As it has on this date since the time of our grandfathers' grandfathers, the warm Chinook wind, gusty vanguard of the changing season, washed over the prairie today, melting mounds of snow in a matter of minutes and lifting the tufted grass into a lilting dance of spring.

A rustle in the yellow grass, a ripple in a melting pond, the wind-borne rattle of an old rusted gate -- that was the news on the first day of spring in this vast national preserve at the corner where Colorado, New Mexico and Oklahoma meet.

If you're reading today's paper in search of late-breaking developments on critical affairs of state, you might want to turn the page. For a national grassland, almost by definition, is a place where nothing much happens from day to day.

But if you use a longer time frame -- a half-century or so -- the 19 national grasslands covering 4 million acres from the Mississippi River to the Rockies constitute an important news item: perhaps the most successful effort in history to reclaim a devastated ecosystem.

The grass country of the West is a parched, treeless sea of rolling brown land that is generally too dry for farming.

But in the Homestead Act of 1862, the U.S. government launched a great experiment to settle and cultivate this forbidding territory. That law gave 160 acres of land free to any family that would build a home and farm on the dry turf.

Thousands of pioneers poured west from places such as Massachusetts and Virginia. They named their new towns after cities back home -- Springfield, Colo., and Rolla (as in Raleigh), Kan.

But the plow that broke the plains led to the disastrous dust bowl of the 1930s, turning grasslands to graveyards and reducing thousands of farm families to poverty.

Fifty years ago, in a gesture that today likely would be blasted from some quarters as a "government bailout," Washington agreed to buy back millions of acres, then set out to restore the land.

The job was entrusted to a corps of "range technicians" such as Jim F. Hollenback, a ruddy, weathered Coloradan who has spent a quarter-century traversing the grassland in his green Forest Service uniform.

"We get a lot of ribbing about the uniform," says Hollenback, whose parents arrived here by covered wagon in 1915. "People say, 'Forest Service? Where are your trees?' "

Despite the absence of trees, the Forest Service has won high praise from naturalists for its stewardship of land nobody else wants.

"The main thing you want to do is give the land back to its real owner -- the grass," Hollenback said.

In a green government-issue notebook, he keeps track of the countless grasses that have sprung up again from the dust: the squirrel tail and the foxtail barley; the bluestem and sand sage; the dropseed and sandreed; the cordgrass, switchgrass, lovegrass, needlegrass, and four-winged saltgrass.

Hollenback is equally devoted to the grassland's natural inhabitants -- indeed, he keeps two prairie rattlesnakes in the refrigerator in his office.

"When I was growing up in the '40s, we'd get real excited if we ever saw an antelope in this country," he said. Today, he routinely passes hundreds of the tawny animals on his tours of the Comanche Grassland, an expanse of 419,000 acres -- a little less than 10 times the size of the District of Columbia.

With the revival of the grass, the national grasslands have taken on economic importance. Hundreds of ranchers pay the government to graze cattle and sheep on the restored prairie.

The grazing program has been attacked as an enormous subsidy to the lucky ranchers who hold the treasured federal permits. They pay $2.50 per cow per month for federal grazing rights; similar rights on private land here cost about $9, Hollenback said. That has sparked a political battle in Congress that finds many conservative westerners -- who love to criticize government handouts -- fighting to preserve the subsidy.

But political squabbles seemed far removed from this placid land today as spring brought on the gentle Chinook, the southwest wind that A.B. Guthrie rhapsodized in his grasslands novel "These Thousand Hills."

"The warm wind kept blowing," Guthrie wrote. "In a day it lapped up most of the snow . . . and still it kept blowing, until the whole body of earth lay brown and breathing except the topknots of buttes, and away and away, the high float of mountains.

"Chinook. Promise of spring. Breath of the dark cloud, the long, singing breath."