The Greening of the Plains

A conservation movement is stirring on the Great Plains, but farmers are stuck with a stark reality: It pays to plow up virgin ground

  HARLEM, Montana — Concrete grain elevators, steel silos, shelterbelts, and the neat imprints of irrigation furrows punctuate the shallow Milk River Valley. But north of the river, the square irrigated farms dissolve into a rising, uneven landscape. Vast dryland wheat fields neighbor huge blankets of mixed-grass prairie. The prairie drapes into coulees and glints with natural wetlands — remnants of the Great Plains ecosystems that once stretched in an unbroken expanse from central Canada into Mexico, and from the Rocky Mountains to the forests of the Midwest.

Harold Miller is a rare bird here on the "Hi-Line," a sparsely populated strip of north-central Montana just south of the Canadian border. In place of the stereotypical seed-company cap, he’s crested with an XFL Las Vegas Outlaws ballcap. At 31, he’s a quarter-century younger than the average farmer or rancher in Montana.

Speaking of his high school graduation class in the small town of Chinook, Miller says, "The number who farm and ranch — there’s three of us out of 30. And I’m the only one who has got my own place."

The 2,600 dryland acres that Miller farms with his wife, Rhea, look rugged, but they’re carefully tended. The Millers have laboriously pulled hundreds of glacial rocks from the ground; a pile as big as a house sits next to one of their fields. New wheat rises among last year’s stalks, left in place to prevent wind erosion. To foil pests and disease, the Millers rotate crops each year, from wheat to barley to peas; the peas are plowed back into the soil to enrich it without chemical fertilizers. They use no chemical herbicides. It’s a certified organic operation.

"Both of our families used chemicals" on their farms, Miller explains. "That was what we grew up with, (but it) just didn’t seem right."

The Millers began their farm as newlyweds, in 1998, with the help of a low-interest, beginning-farmer loan, and they’ve kept it going with relatively modest federal subsidies totaling about $48,000 in the first five years. They hope to give the farm to their daughters when they retire, or perhaps sell it to another young farm family. They would like to help stanch the flow of young people away from this remote region.

During the last few droughty years, Harold Miller recalls looking south toward the Bear Paw Mountains and seeing clouds of soil fly from conventional farms. "It reminded me of the Dust Bowl," he says. "But my land wouldn’t blow. That’s one of my biggest goals, to keep the soil there."

Yet, despite their good stewardship, the Millers’ farm comes with an ecological cost. To plant their organic crops, they could have converted conventional farmland, but that would have been expensive and time-consuming, requiring at least three years for farm-chemical residues to subside and for the soil’s fertility to recover. So instead, the Millers plowed up native prairie.

It’s an old story with a modern twist. The plow has been the main destroyer of the prairie for more than a hundred years. Today, even progressive, organic farmers are still sodbusting. The practice continues around the Northern Great Plains for a mix of reasons, including federal farm subsidies. And until recently, few people took notice of the vanishing native grasslands.

But that is beginning to change. A conservation movement is finally stirring on the Plains.

A diverse ecosystem plowed under

It’s easy to see why the prairie is often overlooked. Stand here on the Hi-Line, and you may notice little but the monochrome sweep of grass and the whoosh of the wind. An occasional sparrow or insect may touch the edge of the silence, or a few pronghorn catch the eye, hinting that more is going on than you can see. It’s true: Prairies are rich, subtle ecosystems.

There are more than a half-dozen major categories of prairie in this country, including the chest-high tallgrass of the Midwest and eastern Dakotas; the mixed-grass found in Montana, the western Dakotas and Nebraska; and the shortgrass of Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico and Texas. They all evolved amid massive ecological forces.

Enormous herds of bison and frequent wildfires periodically stripped the land of its foliage. In turn, many animals evolved to live here at different stages of the recovery process. Countless prairie dog towns aerated the soil and produced habitat for many other species (HCN, 8/16/99: Standing up for the underdog). This created diversity: At least 1,500 kinds of grasses and other plants live on the Northern Great Plains alone, according to the World Wildlife Fund, along with 350 kinds of birds, 95 mammals, 82 grasshoppers, and 92 dragonflies and damselflies.

