shrubs as well for cover and for food in winter. They'd find what they need in the pro posed park: three units totaling 320,000 acres. Environmentalists recently upped the ante; a decade ago they sought only 60,000 acres. But they've offered ranchers a major concession: no land acquired by con demnation unless development or plowing threatens its value as parkland. Instead, the government would simply designate where it intends to establish a park. Within these boundaries existing ranchers could continue ranching indefi nitely, passing their land on to descendants. But whenever a ranch inside the boundaries was placed on the open market, the govern ment would have first option to buy it. Ac quiring the parkland this way would take a century or more. Land within the three parcels that already produces oil and natural gas would be classi fied as national preserves, so that exploita tion could continue. Keeping intact a sense of openness, "a feeling that the prairie goes on forever," would be one prime objective of the park, as Wagner sees it. Another, equally important, would be maintaining an ecosystem. "Our Can the Tallgrass PrairieBe Saved?