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Great Plains Are Great, Not Plain

I'll admit it: I haven't done much traveling in the areas west of the Mississippi and east of California. Translation: I haven't really seen much of my own country. I'll also sheepishly admit that when I think of that vast region, I envision dry grass plains and corn. Lots of corn. This ignorance of mine is exactly what photographer Michael Forsberg is trying to turn on its head. His work is in a new book called Great Plains: America's Lingering Wild and, needless to say, it put my mental images to shame.

  • A burrowing owl stretches in the Conata Basin of Buffalo Gap National Grassland, South Dakota. According to The Nature Conservancy, grasslands are among the most imperiled areas on Earth, and only a fraction of the grass that once covered 95 percent of South Dakota remains today.
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    A burrowing owl stretches in the Conata Basin of Buffalo Gap National Grassland, South Dakota. According to The Nature Conservancy, grasslands are among the most imperiled areas on Earth, and only a fraction of the grass that once covered 95 percent of South Dakota remains today.
    Photographs by Michael Forsberg
  • A bison herd moves across the shallows of the Cheyenne River in South Dakota. Bison only require water every few days, an advantage for Great Plains grazers.
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    A bison herd moves across the shallows of the Cheyenne River in South Dakota. Bison only require water every few days, an advantage for Great Plains grazers.
  • Cattle graze at sundown in Conata Basin.
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    Cattle graze at sundown in Conata Basin.
  • Burrowing owl chicks wait for adults to bring back food in Conata Basin, S.D.
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    Burrowing owl chicks wait for adults to bring back food in Conata Basin, S.D.
  • Black-tailed prairie dogs socialize with kisses and grooming. They contribute to the ecosystem by aerating and fertilizing the soil, but have been reduced in numbers by over 90 percent in the past century, Buffalo Gap National Grassland, S.D.
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    Black-tailed prairie dogs socialize with kisses and grooming. They contribute to the ecosystem by aerating and fertilizing the soil, but have been reduced in numbers by over 90 percent in the past century, Buffalo Gap National Grassland, S.D.
  • South Dakota's Conata Basin is home to the largest population of the black-footed ferret, one of North America's most endangered animals. An adult female and her kit emerge from a burrow entrance at sunrise.
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    South Dakota's Conata Basin is home to the largest population of the black-footed ferret, one of North America's most endangered animals. An adult female and her kit emerge from a burrow entrance at sunrise.
  • Windmills draw water from the underlying Ogallala Aquifer, one of the Plains' most precious resources, in Cherry County, Neb. Photographer Michael Forsberg writes that although the Great Plains landscape may not be as striking as the Rockies, the cloudscapes and sea of grass offer an equally beautiful vista.
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    Windmills draw water from the underlying Ogallala Aquifer, one of the Plains' most precious resources, in Cherry County, Neb. Photographer Michael Forsberg writes that although the Great Plains landscape may not be as striking as the Rockies, the cloudscapes and sea of grass offer an equally beautiful vista.
  • Blowout penstemon, a federally endangered plant species, blooms in the Nebraska Sand Hills. This region of Nebraska constitutes the largest dune field in the Western Hemisphere. Erosion opens areas of bare sand called blowouts, where these flowers grow, but they are disappearing as grasses reclaim the area.
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    Blowout penstemon, a federally endangered plant species, blooms in the Nebraska Sand Hills. This region of Nebraska constitutes the largest dune field in the Western Hemisphere. Erosion opens areas of bare sand called blowouts, where these flowers grow, but they are disappearing as grasses reclaim the area.
  • A grizzly female, or sow, moves along a trail that connects wetland and prairie in Montana's Pine Butte Swamp Preserve. These bears once roamed across the Plains, but today, habitats along the Rocky Mountain Front are their last prairie refuge.
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    A grizzly female, or sow, moves along a trail that connects wetland and prairie in Montana's Pine Butte Swamp Preserve. These bears once roamed across the Plains, but today, habitats along the Rocky Mountain Front are their last prairie refuge.
  • An orb weaver spider captures a damselfly in its web on the edge of a sedge meadow, an area of wetland dominated by sedges and grasses, in Minnesota's Pembina Trail Preserve.
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    An orb weaver spider captures a damselfly in its web on the edge of a sedge meadow, an area of wetland dominated by sedges and grasses, in Minnesota's Pembina Trail Preserve.
  • Grace Phillips, a young rancher, works out on the range of the Chico Basin Ranch in El Paso County, Colo.
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    Grace Phillips, a young rancher, works out on the range of the Chico Basin Ranch in El Paso County, Colo.
  • The Scandia Lutheran Church in Phillips County, Mont., was built by Scandinavian homesteaders in 1915. Country churches like this one have been important anchors for rural communities throughout the Great Plains.
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    The Scandia Lutheran Church in Phillips County, Mont., was built by Scandinavian homesteaders in 1915. Country churches like this one have been important anchors for rural communities throughout the Great Plains.
  • Born with both lungs and gills, this tiger salamander is still in its larval stage. Strong populations of amphibians and reptiles mirror the health of the grasslands they inhabit in Iowa's Broken Kettle Preserve.
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    Born with both lungs and gills, this tiger salamander is still in its larval stage. Strong populations of amphibians and reptiles mirror the health of the grasslands they inhabit in Iowa's Broken Kettle Preserve.
  • The strong winds of the Great Plains have drawn the attention of energy innovators, who plan to construct wind farms, like this one in Woodward County, Okla., to help meet the growing demand for renewable energy. A wind farm's industrial breadth can have negative consequences for already imperiled wildlife.
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    The strong winds of the Great Plains have drawn the attention of energy innovators, who plan to construct wind farms, like this one in Woodward County, Okla., to help meet the growing demand for renewable energy. A wind farm's industrial breadth can have negative consequences for already imperiled wildlife.
  • Urban sprawl has now overwhelmed what was once vast prairie. Forsberg writes that although his mission is to capture the beauty of the Great Plains, he also wants to show the ways in which man has altered it. Lincoln, Neb.
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    Urban sprawl has now overwhelmed what was once vast prairie. Forsberg writes that although his mission is to capture the beauty of the Great Plains, he also wants to show the ways in which man has altered it. Lincoln, Neb.

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Unfortunately, my ignorance is probably shared by many. This often neglected, underappreciated and misunderstood "region" of our country actually comprises a great majority of our land, and in just the past 100 years has undergone a dramatic transformation as a result of human migration and industrialization. It is now one of the most endangered landscapes in North America, and easily the least protected. So Forsberg teamed up with writer/biologist Dan O'Brien, writer/geographer David Wishart and former American Poet Laureate Ted Kooser to make us care about our big backyard.

Over the course of about four years, Forsberg trekked 100,000 miles across 12 states and three provinces, from southern Canada to northern Mexico, to produce the fieldwork for this project. Underwritten by The Nature Conservancy, this book shows both the splendor and the vulnerability of America's Great Plains. Corn? Ha!

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