The scene is equally complex belowground. Unlike forests, where 80 percent of the biomass is found aboveground, about 75 percent of the prairie’s biomass resides in the roots. The roots evolved to store energy and nutrients during hard times, so plants are able to quickly regrow leafy material. Mycorrhizal fungi, which inhabit the root systems, pump soil nutrients into the roots. These fungi also protect plants from other, harmful fungi; they knit the soil together to prevent erosion; and they influence which plants will grow in a particular area.

All that began to change when the plows arrived. The first waves of sodbusting were the biggest and ultimately the most devastating. Following the Homestead Act of 1862 and then the Enlarged Homestead Act of 1909, a tsunami of sodbusters crashed onto the plains, seeking free land. Nearly all the tallgrass prairies of the Midwest disappeared in the homestead era; today, only relatively tiny tallgrass preserves remain. Farther west, another big wave of sodbusting hit during World War I, when federal price guarantees encouraged farmers to increase the wheat planting from 45 million acres in 1917 to 74 million acres in 1919. But when the wind attacked the plowed ground, Dust Bowl conditions overtook the dry plains. In 1934, according to historian Donald Worster, the first big dust storm of the "Dirty Thirties" carried away 350 million tons of Montana and Wyoming soil, eventually scattering it all the way to the East Coast.

The government responded by paying farmers to plant shelterbelts and retire farmland. But sodbusting didn’t stop. In the early 1970s, a crop failure in the Soviet Union caused wheat prices in the U.S. to double, and even triple. The high prices inspired farmers to plow millions more acres of prairie by the mid-1980s. The resulting surfeit of grain triggered what the U.S. Department of Agriculture calls "the farm sector’s worst financial crisis since the Great Depression." The government stepped in again with a series of farm-aid bills, OK’d by Congress and by every president since 1985, that has kept farmers in business, even in marginal areas.

The farm subsidies — averaging more than $10 billion per year — include price supports, disaster relief, subsidized insurance and low-interest loans. Farmers also benefit from tariffs and other measures that protect American producers from international competition. Without federal subsidies, many farmers would lose money: Montana’s farmers received $2.05 billion in subsidies between 1997 and 2001, for example, while total profits came to only $1.67 billion.

All the aid helps farmers survive droughts, late freezes and wind, but at the same time, it encourages even more sodbusting. As Brian Martin, Great Plains project manager for The Nature Conservancy in Montana, says, "The biggest threat to native prairie is federal farm policy."

During the last two decades, according to the National Resources Inventory, a survey of nonfederal lands, "rangeland" — the closest surrogate for native prairie — declined by more than 10 million acres. About two-thirds of the loss occurred in eight Plains states: Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, the Dakotas, Kansas, Nebraska and New Mexico. Most of it went to cropland.

Recent waves of sodbusting have hit the Dakotas, where genetically modified soybeans are being planted on land too dry for previous varieties. And here in north-central Montana, organic agriculture has caught on. The organic acreage planted in Montana is increasing by about 20 percent per year, according to one official estimate; organic grain topped 45,000 acres in 2001, among the highest total of any state.

The whole economic system —markets and subsidies — tilts the land toward crops. Around here, local farmers estimate that plowing an acre of prairie raises its value from around $100 to between $300 and $400. A farmer can cash in that increase by using the newly plowed land as collateral for a loan, or simply by selling the land.

Hi-Line rancher Henry Gordon says banks often encourage land-buyers to plow prairie to reap the subsidies and increase the land’s value. "They say, ‘We’ll lend you the money, but you’re going to have to tear up so many acres.’ "

"The only way I could have got started," Miller, the young farmer, admits, "is by buying (inexpensive ranch) pastures and breaking them up. If (farmland) was for sale, we would have to go in debt so long it wouldn’t work."

"Farming the government"

Ironically, what the USDA calls the nation’s "largest conservation program" helps to drive the plows. It’s the Conservation Reserve Program, or CRP, which began in 1986 during the depression in the farm economy.

The Conservation Reserve Program pays farmers to replant their crop fields with perennial grasses for 10- or 15-year cycles, to prevent erosion, create habitat for some wildlife, and curb overproduction of grains. Many conservationists praise it because it benefits songbirds such as grasshopper sparrows. Hunters love it because it’s good for ducks, pheasants (an exotic species), pronghorn and mule deer.

