A few days ago, friends from California visited for several days. They’d never been in Oklahoma, though both are well traveled. He is from England originally, and she from Michigan. They’ve seen most of the United States, but just never thought of Oklahoma as a place to visit. “Well, you know, it’s flat, hot, dusty. Sure prairies are nice, but the really nice ones are in Wyoming, Nebraska, Montana, Canada. Yeah, Texas has some, but it’s hot.”

I’ve heard those sentiments from quite a few people during the years. Our friends came to Oklahoma mainly in response to our visit to them.

So, they came. We spent the first day “museuming.” First, we went to the University of Central Oklahoma Library and viewed the African Folk Art Collection. This is a fantastic collection, and if you haven’t seen it, you should. Then we visited the Western Heritage Museum, just a short drive down Martin Luther King from Edmond. Our friends are from Los Angeles, and after touring the Western Heritage, they informed their adult son that the Western Heritage Museum is far better than Los Angeles’ Gene Autry Museum.

Our second day, we traveled to the Ozark Plateau in eastern Oklahoma and stayed in a friend’s cabin. Recent welcomed rains had raised the creek level so the low-water crossing on the family farm was impassable in my vehicle forcing us to another cabin.

We also took in the sight of 120-foot tall oaks, birches and sweetgums, some five feet thick. A few dogwoods still were blooming. The trees along the creek sported brilliant blue indigo buntings (flying Easter eggs, someone once said), bright goldfinches, a scarlet tanager.

A pair of eastern phoebe’s — a kind of flycatcher — had a nest under the overhanging cliff across the creek, and were feeding five babies. Each time a parent approached the nest, all five bright yellow mouths gaped wide.

“Oklahoma is all prairie, wheat and oil wells. Oh, it has a few cows. But trees like this? Wouldn’t have known it.”

The next day, we drove from the cabin a few miles east, across the Illinois River, and through dense woods and scattered meadows to the Nickle Family Preserve. This 16,000 acres of Ozark upland is owned by The Nature Conservancy (TNC) thanks to a generous gift from the Nickle family, Tahlequah residents who founded Green Country Nursery.

The Nature Conservancy, it is an international conservation organization dedicated to acquiring land that harbors natural communities at risk.

In this case, the land is a part of the Ozark oak savannah, and since fire suppression, this ecological region has become mostly densely forested. The openings that made the lands biotically diverse are disappearing.

The Nature Conservancy’s goal for this land is to preserve the mosaic that still exists, and bring additional acreage back into that condition. That condition supports the greatest variety of mammals, birds, reptiles, amphibians, flowering plants, ferns and other groups of organisms.

Two Nature Conservancy staff members led our group through parts of the preserve. Most visitors were Oklahoma residents with an interest in nature, but the preserve was still somewhat of a surprise to them.

The creek on the preserve — with waterfalls some 12 feet in height — was the main point of interest, but the variety of trees was intriguing to many, too. Our California friends were quite surprised to find such a gem.

The Nature Conservancy is doing great work, and should receive more support and more public recognition. In addition to the Nickle Family Preserve, TNC owns The Tall Grass Prairie Preserve of some 35,000 acres in Osage County, The Four Canyons Preserve of some 3,400 acres in West Central Oklahoma, and several smaller parcels of great conservation value, and was instrumental in acquiring The Black Mesa in Northwest Oklahoma and preserving it.

Conserving our lands will require more action than TNC can accomplish alone, however. The current national administration is trying to divest itself of responsibility for conservation, advocating destructive development on lands that host great natural value.

Colorado and Wyoming residents are fighting for their family ranches and public lands in the face of relentless government and corporate pressure to develop them for natural gas production even while geologists report the actual amounts of gas are miniscule compared to world and U.S. demand.

We need a government that has the appreciation for nature like Teddy Roosevelt, Lyndon Johnson, Jimmy Carter and Bill Clinton, all of whom added large amounts of land to various government preserve systems.

Our family friends from California understand this need. I hope you readers do, too.

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