Daily Archives: December 13, 2012

Plowing Away the Prairie, at a Price

Conversion of native prairie to corn and soy bean cultivation has resulted in the loss of huge expanses of the10,000-year-old native prairie that once stretched from Saskatchewan to the Gulf of Mexico. Conservationists say the country is facing the loss of a national heritage and an irreplaceable ecological resource. The increased global demand for food, energy and federal policies that take the risk out of farming marginal land have accelerated this process. Based upon satellite imagery, 37,000 square miles of grasslands, wetlands and shrublands have been converted to row crops in the last four years. According to satellite data of Minnesota land that was once tallgrass prairie, only one-fourth is in grasses today. And only about 300 square miles of native prairie remnants across the state remain.

Prairie grasslands and wetlands cleanse water in the great river basins, reducing global warming and providing habitat for thousands of unique plants, birds and other animals. Once native prairie is plowed, it’s virtually gone. Decades of sequential planting and knowledgeable management are required to restore the complex prairie ecosystem that includes microbes and tiny insects invisible to the human eye. Today farmers can easily kill native grasses with herbicides like Roundup and plant row crops in their place.

Not too long ago most of South Dakota was a sea of grass, with ponds and wetlands visited by ducks and white egrets. Today, only 40 percent of the original grasslands remain; and, in North Dakota only half remains.

Remnant native prairies are “an ark” for the many plants, insects and animals that are native to the northern plains. Nearly half the nation’s wetland and grassland birds are born there, and many of those species are in decline. Where once there were deep-rooted native plants and wetlands to slow flooding and cleanse water, now heavy spring rains sluice off the cropped fields carrying fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides into the Missouri River, then to the Mississippi and finally to the Gulf of Mexico’s “dead zone” – a polluted 6,000 square mile are that can no longer sustain most aquatic life.

In Minnesota, that concern has prompted a coalition of state and conservation leaders to launch a $3.5 billion project over 25 years to restore 2.2 million acres of grasslands the state has lost over the last century. In South Dakota, an 83 year-old cattle rancher, Herb Hamann, has placed his 5,000 acres of native prairie in permanent easement to save it into perpetuity.

This is a summary of an important article written by Josephine Marcotty for the Star Tribune, Minneapolis. Read the full article at view a video at http://www.startribune.com/local/170850241.html.