"When it comes to wildlife, it is the diamond," says Ron Helinski, a policy specialist at the Wildlife Management Institute, a pro-hunting conservation group based in Washington, D.C.

The USDA has 34.7 million acres currently enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, paying farmers about $1.66 billion per year — the third largest farm subsidy after corn and wheat. In the Northern Great Plains alone (Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, the Dakotas, and Nebraska), about 12 million acres are idled under the program. Up to 25 percent of the farmland in any county can be enrolled, and many counties are maxed out.

But CRP land is not the same as native prairie. It might restore a particular habitat, but not an ecosystem. In fact, until recently, farmers could plant nonnative grasses on CRP land, and most of them did. "In lots of respects," says Craig Knowles, a wildlife biologist in Montana, "those CRP fields are just monocultures of crested wheatgrass," a species native to Europe and Asia.

Even if the replanted grass is native, it lacks the diversity of a prairie, which contains dozens of species of grasses, forbs and sedges in every acre. CRP habitat does nothing to help especially imperiled animals like the sage grouse, the black-tailed prairie dog, and the mountain plover, a bird that lives in dogtowns. CRP land also harbors fewer species of insects and spiders — the prey of grassland birds during nesting season. Conservation Reserve Program grass can also be mowed for hay and opened to cattle grazing during times of drought, as happened this summer and in 2002. This is timed to minimize impacts on birds nesting in the grass and other wildlife, but it only happens when the ecosystems are already stressed by lack of rain.

In the past, farmers could even plow prairie, plant crops for several years, then enroll the land in the Conservation Reserve Program just to draw the payments. According to the National Resources Inventory, about 728,000 acres classified as rangeland in 1982 were in CRP in 1997. The money is hard to resist, since it often runs two or three times higher than the prices farmers get for leasing their land for other purposes.

CRP’s biggest impact on native prairie likely comes when farm families accept the payments for retiring some fields and then plow more prairie elsewhere.

On the Hi-Line, Steve Swank and Warren Lybeck formed a partnership to plow prairie and plant organic crops beginning in 1998, after their families’ operations put conventional cropland into CRP. "We didn’t quit farming," Swank says. "We just moved our farming south a little bit." By the end of this year, he says, the duo will have "torn up" about 10,000 acres of prairie.

Swank and Lybeck say that the CRP contracts are not related to their sodbusting; the farms enrolled in CRP are "run as totally different entities" than the organic farm, Swank says. But the CRP payments to their families are substantial. From 1998 to 2002, Lybeck’s family’s farm received about $310,000 in federal subsidies, including $176,000 through the CRP; from 1999 to 2002, Swank’s family’s farm received about $380,000 in subsidies, including $218,000 through CRP, according to a database compiled by the Environmental Working Group, a D.C.-based watchdog. Their organic partnership, called 3X Farms, got no CRP payments during that time, but received other subsidies totaling about $119,000, according to the watchdog group.

The two farmers say the prairie they’ve plowed was not in good shape: It was overgrown with mats of club moss, a native plant. "We tear up ground that isn’t superproductive," Swank says. They leave some patches unplowed, so the land still has some diversity, and their organic farming is "real sustainable — the oldest form of farming," Lybeck says.

But their neighbor, Henry Gordon, gesturing at their newly plowed land, says, "A lot of this is submarginal ground. The only thing you’re really farming is the government, because otherwise you can’t make it pay."

A conservation movement stirs

Despite the continuing advance of the plow, the drier climes of the Plains, where many homesteads were ranches instead of farms, still have vast expanses of unplowed mixed-grass and shortgrass prairies, an estimated 175 million acres. Much of the unplowed prairie has been degraded by improperly managed cattle grazing. It’s also been harmed by stream diversions and campaigns to eliminate bison and prairie dogs, and by oil and gas drilling, and incursions by nonnative grasses and weeds. But even degraded prairie is ecologically better than plowed ground.

"Ranching keeps the sod rightside-up," says Curt Freese, who runs a World Wildlife Fund regional office in Bozeman.

Still, conservationists have noticed effects of declining prairie that go well beyond the publicized loss of bison, prairie dogs and black-footed ferrets. Beginning about six years ago, for instance, the Audubon Society’s annual Breeding Birds Survey found that some grassland birds were declining more sharply than any other bird species on the continent. Those birds include Baird’s sparrow, Sprague’s pipit and the chestnut-collared longspur. The mountain plover and the piping plover, cousins of killdeer, are in serious trouble, as are some species of butterflies.

