Agate Fossil Beds National Monument is separated from Ashfall Fossil Beds State Historical Park by only about 250 miles of mostly sandy Nebraska landscapes, but the two sites are isolated by nearly ten million years of time. In appearance they are also markedly different. Agate Fossil Beds, in Sioux County of Nebraska’s northwestern panhandle, is situated among heavily eroded shortgrass plains and ancient bluffs, where the still-tiny Niobrara River cuts a meandering thin blue line through an otherwise arid landscape. In contrast, Ashfall Fossil Beds is located in northeastern Nebraska, within the well-watered valley of a broad and mature Niobrara River, most of which consists of fertile farmland devoted to raising corn.
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It might surprise some that Nebraska has been a clean fuel state for many years and alternate fuels have been part of the state’s energy landscape for quite a long time. Today, alternate fuels are rapidly becoming a much more visible alternative to petroleum-based fuels used in transportation.
Transportation, clean fuels, and energy are major players in the state’s modern economy; and the Nebraska Environmental Trust and the Department of Energy’s Clean Cities program are playing significant supporting roles in getting Nebraska’s clean fuels options on solid ground as hybrids, CNG, and propane vehicles are becoming more commonplace.
Nebraska has the potential to lead the nation in clean energy: Our state ranks third in the nation in wind and thirteenth in solar potential, and we have enormous biomass and biogas resources. But less than 5 percent of our state’s electricity is currently produced by renewables, and we are heavily reliant on coal to meet our electricity demands. Nebraska is one of the top importers of coal nationwide, and we rank fourth in per capita expenditures on coal imports. We are being surpassed by all of our neighboring states in clean energy development, and have a long way to go before we meet our potential in renewable energy.
Three hundred years ago, a French explorer introduced the Platte River, and Nebraska, to Europe. Étienne de Veniard, Sieur de Bourgmont had arrived at the mouth of the Platte on June 16, 1714. According to his navigational logs, the Otoe living along the river called it the “Flat Water,” the Nibraskier. Today, the river and its original Otoe name define the modern state of Nebraska.
One day in the summer of 1971, University of Nebraska’s paleontologist Mike Voorhies and his wife, Jane, were walking along a streambed tributary of Verdigre Creek, in Antelope County, gathering data for a planned geological map. Mike knew the area well, having grown up in the small town of Orchard, only eight miles away. Walking along the streambed ravine, he noticed an exposed layer of ash about a foot in thickness partway up the face of a steep ravine.
Nature reveals unsought secrets and answers unasked questions to those who walk slowly in a spirit of openness and to those who delight equally in the common and the rare. The nineteenth-century English writer Richard Jefferies and his American contemporary Henry David Thoreau apparently believed this. The concept of prodigality in nature proposed by Jefferies and the sauntering prescribed by Thoreau speak to the unsought, the unasked, and the impractical experience of nature. The lavish abundance of nature (prodigality) seems frivolous in the eyes of human economy; mysterious beauty is found beyond human use or comprehension. The intentionally aimless walking (sauntering) of a prodigal naturalist seems frivolous as well. For all our frivolity, my sauntering colleagues and I have found practicality in prodigality. By walking in wild places for no particular reason, we have made important discoveries.
People often joke that scientists can’t seem to get things right. One year eggs are a good source of protein, the next year eggs contain too much cholesterol. Why can’t scientists seem to agree on anything? And if they’re always changing their minds about things, why should we trust anything they say?
To understand inconsistencies in science we must first understand the function of science. At its core, science is an explanation of reality based on observations. Science is not reality; it is simply our best explanation of reality. Scientific theories, such as the theory of gravity, result from the accumulation of these explanations. Scientific theories describe how we have observed the world act in the past and how we assume the world will continue to act in the future. It is important to remember that scientific theories don’t guide the behavior of the events we experience. Theories are simply our description of the underlying principles of how these events behave.
