Monday, September 24, 2012

The Prairie is Our Amazon & No One Cares

A recent feature in the Minneapolis Star Tribune about the loss of prairie on the Great Plains has, of course, poured salt on an open wound for me. The last few years I've read book after book, article after article, about the loss of this critical habitat--and it is critical, as much as the Amazonian rain forest, but you don't hear fundraising songs or see national tv ads or billboard signs funded by "Save the Prairie." So, here are some highlights of the article with stunning maps of how much we've lost--even in just the last 5 years.

The Biggest Pressure on Prairie is Commodity Prices 

"Livestock operators just can't compete against the combined forces of crop insurance and high commodity prices. Around Highmore, they estimate they can make $50 to $100 an acre by grazing cattle; corn is fetching $300 or more per acre this year, regardless of how good the yields are [thanks to crop insurance].

In recent years, new varieties of genetically modified corn and soybeans have allowed farmers to push the Corn Belt westward, planting row crops on land once better suited to grazing cattle [because it's so arid]. Today, that tough prairie sod doesn't have to be plowed, just planted. The new corn and soybean seeds are immune to Roundup; farmers can kill the native grasses with the herbicide, then plant right over them."
[And all this marginal farmland needs irrigation--draining reservoirs, streams, rivers, prairie potholes, and the largest underground freshwater formation, the Ogallala Aquifer, which is being depleted so fast it may be gone in just a few decades. The Ogallala spans SD, NE, CO, KS, OK, KS, TX, and NM.]

How much grassland there was
Prairie is a Water Filter and Bird Nursery

"Heavy spring rains, once sequestered by wetlands and deep-rooted prairie plants, instead pour off the cropped fields. Eventually the water, often carrying fertilizer, herbicides, and pesticides, makes its way to the Missouri River, then to the Mississippi and eventually to the Gulf of Mexico's "dead zone'' -- an area near the mouth of the great river, now nearly 6,000 square miles in size, which is so polluted that it can no longer sustain most aquatic life.

"The northern plains that include Minnesota, the Dakotas and Canada are called "the duck factory," because nearly half the nation's wetland and grassland birds are born there, and many of those species are in decline. Many other animals are already gone, especially the large creatures like elk, bison and prairie wolves. Now, the smaller ones are at risk as well."

Prairie as Buffer Against Drought and Dustbowl II

"In the dry summer months, some of the richest soil in the world sometimes blows away on the wind."

"According to one federal study, the 16 South Dakota counties that experienced the greatest loss of grasslands are also the counties most susceptible to drought and crop loss. Farmers in those counties also had twice the insurance payments as the rest of the state."

How much has been converted
How Fast Grasslands are Vanishing

"Since 2008, the rate of land conversion nationally has exploded. In just four years, some 37,000 square miles of grasslands, wetlands and shrublands have been converted to row crops, according to the Environmental Working Group (EWG) and the Defenders of Wildlife, which analyzed federal satellite images to document the change. Minnesota and the Dakotas alone lost an area the size of Connecticut.

Of the Minnesota land that was once tallgrass prairie, only one-fourth is in grasses of any kind today, according to satellite data. And only about 300 square miles, scattered in remnants across the state, remains in its virgin state."

How much has been converted in the last 4 years
The Other Side

"Brian Hefty, who is reaping the benefits of the new agriculture, sees things differently. He dismisses the arguments for preserving more prairie with a critical question:
"How much do you need?" he asked.
Hefty and his brother, Darren, are third-generation South Dakota farmers. They own 2,500 acres of corn and soybeans near Sioux Falls, and they run a chain of 34 stores that provide farmers in eight states with seeds, chemicals and equipment to drain their fields.
The Hefty Brothers are widely known among Midwestern farmers as the blond and jovial hosts of "Ag Ph.D.,'' a folksy cable TV show where they teach all the latest farming techniques and technology. Their annual farm fests draw hundreds to workshops on topics like patterned tile drainage and navigating wetland protection rules.
In making the case for modern agriculture, Hefty shows a serious side that his TV fans don't always see. He also illuminates the deep philosophical divide between agriculture and conservation. Productive land, he said, is an improvement over land in its natural state. [why do we still have this antiquated, 19th century mindset?]
"Don't tell us what we have to do with our land," he said in an interview. "We are trying to make it better."
True, he acknowledged, South Dakota is "pretty dry" compared to the rest of the Corn Belt. Still, farmers should grow corn here because the new technology and the quality of the soil allow them to grow some of the best corn on Earth.
"There aren't many places better than this," he said.
The latest advances in agriculture are also good for the environment, he said. Roundup Ready corn reduces soil erosion because farmers can plant with less plowing, he said. "Now I can plant seed without massive tillage."
And the new seeds, by generating higher yields per acre, mean less land has to be used to fulfill demand, he said. As a result, Hefty said, the United States has the cleanest water and one of the most productive food systems in the world.
"In a good share of the world, they don't care about the environment," he said. "They want to eat."

