Tallying the cost: Prairie habitat, industrial agriculture and the Great Plains


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Bruce Babbitt will present “Nebraska’s Water Future: Feast of Famine,” the final lecture in this year’s E. N. Thompson Forum on World Issues. The opinions in this essay are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the Thompson Forum or the sponsoring organizations. By Bruce Babbitt Tallgrass prairie once covered the Midwest, interspersed with oak savannas along streams that drained toward the Mississippi River. Small lakes, potholes and swamps dotted the land, occupying imperfectly drained soils, still fresh from the glaciers that had melted away little more than 10,000 years ago. Herds of bison roamed the prairie, trailed by packs of wolves. Overhead, flocks of waterfowl filled the skies, migrating south in the winter, returning in the spring to nest and breed on the waters. Then the homesteaders arrived, migrating in from the Ohio Valley, the Appalachians, New England and from countries across the sea. They broke sod, plowed and planted, transforming the tall grass prairie into the most productive agricultural land in the world. As the prairie disappeared, no one gave much thought to what was being lost; the prairie seemed limitless and there would always be more on the western horizon. By the end of the 19th century more than 99 percent of the tallgrass prairie of Iowa and the other Midwestern states had vanished, replaced by row crops. Only in recent times have we begun to tally the costs of this transformation from prairie to industrial agriculture. The bison herds are gone with the prairie that nourished them. The migratory waterfowl have declined as their nesting habitat disappeared. The loss of topsoil continues, relentlessly stripped away from exposed fields by wind and water. The Iowa Department of Agriculture, hardly an alarmist source, reports that fully half of the state’s soil has been depleted - eroded by streams and carried away by wind - after fewer than 200 years of farming. The Dust Bowl of the 1930s, now fading from contemporary memory, remains a reminder of what can happen when farmers ignore the limits imposed by climate and rainfall. Water contamination is a serious threat, born of the vast increase in the use of ammonia-based fertilizers and pesticides since World War II. Water pollution threatens the groundwater on which farmers rely for domestic use. And the problem does not stop there. Fertilizers and pesticides dissolving in the rain and washing downstream and into the Gulf of Mexico a thousand miles away have begun to destroy ocean fisheries. A giant dead zone now spreads outward from the Mississippi Delta and westward along the Texas Gulf over an area the size of Massachusetts. The lesson is clear: Industrial agriculture has been extended too far, and the price has been too high for the land and the water to bear. A few patches of tallgrass prairie remain in out of the way places like the Loess Hills of Iowa. Hiking through these hills, I saw for the first time the real thing, the fabled tall grass: big bluestem, little bluestem, sand bluestem, Indian grass and switchgrass rippling in the breeze, stems shooting up seven feet high, closing over my head. In the breaks leading toward the river, the slopes were studded with large oaks and hickories, interspersed with swatches of brilliant prairie flowers. Our task, in this generation, is to begin prairie restoration on a large scale, starting with the networks of rivers and streams that branch outward across the land like the veins on a tree leaf. The restoration of stream bottoms would take the marginal, flood-threatened lands out of production. It would provide interconnected corridors for wildlife, and would make a major contribution toward restoring the degraded quality of our rivers. Babbitt’s lecture will take place on Tuesday, April 22 at 7 p.m. at the Lied Center for Performing Arts, 12th and R Streets, Lincoln, Neb. The lecture is free and open to the public but tickets are required. Contact the Lied Center Ticket Office, 402-472-4747 or 800-432-3231 for tickets. The lecture is also streamed live on the UNL Web site, www.unl.edu. For more information on this year’s Thompson Forum, go to enthompson.unl.edu.

Immigration in Nebraska