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Healing the Lakota prairie

HAYES, S.D. - Some people don't believe that one person can make a difference, but on a remote South Dakota ranch one man has done just that. Almost 50 years have gone by since South Dakota Lakota rancher Clarence Mortenson started his journey toward reclaiming the prairie his ancestors had once lived upon to its original beauty and diverse plant life. Stories he remembered from his Lakota grandmother and tribal elders, teamed with those from an old homesteader, made the young man realize that it had taken only one generation of homesteaders to almost completely obliterate what had been a vital and strong ecosystem; one, which had sustained the Lakota, people for hundreds of years.

When Mortenson bought his ranch land as a young man, the price was $8 an acre. The original 900 acres he bought were adjacent to the Cheyenne River and bordered the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation. A member of the tribe, Mortenson had grown up on old stories about how his ancestors had lived upon the very land he now owned. But the stories described a land almost mythical in comparison to the land he lived on. But in the beginning the struggle for fulfilling a vision of the past and making his ranch a success was all staked on those 900 acres.

To make matters even worse, some of the original land he purchased was lost when the project to dam the Missouri River began. But as Mortenson began to reclaim the prairie, the prairie began to take back the land that had once been underwater. Cattle now cross where sportsmen once drove their boats with powerful engines to fish. New stands of willow trees and hardwoods can be seen as the land reclaims itself and the centuries old river channels begin to reappear.

But in the beginning all Mortenson knew was that nowhere were there springs every mile, or hardwood trees or trees at all to speak of in the draws. There were no plants with beautiful flowers on them, only endless miles of sparse grass. The streams weren't the ones an old homesteader had told him about, where wagon teams used to cross that had water belly deep on the horses. Only one generation had passed and none of it existed except in the memories of the elders. Now even most of the wildlife was gone.

But the words of his "Grandma Pete" kept echoing in the young rancher's mind, and the calling of an old cottonwood tree that had withstood the test of time and nature. Once the tallest tree for miles around, the "Spirit Tree", had been hit so many times by lightening that little remained of it. But today it, like the prairie that surrounds it, still hangs on and the voices of those ancestors who have guided Mortenson can be heard as the wind rustles through the leaves.

The tree itself has taken on an almost human form over the years. Bark broken off in the constant lightning strikes now resembles faces and long-dead branches appear to reach out to those who drive by it. For the Mortenson family the tree has come to symbolize the heart of the ranch, one of survival and the promise of a return to the greatness of the past.

Today Mortenson looks back and says he really doesn't know how or why reclaiming the prairie became his life's work, but he does credit the spirits of ancestors who once traveled upon it. "This place is very spiritual," he said. "You can walk out there and feel the power of your ancestors."

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His dream to return the prairie to its natural state is becoming a reality. Although the full restoration will take at least another 100 years, huge changes in the original landscape can be seen. Once empty draws are now filled with life. Species of plants once thought to be near extinction are now thriving and each year marks the arrival of a larger and stronger area of growth for the various plants.

There is the series of small dams Mortenson built with gravel bottoms that serve to take the unpredictable rains and moisture from snowfall and let it filter back into the water table. This has enabled the springs to refill, which in turn has provided life-giving water to the new plant life that is emerging.

Since those early beginnings, the size of the ranch has doubled and the family has added several thousand acres of leased land as well to the ranch. Cattle are rotated from pasture to pasture to prevent over grazing, imitating the movement of the vast herds of buffalo that once traveled through the land. Horses are still for most of the work on the ranch, something the family is very proud of.

The use of the Lakota Circle of Life has brought about changes in traditional ranching methods. Cattle now can go to the tree-filled draws for shelter, calves are born in a natural valley, protected by the trees that have grown, cutting mortality rates even in the harshest of the South Dakota winter storms. By letting the prairie heal and come back to its natural diversity, the Mortenson Ranch no longer has to use chemicals on the land or pesticides for the cattle. No area is grazed long enough for damage to the land to take place. Even manure disappears thanks to the dung beetles that take it back into the earth. Everything is returning to its natural balance.

As his dream of restoring the prairie began to take shape, Mortenson soon found that others were beginning to sit up and take notice. Suddenly biologists were finding themselves learning from the example of the isolated Lakota rancher.

Documentaries have been done on the Mortenson Ranch Restoration, biologists and other experts now come to the ranch to study, observe and learn. Mortenson has received numerous honors and awards for his work and in 2003 he was even bestowed with an Honorary Doctorate Degree from South Dakota State University.

(Continued in Part Two)