As one travels the center of our country, the effort to conserve and restore the diversity and natural systems of the American Great Plains is evident. Conservation groups, government agencies, and individuals are hard at work on a thousand projects; from habitat restoration, to reintroduction of endangered species, to water shed protection, to base-line science that will help us understand what needs to be done. I see these efforts everywhere I go, and I marvel at the array of fronts on which lovers of the “Big Open” are working.
But the “Big Open” is more than big. It is immense, and the systems that give it the power to lift the human spirit are complicated, indeed. In fact, when measured against the enormity of the Great Plains, the efforts to restore its vitality seem puny. What is a protected forty-acre patch of pintail duck habitat compared to the hundreds of thousands of subsidized acres that have been plowed and sprayed with poisonous chemicals? What is a repository of endangered plants in the garden of a private botanist? What is a local effort to improve gazing management on public lands? What is a tiny buffalo herd in the center of the range that once held millions?
It is hard to be optimistic about the chances for a meaningful and timely recovery of the Great Plains. With climate change clearly in progress, and the Plains predicted to get even drier, the chances for help, from a series of wet years, seems unlikely. With fossil fuel consumption showing no real signs of tapering off until it becomes a rare and expensive commodity; the human assault on the Great Plains seems destined to continue. National attitudes concerning our relationship to the land, show no widespread signs of turning away from head=long consumption. It is hard for me to imagine that we, as a society, have reached the peak of our mindless, arrogant binge of environmental abuse and are on the downhill slope toward a workable harmony with the natural systems of the Great Plains. It seems clear to me that, if things are ever to get better, we will have to suffer through a period of increased deterioration of the land that sustains us.
So what, you might ask, is the value of all those people protecting those forty-acre patches of pintail habitat? Why dedicate your life to securing the seed stock of a prairie forb that no one cares about? Why try to figure out how best to rotate herbivores over the face of the Plains? Why sacrifice time and fortune to maintain a free roaming herd of buffalo?
Aldo Leopold said, “The first rule of intelligent tinkering is to save all the pieces.” The intelligence of our tinkering on the Great Plains is in serious dispute, but the fact that we have tinkered with the connective tissue of the environment is a simple fact. It seems highly likely that, as with the population and fortunes of all species, an adjustment looms in the future for mankind. The ingenuity of humans that allowed their populations to exceed the carrying capacity of its range was not ingenuity at all. It was a stroke of luck called cheap oil – no more the doing of mankind than it is the ingenuity of the antelope that brought about a freakish series of wet summers that allow the population of antelope to explode. But, as in the case of the antelope, the luck will not hold and the adjustment will eventually come.
It would be easy to view all this as bad news for mankind, but no thinking person ever believed that population and prosperity, for any species, can increase forever. The great adjustment is not bad news – it is simply news. But there may be some good news in all this. Unlike the antelope, who are not capable of planning and so destined to destroying their habitat in the times following the boom years, there are a few humans: individuals, groups, and agencies, who have been “saving the pieces.” When the smoke of the adjustment clears, in fifty, or a hundred, or three hundred years, there may well be a forty-acre wetland with pintails bringing off broods, there may be a garden of once pampered wild plants ready to break out onto the prairie again. There may be sections of prairie that were managed for the duration, and healthy enough to accept those plants. And there may be a little herd of free roaming buffalo ready to claim their birthright – to step through the crumbed fences and fill the void left by the deposed monarchs whose time has come and gone.