Ordway Prairie Preserves

  • Nature, Animals & Parks
  • 1970

Katharine Ordway’s father took a struggling company called Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing and turned it into 3M. She eventually inherited part of his fortune, and used it to buy and protect swathes of the subtly lovely prairies of the American Midwest, which she loved for their beautiful wildflowers and connection to the state’s pioneer history. Ordway started in 1970 in her own backyard of Minnesota. Working with the Nature Conservancy, she assembled several thousand acres of Minnesota prairie into the Ordway, Wahpeton, Chippewa, and Santee preserves. Next, Ordway financed purchases of exemplary sections of remaining prairie in other parts of the Great Plains—in South Dakota, in Missouri, and in Kansas where she bought the large, pristine Konza prairie. The vast majority of the Konza reserve, in the Flint Hills of the eastern part of the state, is steeply sloped grassland with shallow soils unsuitable for cultivation, so it has never been plowed and retains its native characteristics, making it one of the largest remaining undisturbed tallgrass prairies in North America.

After her death in 1979, Ordway left her remaining money to a foundation with instructions to the family members and allies she put in charge to expend all the funds quickly. The foundation spent more than $40 million in less than five years to buy additional prairie land, including 54,000 acres in the Niobrara Valley of Nebraska. These prairie lands are actively managed (as most wild lands need to be today). The Ordway and Konza preserves, for instance, are regularly burned (as would have happened naturally in the times before wildfires were suppressed) to prevent the grassland from growing into forest. Ordway’s collective gifts made her one of America’s most important private conservationists.