The Barrens is unique landscape within the training area of Fort Campbell. It appears similar to the grass prairies of the American Midwest, however, with different grass species. It belongs to what was once a much larger area known as the Big Barrens which originally measured roughly 200 miles long and 20 miles wide.
The Barrens played an important part in both the prehistory and history of Tennessee and Kentucky. The first European explorers described the Barrens as having lacked tall trees. Instead, the grass was so tall it could reach a man's shoulders on horseback. This made an ideal grazing area for elk and bison, hunted for generations by Native American tribes. European settlers believed the relatively treeless landscape meant the soil was too poor to support agriculture and therefore, "barren".
Over the past two centuries, the Barrens' footprint has reduced by 99%. With the displacement of native tribes, forests quickly encroached into the grasslands. This new tree growth meant the prairie soil wasn't barren after all, but indeed rich for farming. Settlers converted the Barrens into some of the most productive croplands in the Southeast.
Scientists have studied the Barrens to determine how it was created and survived for thousands of years. Some research points to it being man-made, the result of Native American tribes using fire to modify the forest landscape. Other research focuses on existing soil conditions being regenerated by fire - either intentionally set or naturally occurring through lightning strikes.
Outside of Fort Campbell, there are very few remnants of the Barrens. Farming, absence of regular fire, introduction of invasive species, and development have contributed to this loss. However, protected within the Fort Campbell boundary are over 7,000 acres of land that provide the best remaining example of the barren landscape settlers first observed more than two centuries ago.
Fort Campbell balances supporting the military's mission along with sustaining the natural ecosystem. This includes limiting tree regrowth within the Barrens through either prescribed fire, the use of machinery or herbicides.
A collaborative documentary video includes interviews with Cherokee Tribal representatives, Fort Campbell archaeologists, biologists, and specialists involved with the Barrens management. The video can be viewed below.