Apparently, there is simply not enough protected prairie, even though the public land includes some sizable patches. The U.S. Forest Service’s National Grasslands — land bought from destitute homesteaders in the 1930s — comprises about 4 million acres in 20 parcels, 17 of them scattered across the Great Plains. National wildlife refuges, monuments and parks also contain some prairie remnants. But the public parcels are few and far between on the hundreds of millions of acres of plains, as are the private preserves of prairie, run by groups such as The Nature Conservancy.

"In the 1990s, we began to realize that our efforts weren’t going to be successful if we just saved 50,000 acres," says the Conservancy’s Martin. He gives an example: If a butterfly population lives on a 1,000-acre island of prairie surrounded by land that’s degraded, and that island is scorched by wildfire or drought, the butterflies won’t be able to fly to the next patch of prairie. The population winks out. "Prairie species," he says, "evolved to take advantage of that massive continuum of habitat."

In response, the Conservancy and other groups have launched a major prairie conservation initiative. The World Wildlife Fund, for example, took the lead in a study called Ocean of Grass, which identifies 10 areas on the Northern Plains that have potential for large-scale restoration and conservation of grasslands species — roughly a million or more acres each. The Wildlife Fund also helped organize more than 20 groups into the Northern Plains Conservation Network, which shares science and coordinates local efforts.

The Wildlife Fund has begun restoration efforts in two areas, says Freese. One is Saskatchewan, near where the Canadian government is slowly buying up 220,000 acres of ranchland to create a Grasslands National Park. The other area is on the Montana Glaciated Plains, north of the Missouri River.

The American Prairie Foundation, a Bozeman-based land trust which began in 2001 and now has eight staffers, concentrates on the Montana Glaciated Plains. It pulled off its first conservation deal in January, buying nearly 5,000 acres from a rancher who wanted to move to town; the ranch came with 15,000 acres of public land, leased from the state and the Bureau of Land Management. More deals are in the works, says Sean Gerrity, the land trust’s director.

The Prairie Foundation and the Wildlife Fund are laying the groundwork for restoring willows, cottonwoods and beaver to the ranch. They hope to reintroduce wild bison soon, by placing a small, disease-free herd on a fenced-in, 1,200-acre pasture. Future land purchases will attempt to link the ranch to other private and public conservation parcels in the area, Gerrity says. "We’re the glue ... our goal is to put together a fully functioning prairie."

Hurdles ahead

But the real goal — combining enough parcels to form huge preserves — remains a long way off. "Frankly, it’s still a challenge to get private donor dollars for prairie," says the Conservancy’s Martin. "It’s not as quick of a sale as (conservation projects) in western Montana," where the scenery includes photogenic mountains and trout streams.

Enlisting local people is another challenge. Conservationists are sensitive to the economic distress on the Plains, where small towns are losing population and many farmers struggle to break even. They remember how New Jersey professors Frank and Deborah Popper got skewered by Plains residents for their "Buffalo Commons" idea. The Buffalo Commons is a plan for rebuilding the Plains economy around native grasslands — through tourism and prairie products like bison meat but when the Poppers first proposed it, many locals saw it as a takeover attempt (HCN, 1/15/01: Plains sense).

Organic farmer Harold Miller, for one, is wary of the prospect of turning private land into prairie preserves. "I just feel we’re being pushed off," he says. "They (conservationists) want to move us into towns, and make this into a big recreation place, so they can go hiking and fishing. But they don’t care about (the) people (who) are making a living off these places."

The conservationists emphasize that they’re not forcing anyone to do anything. This becomes clear at The Nature Conservancy’s 60,000-acre Matador Ranch. Since 2002, the Conservancy has managed the ranch as a "grass bank," leasing rangeland to a dozen nearby ranchers. Ranchers who agree to conservation practices on their home ranches — allowing prairie dogs, eliminating weeds, and of course, not plowing — pay less for grazing on the Matador. In all, the Matador project affects 295,000 acres, entirely through incentive-based conservation.

The conservationists also plan to buy easements and use other economic tools, such as long-term purchase options that allow farmers to stay on their land until they die. "We can only go as fast as people are willing to sell to us," says the Prairie Foundation’s Gerrity. "We have to make friends, and show people there are benefits for everyone."