My Rebuttle to Mr. Hefty:

GMO corn that is roundup ready encourages mass spraying. Crops that grow more densely don't mean less land is used, as made evident by the amount of marginal land converted in recent years. It's about money. Greed. About navel gazing. About our eyes just on the present moment, forgetful of past lessons, unsympathetic about paying it forward. If you're trying to build a business to pass on to your kids, especially farming, it will be hard for them as global temperatures swing violently (the arctic sea ice melt may cause massive swings in the jet stream, leading to prolonged dry and wet spells).

Don't get me started on the growing links between high fructose corn syrup and diabetes, Alzheimer's and junk food, or GMO foods creating learning disabilities and allergies... or corn fattening up cattle, hogs, and chickens (all pumped full of hormones, making girls begin puberty earlier, hormones that change sex in fish and that stays in our drinking supply for a very long time)--all that corn makes for fatter meat than grass fed animals, leading to increased heart disease.

How much is left
The Ecological Effects

"Once native prairie is plowed, it's gone, ecologists say. It takes decades of careful planting and management to restore the complex web of life that includes microbes and tiny insects invisible to the human eye."

"When preserving wildlife, there are thresholds," said Joe Fargione, a prairie specialist with the Nature Conservancy. "You can keep species if you lose half or 70 percent" of an ecosystem. But if you go beyond that, you start to see losses of species. Compared to rain forest habitat, we may be closer to those critical thresholds."

Why don't you go read this lovely piece by Bill McKibben about global warming. 

Carbon Sequestration

"Perhaps least appreciated, however, is the role grasslands play in storing carbon, which, when released into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide, is a major contributor to global warming. Their vast underground root systems, which can reach depths of eight or nine feet, hold an astonishing one-third of the world's carbon stocks. That's almost as much as the amount stored by forests, according to the World Resources Institute, an environmental think tank. On average, every time an acre of grassland is plowed, it releases 60 tons of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere -- about the amount emitted annually by 30 passenger cars.

Preserving grasslands as a hedge against climate change makes sense, even after considering the environmental benefits of ethanol, said Jason Hill, a University of Minnesota professor who studies grasses and biofuels.

It will take a century before the carbon saved by burning corn ethanol equals the amount unleashed by plowing up the grassland used to produce it in the first place."

I Go On

I feel terribly angry and impatient when it comes to conservation. People look out for themselves in the moment, there's no larger image in their minds, no community, no one species looking out for the larger whole. If you want to change the world, you have to do it slowly through red tape, grass roots organizing, petitions, creating awareness, fighting the "don't tell me what to do I'm an American" syndrome, and dealing with corporations and governments bent on self interest--it all feels like a juggernaut of spikey anvils crashing into my head. And I feel we're out of time. How do conservationists keep fighting, especially as they lose more and more no matter what victories might happen? And we need big ones--like a buffalo commons, a Grassland National Park the size of Yellowstone (we have no national park which is prairie).

If I have kids I know the world I'm giving them will be worse than mine. Resources will be more scarce. The luxury of time we had to plan ahead, afford those changes via alternative energy and conservation, that time will be gone--the money will be gone, the priorities shifted in a panic of oil and clean water running out. We borrow the future from our youth, and we're borrowing most of it. We don't care about our children.

I want to leave something more. I want to stand up and shout that I did something, some of us tried our best, some of us wailed hard against the ignorance and the power hungry, money hungry, uncaring majority (or is it a minority). What do I do? How do I do it? How do you change a species? How do you change centuries of culture? How do you change what surely must in the end be human nature? How do we learn that in innovation and restraint comes even more possibility? Like a sonnet whose form is so structured that when you order the syllables and rhymes--when you creatively push against the limitations--something far more incredible transcends the boundaries of imagination. Have we lost the ability to imagine our full potential?


greggo said...

Yes, to the last question. It's called comfort and apathy.

Justin Evertson said...

Right on Benjamin! Go prairie!

Benjamin Vogt said...

I think you're right, Greg. When we're fat and warm and have iphones we're placated--I think those running for government positions know this, and use it to their benefit.
And Justin, gimme a "P!" Gimme an "R!"....

James Golden said...

