KSU researcher takes new look at prairie

Kansas State University researcher and former National Park Service ranger Tyra Olstad is studying the aesthetics of landscapes – particularly the open spaces of prairie – in order to develop new ways to promote and celebrate Kansas tourism, history and geography.

Olstad, a 30-year-old doctoral student in geography who grew up in North Tonawanda, N.Y., said the prairie project didn’t sprout from her research work at the university but from her personal experiences tied to the prairie.

Her first time to see the prairie came the summer after her high school graduation when she and her father were in a plane flying over Nebraska.

“I’d never seen so much space before,” she said. “I fell in love with the space in the West. I was intrigued by the sense of place and why people become attached to it and why others see it as desolate.”

Olstad earned an undergraduate degree in folklore, Earth studies and Russian in 2004 at Dartmouth College in New Hampshire and a master’s degree in geography and environment/natural resources in 2007 at the University of Wyoming in Laramie.

Over the past 10 years, in between her studies, she has worked as a paleontologist for the National Park Service in such places as the Petrified Forest National Park in Arizona, Badlands National Park in South Dakota, Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park in Colorado and Fossil Butte National Monument in Wyoming.

Olstad, who came to K-State in 2008, said she became interested in the pejoratives that people assign to prairie landscapes.

“I wanted to study how we psychologically interact with places and what this interaction means for the different places,” she said.

Olstad’s research included scientific analysis, ecology and environmental history. She traveled throughout Kansas and visited the Konza Prairie Biological Station, the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve, Mount Sunflower and other landmarks.

She took photographs and wrote about her own experiences with the prairie. By applying the same artistic techniques used in photography, literature and visual arts, she was able to discover new, positive perceptions of the prairie landscape.

Olstad said the conventional definition of beautiful scenery includes mountains, forests, seashores – not the open spaces of the Kansas landscape. Consequently, it is difficult to convince people, including Kansans, that the prairie is anything but flat and dull.

If Kansans learn to celebrate the beauty and rhythm of the prairie landscape in new ways, she said, they can deepen their own sense of place and promote pride and tourism in rural communities.

In many instances, eco-tourism involves visiting a site, snapping a photo and then continuing on one’s trip. But to appreciate the prairie, Olstad said, one must witness the rhythms and cycles that take place over time – at sunset, when there’s a storm, during burning season or when wildlife is visible.

“People have to experience the prairie, and something has to spark their interest to come,” she said. “I couldn’t imagine what the prairie looked like until I was standing in the middle of one.”