Robin Walter and Sebastian Tsocanos are looking for grass. Lots and lots of grass.
It is not what it sounds like.
The Colorado College graduates plan to spend the next five months winding 1,400 miles on horseback through the Great Plains, through dwindling prairie grasslands.
"We want to draw attention to the beauty and value of the grasslands, what remains and what the threats are," Tsocanos said.
They plan to camp out, interview ranchers and conservationists, photograph the grasslands, blog about their adventure and give talks along the way. When they get back, they plan to create a documentary on grassland conservation.
The trip is sponsored in part by Colorado College's State of the Rockies Project, which this year is looking at large landscape conservation on private and public lands.
"Their trip is a unique idea and will fit perfectly with the investigation and reporting we are doing," says Brendan Boepple, program coordinator. "They are focusing on ecosystems and landscapes that aren't often a focus in the Rockies.
"Mostly everyone looks at the iconic landscape areas of the mountains, and forgets that a large part of our eight-state region is part of the Great Plains ecoregion."
The journey, which begins this month, will take them through the prairies of Montana, Wyoming, Nebraska, Kansas and into Missouri and possibly Oklahoma .
Tsocanos is from Connecticut. Walter, who grew up here, is daughter of Kat Tudor, founder of the Smokebrush Foundation and creator of the Uncle Wilbur Fountain downtown.
Both have spent much time on horseback over the years, and hope to ride 15 miles a day. They will take two days a week to rest their two mounts, the pack horse and their rescue dog Winnie. They will spend the next weeks in Wyoming making sure their leased horses are in shape, not to mention themselves.
"We will have bowed legs," laughed Walter.
On a recent day, east of Colorado Springs they enthusiastically hiked through prairie grasses accented with clumps of yellow thermopsis, bleached cattle bones and tangled barbed wire.
It was on the range near Peyton that the idea for their journey started to take shape.
Tsocanos, who majored in environmental science, did his undergraduate thesis on the Remnant Tall Grass Prairie of El Paso County. "It's a beautiful treasure we have and there is not much left to be protected." Development, overgrazing, and invasive species have endangered the tall grass, he said.
But it isn't just the grass that is at risk. "There's so much diversity out here, grassland birds, plant communities, insects. It's mind blowing."
After graduation, he was a natural resources field technician intern with the El Paso County's Environmental Division.
Walter, who majored in poetry and creative writing, has worked as a photographer and taught outdoor education. Neither wanted sedentary jobs and felt their two different academic disciplines melded well for the environmental work they want to do.
Last September they worked on an organic farm in Hotchkiss, learning sustainable agriculture. From January to March they interned in Patagonia, running a greenhouse for a conservation group helping create a national park.
"It was incredible to see the grasslands and potential for conservation and the work being done there. It inspired us to come back home and do the work closer to home," Tsocanos said.
Besides the State of the Rockies Project sponsorship, they have obtained other corporate and personal donations, including equipment from Mountain Chalet, and also have used their savings to help fund their trip. The total cost is about $34,000 and they need $9,000 more. Donations are accepted on their website rediscovertheprairie.org, where they will be blogging as they travel.
They have amassed a cache of equipment, including a satelite GPS tracker that works where cell phones don't. Walter's sister insisted that they carry one. "We call it the Kaitlin," Walter joked.
They hope someone will donate doggie hiking boots for Winnie - they can cost as much as $70. She will be walking all the way and will have the duty of guard dog for them and the horses during the trip.
"We're excited to get on the road. I've driven the interstate, but this will be seeing it at a slow pace," said Tsocanos.
Walter adds, "I have butterflies from excitement."
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