MATTERS AT HAND: North Dakotans should realize that prairie has its own value 11/28/05
By Mike Jacobs
Publisher and Editor of the Grand Forks Herald
Among the issues facing North Dakota, perhaps the most difficult is the future of the land itself. North Dakota is a prairie state, but there is little prairie left, and the fate of what there is, is very much in doubt.
It shouldn't be that way. Saving prairie should be a priority for North Dakotans. Of all North American land forms, few are so threatened as prairie. None have fewer friends.
This appears to be changing, but advocates for prairie face opposition at every turn.
Added evidence of this appeared last week, when ranchers who use the Sheyenne National Grasslands objected to a plan to reduce grazing in order to combat invasive weeds. Reducing grazing would affect their livelihoods, the ranchers argued, and they should have priority over the land itself.
This is a difficult argument for us North Dakotans. Many of us remain tied to the land, and most of us who don't take our living directly from agriculture remember when we did, only a generation or two ago.
In North Dakota, land is to be used, we learned. Land that doesn't produce a crop is wasted.
Of course, that attitude is mistaken. Prairie is an incredibly complex ecosystem sustaining a wide variety of plant and animal species. Sadly, there are fewer of these than ever before in North Dakota. Even the meadowlark, the state bird, has been reduced in population. Even the prairie rose, the state flower, has become difficult to find.
Reduced, but not eliminated. Difficult but not impossible.
There is still time to save some of North Dakota's prairie but it's going to take a change in the state's consensus. Instead of seeing land solely as a source of income, we need to see its intrinsic value as the foundation for abundant life.
The national grasslands are owned by the public, which acquired them in the 1930s, when agriculture largely failed. The government stepped in to save the lands and the farmers; the deal it made was that ranchers would have access to the lands but that they would be available for others, as well. For many years the U.S. Forest Service, a division of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, has administered these lands. The Forest Service refers to its lands as "lands of many uses."
For generations, however, two uses have predominated. One is grazing, which is the major use of the Sheyenne National Grasslands. The other is oil, which occurs in the Little Missouri National Grasslands in the southwestern part of the state.
Pressure for oil development has only increased with the escalating demand for petroleum products. The pressure for grazing is subtler, however, and isn't based on economic demand at all. Beef is not in short supply, and demand may be shrinking.
Instead, the ranching industry turns to nostalgia, arguing that it ought to have access to the grasslands in order to preserve a unique lifestyle. This is an appealing argument, but it ultimately fails. Ranching in the national grasslands continues as a result of government subsidies. These aren't direct, but grasslands leaseholders benefit from extremely favorable terms. Without them, their operations wouldn't be viable and, like many thousands of their colleagues outside the grassland areas, they'd be out of business. The government didn't act to save family farmers operating on privately owned land; it need not act to save those operating on public lands.
There's one more reason to favor the prairie. It has value of its own. People will travel to see prairie, especially since it has become so very rare. Prairie offers living space for a diversity of species, each of them valuable by itself, and valuable to humans, too. Prairie offers a glimpse of an ecosystem functioning naturally, and humans find solace and inspiration in that. Prairie offers a glimpse of the Great Plains as they were when humans first came here: vast, open, apparently unending. These are among the "many uses" that prairie ought to have in North Dakota.
That will take a change of attitude.