It’s good that in 2014 we’ve had a national conversation about monarch butterflies, whose overwintering numbers in Mexico plummeted for a second year in a row (two colonies covering only 1.5 acres). The causes are many, with lack of milkweed habitat in the United States a leading player. But in our commonly emotional responses to the loss of a quintessential summer insect, we’re skimming over a much larger conversation we need to be having—what else is vanishing along with the monarch, and why aren’t we doing anything more profound to preserve and create habitat for native ecosystems like prairie, where milkweed once thrived?
When Ronnie Green became vice president of the University of Nebraska and Harlan vice chancellor of the Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln four years ago, he laid out a new vision for the future of IANR. Part of that vision included enhancing and growing the community of IANR by introducing an institute-wide colloquium bringing people together around the important topics of the day. He approached B. Keith and Norma Heuermann of Phillips, Nebraska, long-time university supporters, about the idea of establishing an internationally recognized lecture series on food and natural resources security that would go with the emerging themes of IANR—“Growing a Healthy Future: Food, Fuel, Water, Landscapes, and People.”
Keith Heuermann shares Green’s enthusiasm for engaging in these types of important discussions. “The key issue is quantity. We are going to have to produce more with less,” said Heuermann. “Education is the key to everything.” The lecture series is funded by a continuing gift from the Heuermanns, who have a strong commitment to Nebraska’s production agriculture, natural resources, rural areas, and people.
In a part of the world where conditions lurch from drought to flood over a matter of weeks, as they have done on the Plains in recent years, it is understandable that water problems are generally seen in terms of supply. But water quality is also important. All the beneficial uses that we make of our waters, such as for drinking, to support food production through irrigation, to satisfy domestic and industrial needs, not to forget the support of wildlife, depend crucially on good quality water. Yet many of those uses potentially add contaminants to the water.
The dilemma is a familiar one. Something we all derive great benefit from, on the Great Plains especially food production from agriculture, has side effects on other aspects of our lives that impair environment and human health. Sustainable management solutions have to take account of these trade-offs
The countryside of the northern Plains would look much different if it were populated by more people like Gabe Brown.
Some might contend that the region’s land and water resources would be healthier, and the vitality, fertility, and resilience of soils would be improved. Some might even say that the quality of our food would be better.
Brown’s thoughtful, ecological land management practices were earned through turmoil and hardship, like many meaningful, lasting lessons are learned.
There’s nothing quite like sticking my hands into a flowing stream of mud to help me settle into deep time. More specifically, into a flow of mud coming out of a drill rig that is probing deep into the Ogallala/High Plains Aquifer. The deeper the drill stem goes, the further back in time it reaches. And every foot of the way, there are rock fragments and bits of fossils and clumps of ancient soils that tell a story as surely as if written in the pages of a book.
As John McPhee points out in Basin and Range, the top of Mount Everest is a marine limestone. That leads geologists to all kinds of musings and discussions about how a rock made of ocean-dwelling plants and animals could end up at the top of earth’s highest mountain range. Without massive amounts of data derived from fieldwork and office computations, these big-picture models would not be possible. That is the case right here in Nebraska, where thousands of individual data points from test holes have given us regional models that our state policy makers can use when determining how best to manage our groundwater.
About fifty thousand years ago, as the northern hemisphere was locked in a global deep-freeze and the continental glaciers of the Pleistocene were at a maximum, a large land bridge that connected Asia and North America existed in the general region now occupied by the Bering Sea and Alaska, the so-called “Beringia” region. Across that corridor many mammals migrated from Asia over the millennia, including North America’s ancestral brown bears and, much more recently, the first humans.
One early influx of bears arrived in North America from Asia less than fifty thousand years ago. Some of these ancestral Alaskan brown bears apparently became isolated in island and coastal habitats by the last of the great glaciers, and the polar bear evolved from them. A later influx of bears from Asia produced the modern brown and grizzly bears (Ursus arctos).
