Pawnee National Grassland encompasses 193,060 acres in Weld County in northeast Colorado. The US Forest Service established the grassland in 1960 to help restore and maintain the short-grass prairie environment that was depleted during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. The grassland is broken into two administrative units: the Crow Valley Unit to the west and the Pawnee Unit to the east. Today, the grassland is a multiple-use landscape used for recreation, oil and gas extraction, and grazing.
Pawnee National Grassland may look like rolling plains, but various small canyons, arroyos, and interesting rock formations are present on the land. The most notable of these formations is Pawnee Buttes, two sedimentary rock formations that tower roughly 350 feet over the grassland.
Much of Pawnee National Grassland is covered by short-grass prairie. These grasses maintain the overall ecological health of the grassland by retaining water and soil and preventing excessive erosion and dust storms. Rainfall sustains vegetation in Pawnee Grassland, as there is no reliable water source in the area. At one point, Crow Creek was a steady water source, but years of erosion, agriculture, and drought have left the creek mostly dry. There are also several small, naturally occurring springs in the grassland.
Native wildlife include pronghorn, fox, prairie dogs, coyotes, and snakes. The grassland is also a world-renowned bird habitat, boasting more than 200 species. Hawks and falcons nest in the Pawnee Buttes in the spring.
According to archaeological data, the human history in Pawnee National Grassland dates back to 12,000 years ago. Prehistoric people and later American Indian groups such as the Arapaho, Pawnee, Comanche, Kiowa, and Cheyenne lived on the prairie. These peoples largely sustained themselves by hunting bison. Grasslands like Pawnee provided bison with ample forage for grazing. Once they had grazed a certain area, bison migrated to other areas, and indigenous peoples followed them. Today, a variety of archaeological sites dot the landscape of Pawnee Grassland, including rock shelters, lithic scatters, and stone circles.
The United States officially acquired the present area of Pawnee Grassland in the Louisiana Purchase of 1803, but American Indians nations controlled it for the next several decades. With the arrival of British, American, and French trappers and traders in the 1820s, bison and other game became scarcer due to the demands of the fur trade. Traders began hunting bison relentlessly, even as they arrived at a time when the bison were already in decline from a period of drought on the plains and hunting competition between indigenous nations.
By the mid-nineteenth century, as the fur trade declined with the bison and more Euro-Americans moved westward, the US government began forcibly removing American Indians from their ancestral homelands. The Treaty of Medicine Lodge in 1867 resulted in the forced removal of the Southern Cheyenne and Southern Arapaho people to Oklahoma. Two years later, the last indigenous resistance on the Colorado Plains was quashed when the US military defeated the Cheyenne Dog Soldiers at Summit Springs.
Euro-Americans began to permanently occupy the area that is now Pawnee Grassland in the 1880s, when small towns such as Grover and Keota were established along the Chicago, Burlington & Quincy Railroad. Some of the first cattlemen drove large cattle herds to supply beef for railroad workers. With no oversight, ranchers could run cattle across the land. These open-range cattle drives began to decline in the mid-1880s, especially after a harsh winter in 1886–87 that killed off many cattle and bankrupted many ranches in an event known as the Great Die Up.
From the late 1800s to the early 1900s, more than 1,000 homesteaders staked claims in the area that is now Pawnee National Grassland. Many inhabitants fled the area during the Dust Bowl of the late 1930s. Poor agricultural practices combined with drought created harsh conditions on the plains. Farmers uprooted the prairie grasses that held soil and water together in favor of shallow-rooted crops, which resulted in soil erosion. The eroded, dry soil created layers of dust that kicked up in massive clouds during windstorms. As a result, many residents left in search of work and a better life. Those who stayed reduced the size of their ranches.
Establishment of the Grassland
The federal government under President Franklin D. Roosevelt worked to improve the problems revealed by the Dust Bowl. Under New Deal programs like the Bankhead-Jones Farm Tenant Act of 1937, the government bought depleted land from farmers and began restoration projects on the prairie. Many New Deal programs in what is now Pawnee National Grassland were conducted by the US Department of Agriculture’s Soil Conservation Service (SCS).
The SCS undertook several conservation projects on the grassland. It worked to plant grasses and trees, build new roads, and improve soil conditions. It also worked with local ranchers to establish grazing organizations. The SCS maintained the land until 1954, when it transferred the land to the Forest Service. In 1960 the US Forest Service established Pawnee National Grassland.
Today, Pawnee Grassland is a multiple-use landscape where people interact with the landscape in a variety of ways. The Forest Service maintains numerous dispersed campsites across the grassland as well as a pay campground at Crow Valley Recreation Area. In addition to camping, visitors come to cycle, hike the Pawnee Buttes, and shoot targets at the Baker Draw Designated Shooting Area. One of the biggest recreational draws in Pawnee National Grassland is bird watching. These recreational activities bring money to surrounding communities, whose economies have struggled since the Dust Bowl.
In addition to recreational visitors, Pawnee National Grassland is also used by energy companies drilling for oil and gas as well as ranchers grazing cattle. There are sixty active oil and gas wells in the grassland, most of which are located on private property (“inholdings”) within the grassland boundaries. Ranchers graze cattle on a mixture of private inholdings and Forest Service land, mostly in the eastern unit. Grazing takes place on designated areas defined by Forest Service rangeland managers and local ranchers. The Pawnee Cooperative Grazing Association works with the Forest Service to manage the grazing allotments.