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Great Plains Initiative's Twin Goals Aim at Regional Survival Strategies

The ecosystem management plan would unite a healthy environment with economic development

WHOOPING cranes, spotted owls, and the Poppers were on Mike Hayden's mind in 1989 as he pondered spending $20 million to preserve waterfowl habitat in Kansas, where he was governor. The result of his musings is shaping up to be the most ambitious ecosystem management effort ever undertaken.

The Great Plains Initiative aims to unite a healthy environment with economic development. It's ironic, but the arid landscape that became North America's breadbasket with a surplus bounty for export sustains ever-decreasing numbers of people. Developing an ecotourism industry or subsidizing nature-preservation activities may offer the best hope of survival for marginally viable towns across the tri-national target area.

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As governor of a plains state, Mr. Hayden was concerned about destruction of bird habitat, the primary reason for the rapid decline of many indigenous species. Today, 26 birds and more than 300 plants and animals in the Great Plains are considered candidates for listing as endangered by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

Looking to the Pacific Northwest, Hayden saw the collision between the timber industry and efforts to preserve the old-growth forest habitat of the endangered spotted owl. Warning signs that this "train wreck" was coming had been ignored for a decade, Hayden says.

In the Northeast, he recalled Rutgers University professors Frank and Deborah Popper, whose 1987 proposal to create a "Buffalo Commons" out of uneconomical farm and ranch land from North Dakota to Texas had underscored the plight of dwindling rural communities. Initially critical of the undiplomatic outsiders, Hayden says he recognized in their "startling" statistics what plains inhabitants could see but refused to acknowledge.

Hayden says he dared not ignore those "very real" trends. Suppose "another spotted owl" were to come along in Kansas, subjecting already struggling farmers and ranchers to the hardships borne by the Northwest's timber industry? That, he says, could be "the straw that broke the camel's back" for many towns.

Yet no conservation effort by Kansas alone, he realized, would guarantee survival of a migratory species like the whooping crane. Millions of birds pass through the state in their annual journey along the central flyway, a north-south transcontinental corridor. Other states and countries in the flyway were preserving critical habitat, he knew, but without overall coordination.

Hayden concluded that a management plan was needed that would take into account the entire Great Plains ecosystem, a region extending from Mexico into Canada and bounded on the west by the Rockies. (The eastern boundary of the plains is problematic. Some scientists favor the 94th, 97th, 98th, or 100th meridian; others the 20-inch or 25-inch precipitation line; the 1,500-foot elevation contour; the former extents of the short-grass or tall-grass prairies; or even I-35.)

He foresaw jurisdictions, agencies, environmentalists, scientists, and citizens coming together for proactive, voluntary, grass-roots problem-solving. The initiative would aggregate data from hundreds of sources for the first time into a grand model of the Great Plains ecosystem.

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Efforts would focus on the "weak links" in the chain, in whichever jurisdiction those might be. Otherwise, habitat destruction thousands of miles from Kansas might trigger a species listing applicable everywhere, with the attendant economic disruption and loss of local control.

Over the next two years, Hayden took the concept to the Western Governors Association (WGA), which in June 1992 adopted it as the Great Plains Initiative. By then Hayden had moved to the Fish and Wildlife Service, where he was able to grant $200,000 to the WGA to get the initiative moving.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) added another $500,000 to collect essential data and to survey public attitudes. Under one EPA grant, The Nature Conservancy has begun to map critical threatened habitat within the plains. A second grant went to Iowa State University's Center for Agricultural and Rural Development (CARD).

Last month in Kansas City, CARD convened scientists, officials, and "stakeholders" like farmers and landowners from plains states to explore common ground for action. The WGA, which cooperates closely with the governors of Mexican states and Canadian provinces, will hear the symposium results at its June annual meeting in Tucson, Ariz.

In Kansas City, two points of agreement were clear: something must be done soon, and the ecosystem approach is the right one. As Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt testified to Congress: "Our national biodiversity resources will be conserved most effectively by means that recognize the interrelations of natural systems and look at the whole picture, which is far more than the sum of individual parts."

"It is right to deal with crises involving individual species," Mr. Babbitt continued, "but we should not manage our lands and resources so that we either consciously or unwittingly produce and then must react to an endless progression of crises."