The land trust will pay local property taxes on land it buys, even though nonprofit groups are not required to, Gerrity says. The trust already employs two people around small-town Malta; it bought a $28,000 truck from a local dealer, and has spent about $15,000 so far in local motels, restaurants and shops. Moreover, Gerrity says, the trust has promised not to close off public access to its holdings; limited hunting will be allowed, as will hiking and birdwatching. "As we get traction," Gerrity says, tourism based on wildlife-viewing should increase.

Government steps up, too

The federal government has also increased its farm-related conservation spending, even as it tries to keep farmers on the land. The 2002 Farm Bill put in motion an 80 percent total increase for conservation, says Dave White, who heads the Montana office of the USDA’s Natural Resources Conservation Service. Individual USDA conservation programs got much larger increases.

One program, called EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program), shot up from $200 million in 2002 to $1 billion this year, White says. It pays farmers to adopt conservation practices that improve water quality, wildlife, and irrigation efficiency. The Natural Resources Conservation Service also received $112 million this year (a 1,400 percent increase over 2002) to help local governments and other entities buy easements and development rights on agricultural land across the nation.

Many conservation groups pushed for the changes, says White, who worked on drafting the 2002 bill. Those groups included Environmental Defense, Defenders of Wildlife, and the American Farmland Trust. It was a bipartisan effort in Congress.

"The shift has occurred. Congress is serious about private-land conservation," White says. It’s not imposing new, burdensome regulations, he adds, and one of its goals "is to preserve working farms."

But the government is not meeting all needs, either. The 2002 Farm Bill created the Grasslands Reserve Program expressly to fund easements to keep grasslands unplowed. But the Reserve Program’s budget in 2003 was only about $50 million — less than 1 percent of the total subsidies that drive sodbusting.

In Montana, the Grassland Reserve Program will preserve roughly 10,000 acres approved in the 2003 sign-up, through several easements. Still, there’s a huge unmet demand: More than 400 Montana landowners have offered up to 1 million acres for the program.

The 2002 Farm Bill closed some loopholes in the Conservation Reserve Program, but the CRP still allows its farmers to plow more prairie. Many conservationists believe that the only way to stop sodbusting altogether is through new laws that would strip all subsidies from sodbusters, much the way a federal "swampbuster" rule protects wetlands.

Farmers like Swank and Lybeck could probably stay in business without busting sod; like many farmers, they have diversified, running some cattle and doing a variety of farming enterprises. Their sodbusting is a response to the logic of markets and government programs. "We’re businessmen up here," says Swank. "When you’re trying to make a living on it, it changes your perspective. You need to get all the dollars off it you can per acre."

Rancher Gordon is involved in the conservation effort. He runs about 1,400 cows on 62,000 acres of private and public land. Last year, he put a conservation easement on about 15,000 private acres. The Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks paid him $945,000 for the easement, about a quarter of the profit he would make if he plowed every private acre he set aside. Gordon also applied for Grassland Reserve Program money, but didn’t get it; he plans to apply again, with an improved grazing-management plan.

Gordon also gets federal subsidies for farming — about $270,000 from 1998 to 2002, including about $50,000 from CRP for retiring cropland he bought. But he doesn’t like the idea of farmers "tearing up all that grass." The easement will prevent his land from ever being torn up, and it will provide habitat for swift fox, shorebirds, waterfowl and grassland birds.

"This is a way to keep a large piece of ground native, and it’s producing what it can produce," he says — grass for his cows, and wildlife habitat. "For every acre of ground torn up, there’s 54 varieties of birds that have to go somewhere else."

Josh Garrett-Davis is a native of South Dakota who now lives in Brooklyn, New York. Ray Ring, HCN’s editor in the field, contributed to this story.



This story is funded by the generous donors to the "Who Will Take Over the Ranch" project, a series of stories on the plight of the West’s private lands.

American Prairie Foundation in Bozeman, Montana, 406-585-4600, or e-mail to Dakota Meeks, dakota@americanprairie.org

World Wildlife Fund Bozeman office, 406-582-0235, and WWF's Northern Great Plains Web site, www.worldwildlife.org/wildplaces/negp/

Natural Resources Conservation Service www.nrcs.usda.gov/