The past decade has brought sweeping changes to the high plains—the Big Empty sweeping westward from the Dakotas to the Rocky Mountains. Energy production has driven much of the change as drilling for gas and oil, and coal mining have been ramped up to meet the nation’s insatiable demand for fuel. Development in the form of roads, pipelines and drilling rigs has become part of a landscape once dominated by sagebrush and grazing cattle.
Recently, energy activity on the high plains has been among the few bright spots in the national economy, attracting workers to small towns ill-prepared for a population surge. The flip side is that some folks are concerned the boom is too much of a good thing. A recent issue of Dakota Country magazine notes North Dakota lacks both the community infrastructure and environmental regulations necessary to address the growth occurring in its western counties.
Small towns are faced with housing shortages and basic services such as law enforcement are inadequate to address current needs. Incessant truck traffic rumbles along once desolate rural roads. In an arid landscape, water is in high demand, because it is used for hydrofracking, a drilling procedure that creates fissures to make the oil flow. Hydrofracking also creates enormous amounts of wastewater, which may contain contaminants. Some locals are complaining of sicknesses that may be related to contaminated ground water or other environmental degradation associated with drilling.
While you can find diverse opinions on benefits and drawbacks of North Dakota’s oil patch, all agree the country where it is occurring is forever changed. The big spaces are being carved up, most likely negative consequences on the wildlife living there. Free-ranging wildlife adapted to what was a mixture of small grain farming, grazing and badlands has less room to roam or possibly exist in habitat converted to oil development.
Now even more change for the high plains is on the political horizon. Congress is poised to gut the conservation provisions within the Farm Bill, which provide subsidies and grants for landowners and conservation groups to protect and restore wetlands and plant permanent cover on eroding agricultural lands. Two programs, the Conservation Reserve Program and North American Wetlands Conservation Act, currently provide protection to millions of acres of ecologically valuable private lands. Future funding for both programs is in jeopardy.
Congress is cutting spending and farmland conservation programs are low-hanging fruit. But it is one thing to cut a budget and quite another to annihilate it. Ducks Unlimited CEO Dale Hall warns conservationists may be facing an unwinnable fight to save these programs in any semblance of their present form. Why? Because conservation doesn’t have a powerful industrial lobby to fight for it. The current crowd in Washington is very friendly to industries and corporations and indifferent or hostile toward the environment.
To some, this may seem well and good in an era of government budget deficits and a sluggish economy. After all, we all want to see budgets balanced and unemployed Americans going back to work. Others are more cynical—I’m in this category—and see powerful interests using hard times as an excuse for an all-out attack on conservation programs and anything else that puts limits on the industrial use of the American landscape.
What may happen if they succeed in gutting farmland conservation programs? Frankly, most Americans won’t notice a difference, because the farmland they pass by while driving down the highway will look the same to them. But those of us who see the land for its wildlife will see shocking change. Many species of birds will quickly diminish in abundance. Most noticeable will be the ring-necked pheasant, a popular game bird that thrives in cover created through NAWCA and CRP. But all grassland bird species from meadowlarks to wild ducks will suffer losses on a scale that may seem unimaginable.
You see, modern agriculture’s conversion of every possible acre to productive farmland leaves no room for wildlife, which needs grasslands, marshes and brushy cover to exist. Presently, across much of the nation’s breadbasket, the only place such habitat is found is on conservation lands protected by NAWCA and CRP. If these lands are returned to crop production, birds and other wildlife living there will disappear.
This has already occurred in Iowa, where CRP lands were plowed up to grow corn and provide raw material for ethanol production. Once regarded as one of the nation’s top pheasant hunting states, with hunter harvests topping one million birds a year, Iowa rapidly fell from prominence among hunters as CRP acres disappeared during the past decade. The annual pheasant kill is just a shadow of what it used to be.
The same fate may befall waterfowl if Congress continues on its present path. The prairie pothole region of the U.S. and Canada is considered the continent’s duck factory, because it is the primary breeding ground for most North American ducks. Their annual spring and fall migrations are arguably the greatest natural wonder of the continent. However, this wealth of birds has fragile underpinnings. Canada has no counterpart to CRP and natural wetlands and grasslands have been drained and plowed. In recent years, the U.S. has produced more mallards and other ducks than Canada due to habitat provided by CRP and NAWCA. Without that habitat, this continental wonder may quickly become a memory.
But there is more to farmland conservation than providing nesting grounds for birds. Wetlands and grasslands are essential to the natural functions of a healthy landscape, holding erodible soils in place, retaining runoff and feeding organic material to the soil. By contrast, if the same land is converted to row crops, all of these benefits are lost and the land simply becomes raw earth that is repeatedly soaked with a chemical stew of fertilizer, pesticides and herbicides in order to support just one life form—a cash crop.
This is not to say farming is bad or that we should convert the agricultural landscape to an unpopulated Buffalo Commons, but we need to strike a balance on the landscape that allows the wild to coexist with modern agriculture. The Big Empty holds a place in our history and in our hearts. If a decade from now, we’ve allowed it to become as developed and industrialized as lands to the East, we’ll have lost part of our American soul.