He could hardly have stated more precisely humanity's history of meddling with the Great Plains. The Poppers refer to a century and a half of white settlement as "the largest, longest-running agricultural and environmental miscalculation in American history." But that is only the most recent chapter of the long and difficult history of the plains.

"No part of the continent invites such easy human environmental alteration, yet can collapse so quickly and completely under that wooing as the Great Plains," notes Dan Flores, a historian at the University of Montana.

Since the last ice age ended 12,000 years ago, humans have repeatedly inhabited and abandoned the drought-prone plains in a pattern of "ecological crashes and simplifications," Mr. Flores says.

The first whites to emerge from the lush and majestic woodlands of Appalachia viewed the featureless prairie as deficient not only in resources but also in aesthetics. On maps it was marked as "The Great American Desert." In 1831, explorer Albert Pike praised the region in backhanded terms: "Its sublimity arises from its barren monotony and desolation...."

This viewpoint found its way into popular fiction from "Giants in the Earth" to "The Wizard of Oz": "When Dorothy stood in the doorway and looked around, she could see nothing but the great gray prairie on every side. Not a tree nor a house broke the broad sweep of flat country that reached the edge of the sky in all directions."

The lack of enthusiasm for the land in its natural state accounts for the fact that far less has been set aside for public parks than elsewhere in the US. In turn, that makes the cooperation of private landowners all the more essential to the Great Plains Initiative.

With cow and plow, whites began to settle the plains by 1840 at the urging of railroad advertisements depicting an agricultural paradise. The settlers disrupted the natural cycles of floods and prairie fires. They pushed aside the indigenous people along with the grizzly bear, the buffalo, the wolf, and the prairie dog. In a land that ancient inhabitants had called "the horizontal yellow," native grasses disappeared before amber waves of grain.

The result was the ranching collapse of the 1880s and the Dust Bowl of the 1930s. New technology and practices have replaced failed ones, but Flores questions whether the innovations truly adapt to the dictates of the plains or in fact postpone that adjustment.

For instance, taking water from underground aquifers has increased the human carrying capacity of the plains to 20 times the level seen when the Comanche Indians roamed there, Flores says. But depletion of the Ogallala (N.D.) aquifer is already curtailing irrigation. The economic life expectancy of the Ogallala is no more than 50 years, and possibly as little as 20. Says Flores: "I see far fewer of us living here a century from now."

The latest round of abandonment has long been underway. Out of 870 counties in the US portion of the Great Plains, only 100 are growing. Fully two-thirds peaked before World War II. A majority of the people who leave are young adults whose children would have offset natural decline, notes Richard Rathge, director of the North Dakota State Census Data Center.

"The plains don't need abandonment, they just need a second source of income that's not agriculturally dependent," says Robert Sopuck, executive director of the Sustainable Development Coordination Unit for the Province of Manitoba, Canada.

He cites the example of Linton, N.D. When an out-of-state travel agency decided to help the community by relocating some of its data-processing operation there, the experiment worked so well that the company is now Linton's largest employer. The agency's president describes the townspeople as "well-educated, dependable ... with superior skills and an old-fashioned Puritan work ethic."

Margaret Thomas, a senior resource planner with the Midwest Research Institute, says that "Possibly the greatest hurdle before us will be confronting the reality that increased `growth' is no longer a sufficient goal for our society."

"Our goal," she adds, "needs to be an improvement in human progress, an articulation of deeper values, and a greater commitment to improving the long-term quality of life in an area." Ms. Thomas calls for "rural enterprises that are based on stewardship rather than consumptive use of resources."

That would be the ideal way to achieve the twin goals of the Great Plains Initiative. But if conservation can't be made profitable, should landowners be forced or subsidized to do it? Rural residents need to accept that their private landscapes support public resources like water and wildlife, Mr. Sopuck says. But urban dwellers must realize that biodiversity is a public resource supported at private expense.

"Public goods, to date, have not paid their way," Sopuck says. "There are currently no markets for aquifer recharge, biodiversity, water management, duck production, or water quality. Somehow, we must create transactions in these public environmental resources if they are to have value."

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