Monday, August 5, 2013

The More Things Change...

 Move along folks, nothing to see here, just the continued death of the plains is all, and really, who gives a shit about that place? It's all flat, ugly and windy. Not one bit of charismatic photogenic megatopography (to bastardize a wildlife biology phrase) to be found anywhere. No pretty mountains to worry about, no babbling brooks or whispering vales of trees to pine over. Just a bunch of empty space, really, with no obvious intrinsic value at all, so fuck it. Plow it all, I say. Make it useful, profitable, industrial. Yeah, that's it. Just one monstrous, unbroken agricultural-industrial park stretching from Texas to North Dakota. If we're going to ruin an entire region, then by god, let's do it right. And it's nice to see we're off to a helluva good start...

From this press release (released last week and seen by pretty much no one) from Pheasants Forever

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack today announced the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) will accept 1.7 million acres offered under the 45th Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) general sign-up, lowering Conservation Reserve Program total acreage to 26.9 million acres. Now at a 26-year program low, Pheasants Forever calls this depletion a modern low point for conservation, one which will have serious ramifications not only for wildlife, but for the nation's soil and water quality as well.

"While we thank USDA for recognizing the need for holding this CRP sign-up and applaud the landowners who are participating in conservation, this news of CRP's historic low acre total makes it even more apparent there are grave concerns for the health of CRP, our nation's most successful conservation program responsible for countless benefits to water quality, soil resources and wildlife," says Dave Nomsen, Pheasants Forever & Quail Forever vice-president of governmental affairs.

"Since 2007, we have lost more than 14.7 million acres of CRP, accounting for 26 percent of the program and setting a 26-year low for total acres enrolled. CRP is significantly below the 30 million acre enrollment benchmark maintained for more than two decades.That 30 million-acre mark had been providing record benefits in terms of soil, water, and wildlife resources," continued Nomsen.

During this spring's 5-week signup, the Department received 28,000 offers on more than 1.9 million acres of land. USDA selected offers for enrollment based on an Environmental Benefits Index (EBI) comprised of five environmental factors plus cost. The five environmental factors are: (1) wildlife enhancement, (2) water quality, (3) soil erosion, (4) enduring benefits, and (5) air quality.

"These recent CRP losses combined with an agricultural climate rampant with conversion of native prairies and wetlands, bulldozing and burning of shelterbelts, woodlots, and dry wetlands - is having a catastrophic impact on our landscape," said Nomsen. "In the aftermath of this announcement, the American people need to recognize what is taking place on their countryside, especially across much of the northern Great Plains. This is not for just the health of pheasant, quail and other wildlife.At stake is a high quality of life in rural areas, loss of America's hunting tradition, and environmental benefits important to a sustainable agriculture system."

CRP is a voluntary program designed to help farmers, ranchers and other agricultural producers protect their environmentally sensitive land. Eligible landowners receive annual rental payments and cost-share assistance to establish long-term, resource conserving covers on eligible farmland throughout the duration of 10 to 15 year contracts.Under CRP, farmers and ranchers plant grasses and trees in crop fields and along streams or rivers. The plantings prevent soil and nutrients from washing into waterways, reduce soil erosion that may otherwise contribute to poor air and water quality, and provide valuable habitat for wildlife. Plant cover established on the acreage accepted into the CRP will reduce nutrient and sediment runoff in our nation's rivers and streams.

Of course, the news comes as no great shock to anyone following the issue. Too much money, too much greed, too much willingness to do something that is a demonstrably and historically bad idea. And not nearly enough advocates for a region that virtually no one, save a few prairie rats, gives much of a shit about. As but one recent example of the scope of what's happening,  I will (begrudgingly, since I'm no longer there) direct you to a F&S blog I wrote last year about the staggering loss of  prairie in this country since 2008...

Sky-high crop prices and unlimited government-subsidized crop insurance have triggered the conversion of a staggering 23 million acres of grassland into row crops since 2008, according to a new study that used satellite data to estimate the loss...According to the story, the report found that 11 states had experienced habitat losses of at least one million acres in the past three years, and that habitat losses were greatest in counties that received the largest amounts of federal crop insurance subsidies. According to the group, Farm Bill conservation programs must be fully funded and the federal crop insurance program must be reformed to avert long-term environmental disaster.

Twenty three million acres of grass, gone. Twenty-three million acres of habitat, gone. In just the past five years. Obscene doesn't even begin to describe that kind of destruction, but just try to name me one other ecosystem, biome or region where that type of scorched earth activity would be allowed, tolerated, and even encouraged? Sonofabitch, what we need are some cute-n-cuddly prairie penguins or baby seals or landwhales or something, quick. Or giant trees. Yeah, trees. Somebody please get us some goddamned redwoods so we can name them Luna and then recruit hairy, idealistic college kids to fling themselves in front of the combines...

 And it's not just the northern plains. You see it everywhere you go from the Texas panhandle up into Oklahoma, Kansas, eastern Colorado, Nebraska, basically everywhere. When we drove to Colorado last week I saw more newly-installed center-pivots than I'd ever seen before, aquifer issues be damned. I saw corn growing where for years I'd seen only shortgrass or sand-sage prairie. Things are changing, and changing fast. Incidentally, that F&S blog post got five comments, one less than a "man bites cobra" blog post I wrote the same month. So it goes in 'Murka...

But what's that sound? Could that be the sound of a great, growing feedback loop of  greed and stupidity poised to come 'round again? From Donald Worster's excellent "Dust Bowl: The Southern Plains in the 1930s"...

