Date of this Version
Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 23, No. 1, Winter 2003, pp. 19-34.
Kansas is legendary for geographical monotony, for a landscape allegedly so absent of trees and relief that the state has become the butt of national jokes and a cultural synonym for flat. Kansas is not really flat; tilted might be a better description, for the state rises some 3,300 feet in elevation along the 400-mile stretch between Kansas City and Kanorado. Kansas is lacking in substantial tree cover, though, especially in its western third. US Forest Service researchers noted in 1999 that forests covered slightly less than 3 percent of the state, concentrated mostly in the northeast and southeast corners. Such treelessness is due in part to the needs of the state's agricultural empire, but botanists, biologists, and ecologists tell us that environmental conditions play a more fundamental role. Basic ecology textbooks place most of the state in North America's temperate grassland biome, whose characteristic vegetation consists of great expanses of bluestem, buffalo, and grama grasses, and whose native trees are few and far between, confined mostly to riverbanks and isolated ridges.1
So prevalent is the idea of a treeless Kansas that few people are aware of the many concerted attempts, during its first seventy years, to forest the state artificially. The first white settlers in Kansas were as shocked by its lack of timber as any modern Easterner driving down Interstate 70. Yet those settlers were typical nineteenth-century Americans as well, steeped in contemporary beliefs about nature, agriculture, and progress, and so they attacked the treeless expanses with the devotion of crusaders. For five decades in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, as they dreamed about making a garden of the prairie, Kansans made serious attempts at forestry, trying to cover their state with the large and leafy groves that, to them, were an integral part of civilized life. They planted extensively on their farms and around their homes, formed their own state horticultural society in 1868, established two forestry experiment stations in 1887, and eventually attempted the creation of their own national forest from 1905 to 1915. All the while, information and advice about trees and tree planting circulated in agricultural bulletins, horticultural society reports, newspaper columns, and so on, as forestry became an obsession on the Kansas grasslands.2
That their efforts were generally unsuccessful is no surprise. Although trees can be grown on the Great Plains, its ecological character makes large-scale forestry in much of Kansas impossible, and the treeless spaces across the state's western third bear witness to the failure. Indeed, there is a temptation to snicker at the thought of Kansas forestry, and at anyone who would entertain such a concept in a land so ill-suited to it. A mote serious consideration of this effort, however, tells us much about settlers' views of the Great Plains environment. What motivated their grand forestry ideas and efforts in the face of such daunting environmental odds? Elliott West writes that whites came to the Great Plains with an idealized "vision" of a land civilized by towns, farms, and markets. Forestry efforts in Kansas reveal that the landscape itself was also an important part of this vision. For the state's settlers, trees and forests went hand in hand with towns, farms, and markets; a "civilized" natural environment was inseparable from civilization.3