It’s August of 2013, and I’m standing on a hillside in northwest Lancaster County, gazing into the distance through morning haze and waiting to hear that distinctive chopping sound made by large helicopters. In front of me a few feet downhill is something that looks like a gigantic Hula-Hoop with a metal box attached to one side of its curve.
The helicopter and the hoop represent a sea change in the way geohydrologists will go about the work of finding and defining aquifers. This technology won’t make drilling test holes obsolete. There will always be a need for human beings and drill rigs to establish the “ground truth” for what lies underneath a specific point on earth’s surface. But the equipment in that metal box does represent a revolution in how geologists will put together the descriptions and cross sections of the earth’s crust in a level of detail not previously possible. With ever-increasing certainty, geologists will be able to map the positions and compositions of previously “unseeable” layers of rock.
Nebraska is about agriculture. We have almost forty-seven thousand farms and ranches that produce food for Americans and the world. Our state is first in beef cattle, red meat production, great northern beans, popcorn, and irrigated acres, second in ethanol, third in corn, fifth in soybeans, sixth in pork. Cash receipts from Nebraska farm marketing contributed over $24 million to Nebraska’s economy in 2012. Over 95 percent of our farms are family-owned, and these farm families foster strong rural communities that grow strong kids.
In these times of deep political division, a sense of community is often lost in a cacophony of special interests, individual pursuits, and various grievances both real and imagined.
Nebraska Nexus—a seventy-five-minute video that recently aired on Nebraska Educational Television—cuts through the noise, asking us to come together in conversations about our future and reviving that sense of community that has long been the pride of rural and urban settlements across the North American prairies.
A farmer’s work ethic gets tested between drought and floods.
Drought in 2002 and cattle markets closing in 2003 took everything Ward Hoculak had on his Lamont, Alberta farm. It was “start over” for the fourth-generation, forty-three-year-old farmer. The world closed its borders to Canadian beef because of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, also known as mad cow disease, devastating all cattle farmers, Ward said. He was tired of spraying chemicals, and he and his brother Sid complained about low commodity prices. He said it made him sick to work year-round and never see a penny, with most of his money feeding chemical and fertilizer companies.
Many are surprised to hear me speak of the deep beauty to be found in the oak-aspen woodlands of urban Winnipeg. By design and by accident, natural areas big and small have survived both in-fill development and urban sprawl. I love the seven-hundred-acre Assiniboine Forest; people go about their fossil-fueled lives while nature minds her mysterious business right around the corner. But my favorite urban nature preserve is the much smaller Living Prairie Museum, just down the street from the international airport. Bound by commercial properties and flanked by an asphalt bike route, LPM preserves remnant prairie, native woodland, and a measure of wildness.
As Doug Sieck gazes across his three-thousand-acre farm and ranch operation, his focus isn’t so much on the surface of the land as it is on what’s beneath the surface.
That wasn’t always his inclination.
“When I grew up, and for many years after that,” Sieck recalled, “my family and our neighbors summer fallowed roughly half our land. We’d plow it up and keep it black, and then we’d grow wheat on that land the following year. We thought we were doing the right thing. What we didn’t realize was that when we turned the soil, we destroyed living roots and eliminated a food source for microbes. I now understand that microbes are a key to soil health.”
We’ve been raising cattle in the Swan Creek Valley for a long time,” said Lyle Perman when asked via telephone how long he’d been involved in agriculture. He stretched out the word “long” and articulated “the Swan Creek Valley” like someone who has for a lifetime emphasized a deeply felt “place” as a means to orient his life.
Perman’s Rock Hills Ranch straddles Swan Creek in south-central Walworth County, South Dakota, about forty-five miles south of the North Dakota border. The Missouri River’s artificial impoundment named Oahe is a dozen miles west, and through all that distance is a rolling, rangy landscape. East of the ranch the topography flattens out and opens up for fifty miles until it gets turbulent again, dropping like a gentle rapids built of bluffs and small hills before spilling into the James River lowlands. Some of Perman’s ranch land sits at two thousand feet above sea level. The floor of the James River valley is 1,290 or so.