"A widely respected authority on world food problems, George Borgstrom, has ranked the creation of the Dust Bowl as one of the three worst ecological blunders in history. The other two are the deforestation of the China's uplands about 3000 B.C, which produced centuries of silting and flooding, and the destruction of Mediterranean vegetation by livestock, which left once-fertile lands eroded and impoverished. Unlike either of these two events, however, the Dust Bowl took only fifty years to accomplish. It cannot be blamed on illiteracy or overpopulation or social disorder. It came about because the culture was operating in precisely the way it was supposed to. Americans blazed their way across a richly endowed continent with a ruthless, devastating efficiency unmatched by any people anywhere. When the white men came to the plains, they talked expansively of "busting' and "breaking" the land. And that is exactly what they did. Some environmental catastrophes are nature's work, others are the slowly accumulating effects of ignorance or poverty. The Dust Bowl, in contrast, was the inevitable outcome of a culture that deliberately, self-consciously, set itself that task of dominating and exploiting the land for all it was worth."

More to come on the plains in future blog posts, including a truly fascinating historical railroad document I picked up a couple weeks ago at a used bookshop in OKC that beautifully illustrates how the more things change, the more they stay the same...


  1. Jesus H that's sad.

    You'd think with that last Ken Burns flick people would have this etched into their heads, but alas it's dollar signs.

    I grew up in an agricultural area, and luckily it's a small mountain valley where people know how limited their reach is.. to the pines at the base of the mountains. It's seen some environmental decay, well quite a bit.. but it's slowly coming back with the new generation of farmers who see a bigger picture - fencing off creeks from cattle, rotating dams in the creeks to allow fish to move up and down with the seasons, and using less water as the once constant snowpacks high above are now reduced to nothing or specs that will be gone altogether in the next couple of years.

    I never really thought of the lack of champions for plains conversation before this post. I guess it's difficult for people to empathize with an expansive land that to most is featureless.. You never have read a book about a mountain man coming to the plains and fighting for them (perhaps there is, I've never seen it).

    That is a sad reality and I feel for you. Maybe in the long run a "new" Dust Bowl will be the best thing that can happen. With the modern notions of environmentalism it would beg for champions, and hopefully render possible results. I truly hope it doesn't come to that.

    Thanks for the light in the darkness.

    - Larry

  2. Yup.

    Read Mark Elvin's The Retreat of the Elephants--how a great civilization (China) has been eating and destroying the natural world for centuries while producing sensitive nature poetry...

    Heavy going at times but a metaphor for everyone.

  3. what we need are some cute-n-cuddly prairie penguins or baby seals or landwhales or something, quick. Or giant trees. Yeah, trees. Somebody please get us some goddamned redwoods so we can name them Luna and then recruit hairy, idealistic college kids to fling themselves in front of the combines...

    True sad, bur nicely put

  4. "Twenty three million acres of grass, gone."

    To put it in scale, that's roughly the size of Iceland or Austria -- i.e. pretty big.

  5. Where is the hook and bullet press? They're in tweeds somewhere, covering a driven shoot at some preserve most of us will never get to, and couldn't afford if we did. They did get a free gourmet lunch, though, and the wine list was excellent.

    1. My thoughts exactly...nearly as disturbing as the the trashed landscape... maybe more so...

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    1. "Just look at the hunting/fishing section of your nearest magazine newsstand. It's beyond depressing, just a friggin' black hole of ignorance, materialism, gadget lust and stupidity. "

      It's nice to not feel so alone. The hunting scene is ripe with this filth. I've been writing a piece on this subject tentatively titled "Huntin' With Doosh" for about a year, I just haven't rounded it out fully yet. This discussion is feeding the fire..

      And I think we all want to see that rejected F&S post. Lay it on us brother.

    2. A short history of progress / Ronald Wright. is also eye opening.


  7. NPR's "All Things Considered" actually did a segment on the aquifer today.

    The trouble is, there is this iron triangle supporting corn growing, with more than half of the corn going for ethanol.

    1. Enviros like it because it reduces oil use, and Brazil uses ethanol, and Brazilians are cool.

    2. Some people like it because it's a thumb in the eye to OPEC. You've seen the "ethanol is patriotic" billboards — I notice them on I-90 in eastern North Dakota, near a processing plant.

    3. Farmers like it because they make money on corn, and as one guy says in the NPR program, "If I don't pump that water, someone else will," or words to that effect.

  8. Your post Chad, was the third whack of the day that I experienced pertaining to environmental backsliding. Corn is king and beans are beautiful, water quality and wildlife - not so much. Thanks for continuing to tell true tales.

  9. Really nice piece...give us more like that. Didn't realize you'd left F&S.

  10. this post made so much sense.. we drove across America in 2009, as coastal folks is was SOHARD to understand the lqandscape, but things looked wrong.. and there was no food, just Subway at the Truck Stops.. and many many empty midwest towns, with noone evident. we were freaked out. that year i think the drought inAZ & New Mexico etc was such that my mother told us there had not been an irrigation gate opening ,,... no water at all for her tomatoes and pecan trees, etc...told us that its all being siphoned away to the coast cities, to LA and san diego from the colorao river et all, and the center of our nation cannot hold the water without grasses and the natural anchors... sigh... we need crazy grass-seed-speading kids, like gypsy hippies, running at night through the fields seedbombing, altering sprinkler heads and planting grasses native to the areas.. but! That Would Be eco-Terrorism. not the terror oif altering Gods Good Earth, but cause of the Horror and Terror of altering profits of the folks happy to ruin things for the future. sighhhhhhhh... what about the children? WWJD? how do we turn over the tables in the temple of the prairie? Farmer Ama, VT