The western plains of the US are witnessing an impressive boom in the growth of ghost towns (6,000 just in Kansas). Lands having less than two people per square mile are classified as frontier. In the 1990 census, 133 western counties were frontier. The area of these counties is one quarter of the land in the lower 48 states (excluding Alaska and Hawaii). The population of the plains peaked in 1920, and has been declining since. An area that once may have supported 25,000 Indian buffalo hunters now supports 10,000 Americans. The population is aging, because young folks tend to leave, and there is little to attract newcomers.
Ernest Callenbach, the author of Ecotopia, is a green dreamer. His book, Bring Back the Buffalo, presents us with a vision for healing the plains. For 500 years, the European invaders have done an impressive job of ravaging America’s ecosystems, but the plains are less wrecked than the rest of the nation. Therefore, the plains would be the easiest region to return to a genuinely sustainable way of life. So, what are we waiting for?
Well, more than a few folks have little affection for green dreamers. The plains are home to God-fearing, government hating, ultra-conservatives. Yet the economy of the region is kept on life support via a golden shower of generous government subsidies (welfare!). Only fools with high principles question this paradox, and they are promptly bounced out of the saloon.
The government pays farmers not to till 26 million acres (10.5m ha) of highly erodible land. In North Dakota, 80 percent of net farm income comes from subsidies. Dry climate trends have been limiting farm productivity, and irrigated farming is on a dead end road, because underground aquifers are in the process of being emptied.
Public lands are leased to ranchers at bargain rates, typically 20 percent of the fair market price. Grazing is not carefully managed, and both public and private lands are generally degraded. The current system is a dead end road. Likewise, the U.S. Forest Service routinely sells timber on public lands at prices far below cost.
Thanks to the General Mining Act of 1872, mining corporations can buy public land for $5 an acre, extract billions of dollars in minerals, pay no royalties to the public, and leave behind toxic messes for the public to clean up at enormous expense. The latest technology is heap leach mining, which enables corporations to make a profit by extracting one ounce of gold from 60 tons of rock. Crushed ore is piled up, and toxic cyanide is dumped on the pile. The cyanide extracts gold, and some of it is collected at the bottom of the heap and then processed. Thousands of birds are killed by landing on poison lakes. If only humankind was able to survive without gold.
So, on the plains, like everywhere else in America, profits are privatized, and risks are socialized. The net result is that taxpayers are subsidizing the destruction of the plains ecosystem. But there are fools with high principles who question the wisdom of this. For example, in a 1987 essay, demographers Frank and Deborah Popper proposed creation of the Buffalo Commons. They needed bodyguards at public appearances in the early days, but the accuracy of their predictions, and the logic of their recommendations are gradually gaining respect.
Lynn Jacobs, author of the fiery Waste of the West, recommended that the government simply buy out the ranchers. In the long run, it would be cheaper than subsidizing them to raise cattle and damage the range. Public lands produce just two percent of America’s meat. We could create an open range for buffalo once again, and this would benefit the health of both the grassland and the meat-eaters. Grass-fed buffalo meat is low in fat, high in iron, and free of hormones and antibiotics.
Buffalo are amazing critters. Bulls can weigh a ton, and cows more than a half ton. In a five-mile race (8 km), they can outrun any horse, and they can sprint up to 50 miles per hour (80 km/h). Their average lifespan is 12 to 15 years, but some live to 40. They are perfectly attuned for living in semi-arid grasslands. Unlike cattle, they can go several days without water. They can remain healthy on a diet of grass. They can survive blast-freezer winters without shelters or supplemental feed. They give birth to their calves without human assistance. They live wonderfully without managers!
Cattle tend to remain close to water, overgraze, and damage the banks of the streams (riparian areas). Grazing buffalo keep moving, at something like a walking pace. On the open range, they would eat and move on, and they might not return to that location for several years. The result was healthy grassland, healthy riparian areas, healthy herds of buffalo, and healthy tribes of Indians.
Having been bred for passivity, cattle and sheep are easy prey, so ranchers have developed a passion for exterminating predators. The poisons used by the Animal Damage Control (ADC) program kill twice as many cattle and calves as predators do. Countless numbers of wild animals have been murdered in order to make the world safe for livestock. Buffalo are far less vulnerable to predators, because they’re wild, fast, strong, smart, and dangerous.
Countless millions of prairie dogs have been killed, because cattle have a tendency to step into their holes and break their legs. Buffalo, on the other hand, have learned the important skill of not stepping into holes. Also, prairie dogs dine on vegetation, leaving less for the livestock to convert into profits — death to all freeloaders!
A primary obstacle to creating the Buffalo Commons is that the traditional mindset of the plains has a hard time wrapping its head around the idea of greatly expanding public lands, removing the fences, evicting the cattle, and letting the wild ecosystem heal — allowing the wolves, coyotes, mountain lions, and prairie dogs to return, and happily live in peace.
There’s an even wilder idea. The government swiped lots of Indian land and gave it to settlers, so it could be put to “higher use.” Since whites have a hard time surviving on the land without subsidies from outsiders, the land should be returned to the tribes and the wildlife.
Callenbach understands that a “sustainable” system is one that will function smoothly for “several thousand years.” But in his zeal to sell us on a sustainable future for the grasslands, he gets a bit sloppy with the notion of sustainability. He recommends promoting a tourism industry to bring urban people from distant lands to marvel at the herds of buffalo. How will visitors travel to buffalo country?
He recommends constructing many wind turbines on the range. Wind turbines are industrial products that cannot be made in the backyard with local materials. The existence of industrial civilization is required for the maintenance and replacement of wind turbines, and the electrical grid. He also suggests harvesting biomass from the range and using it to generate energy.
He envisions harvesting the buffalo, and exporting their meat and hides to other regions, to generate profits in a cash economy. The old Indian system was far less risky. Tribes simply killed what they needed, and left the rest alone. All tribes had access to buffalo, so there was no motivation to trade, raid, or hoard. The tribes got along just fine without creating a meat industry, or investing in power plants — and they are still suffering from when the crazy white tourists came to visit. The tribes understood how to live with the land, as simply as possible.
Callenbach, Ernest, Bring Back the Buffalo: A Sustainable Future for America’s Great Plains, Island Press, Washington, 1996.