My husband, Dale, and I hold strong affections for prairies and a journey to visit the Zumwalt Prairie near Joseph in northeastern Oregon satisfied that passion. Saved from the plow by its high elevation, rocky soil and short growing season, the 330,000-acre Zumwalt Prairie carries the distinction of being the largest, most intact native bunch grass prairie remaining in the United States. One hundred and fifty years ago, the Chief Joseph band of the Nez Perce lived and hunted on this remote high plateau protected by the Wallowa Mountains and Eagle Cap Wilderness before its rolling contours plunge deeply into Hells Canyon at the Idaho border.
In 2006, The Nature Conservancy purchased 33,000 acres to create the Zumwalt Prairie Preserve within the mostly privately-owned Zumwalt Prairie. To get there, we drove 20 miles north of Enterprise on lonely gravel roads before we spotted the orange preserve sign marking the Horned Lark Trail. Hiking on the rutted tracks, I discovered the vital life of the prairie under my feet.
The closer I looked the more I saw. Reading Marcy Houle’s book “The Prairie Keepers” helped me understand and appreciate this complicated, layered habitat whose plants, animals and birds depend on the native grasses and each other for their survival. The Zumwalt supports the largest population of breeding raptors in the world, diverse populations of songbirds, 48 varieties of butterflies, and 430 plant species, including the endangered Spalding’s catchfly.
After five more miles of dusty roads we located another orange sign on a metal livestock gate identifying the Biscuit Vista Trail. We followed the old road up the draw for a beautiful view of the canyon below. At the end of the hike Dale said, “Want to see where this road ends?” I replied, “You’re nuts. Let’s go.”
Eighty percent sure we were on the Camp Creek Road heading toward Imnaha, Dale maneuvered the pickup in and out of four-wheel drive like a race car driver. With a gray dust cloud following us we exchanged bad jokes about survival tactics. Two hours later we arrived in Imnaha, population 18, at The Imnaha Store and Tavern. We split a sandwich in one of the booths that separated the saloon from the dining room’s single row of tables with plastic chairs.
I had time to reflect while driving back to Joseph. Thankful that The Nature Conservancy has a voice in the management and protection of the Zumwalt Prairie, future generations will be able to walk in those grasslands and have the same opportunity to experience the diversity and splendor of a living landscape.