I guess you still have some hope for change. The world's population is more than 7 billion and growing, and they all need to be fed. You can't really blame the politicians; they only respond to the people who elect them--and apart from the super rich now bankrolling the election machines, that's us. This would require a cultural change like none ever imagined before. We'll probably devour the world like locusts, then start devouring ourselves (ever read The Road?). Then another species may find a new, changed world in a hundred million years or so. Someone else may get a chance to make this work.

Helen said...

People need to read this, Benjamin.

Diana Studer said...

grass roots organising - in both a literal and a poetic sense.
We live on what was once renosterveld, now surrounded by wheatfields and vineyards - but we do have the Hantam National Botanical Garden in Nieuwoudtville. We do try.

Sunnyside Dru said...

as a GMO free feed poultry farmer, I witness people making the connection in the food they buy. folks are seeking meat grown without the use of the genetically modified organisms (roundup ready corn and soy) and grass raised...people do care, and a small switch like purchasing grass fed beef, pasture raised pork, GMO free poultry can slow this prairie shrinking...

charlie b. said...

Interesting post to me as I am reading The Worst Hard Time by Timothy Egan right now. When it comes to conservation, the attitudes of people are VERY frustrating. Even in my own extended family, they tend to think of me as a little kooky because I get creative in my ways to conserve and do my part (like hang-drying clothes (even in winter) instead of using a dryer, etc.). I like to imagine that if more people could make even little changes in everyday life, it might start to make a difference in the big picture.

Lisa said...

Hi Greg,

Thank you for writing this piece. I am the owner/caretaker of about 100 acres of native prairie that borders the Scotts Bluff National Monument in western Nebraska. It's amazing, beautiful land and I've loved it as long as I've been alive. It's been in my family now, with me the third generation.

About three years ago, our NRD and the state NRCS tried to force me to allow a water diversion project on my prairie. They wanted to have an easement as wide as a football field to do the project, which stretched two miles long. They also wanted to fill in a large, beautiful natural canyon on my property with the dirt from the project.

We have farmland and grow corn and beans. The prairie and fields are separated by an access road and an irrigation canal. I fought like a tiger, lost a lot of sleep and lived with that sick pit in my stomach for about 6 weeks while we fought against this 60-year-old project plan that had not been updated, just so they could claim some of the stimulus money available.

We essentially won the fight by compromising with them that they could do the project on a piece of CRP land only, and leave the canyon alone.

I will never, as God is my witness, sell this land to anyone but the Scotts Bluff National Monument. And I will never plow it. Ever.

I am in my early 40s and dealing with attitudes that baffle me, just as you describe in the Hefty brothers. My grandfather farmed this land for decades, as did his parents. Somewhere, down the generations, it seems we have lost the concept of 7th Generation sustainability. Our farm produces "enough." That prairie is a national resource of beauty and peace, even beyond the services it provides that you describe in trapping carbon and filtering water.

Thank you for writing this, and for understanding the value of prairie. I love my prairie more than words can say, and it isn't going anywhere. I wish that more owners felt the same way. And yes, it is about greed, and selfishness. We could all probably live with less if we stopped and seriously considered it.

"Just because we can, doesn't mean we should" is a phrase I find myself reminded of often. We have the "right" to do many things, but that doesn't mean we should do them.

Lisa said...

Here is the facebook page for Don't Ditch the Prairie if you are interested in check it out. I realize that the links on our blog page are broken.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Lisa, there's a lot to your story that just pisses me off. Trying to spend stimulus money, that they even need that much land, that I bet the canal would be superfluous, that it's your land, YOURS. I'm following those protestors in TX, chaining themselves to TransCanada tractors, being maced by cops, arms twisted, punched, trying to stop peoples homes and livelihoods being razed. We don't think. We don't care to think. And the government we elected to look out for us looks out for itself, bought and paid for. It's not enough to vote, one has to stay on elected officials like a mommy making sure her kids play nice in the other room. Grrrr. :) I'd chain myself to bluestem if I could.

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Gaia Gardener: said...

Excellent piece, Ben. Your passionate eloquence is, as always, uplifting!

We do have the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in the Flint Hills of Kansas. It is not technically a National Park, but it is a place where people can go to get a feel for what a prairie is truly like. It's a grand site, and I hope that those who haven't visited will take some time and do so whenever they find themselves in the area.

Heather/xericstyle said...

It is so difficult to wrap my head around the fact that money is winning this fight...

We know these practices are harmful...we know better! How is this still happening....


Benjamin Vogt said...

We know better, but if we pipe up and speak out, we get called our for being too loud, too extremist, too alarmist. Well, that's how grass roots action makes change -- that's how great cultural shifts happen, for women, for minorities, for the LGBT community, for prairie, for all life. :)

Heather/xericstyle said...


K....need to start being more loud!!!!!!