The Challenge of Habitat Conservation  —  Building the Archipelago

The Challenge: In a recently published essay, Dan O’Brien describes driving south through the center line of the Great Plains: “a long trip across a lot of desolate, abused farmland, oil fields, cattle feedlots and industrial slaughter plants.  Over the years the blight on these hundreds of miles of America’s midsection has worsened as the land wears out and the people grow poorer.  Eight hundred miles with no sign of wildlife, except four confused pheasants on a Kansas roadside.”  Of course, O’Brien also writes: “a highway is not a good place to see healthy grasslands, and there are, no doubt, scores of pockets where diversity is holding on. There are a few other farmers and ranchers who understand the true value of the land is not what you can exploit from it.”

O’Brien’s essay highlights the challenge of contemporary land and water conservation. Since 2009, more than 53,000,000 acres of grasslands, wetlands, forests and shelterbelts have been converted to cropland across the Great Plains  —  an area the size of Kansas.  This conversion rate exceeds that of tropical deforestation.  Much of the conversion took place on sensitive land and important wildlife habitat, exacerbating pressures on numerous types of wildlife, particularly waterfowl, butterflies, pollinators, grassland-nesting birds, and mammals. Runoff from the intensively-farmed fields led to a sharp decline in water quality, turning prairie rivers into waste disposal ditches.

Some impetus for this conversion is due to the 2005 Congressional mandate to blend corn-based ethanol into conventional gasoline. Now, more than 40% of the corn crop goes to produce fuel rather than feeding people or livestock.

The challenge is made even more complicated due to the changing character of land ownership. In 2014, nearly 40% of U.S. farmland was rented or leased from someone else.  Foreign holdings of U.S. farmland more than doubled between 2004 and 2014.  Foreign investors now own nearly 24 million acres of farmland. People who own farmland simply for an annual paycheck, or foreign investors who seek a safe refuge for their money, inevitably view their land as a mere commodity, to be viewed just as they do a corporate stock share or bond.

Constructing the Archipelago: In the face of this daunting challenge, conservationists, including conservation-minded farmers, ranchers and other private landowners, are working to assemble an archipelago of protected lands across the Great Plains. Parts of this are the obvious ones: state wildlife lands, national wildlife refuges, state and national parks, state school lands, national grasslands, Corps of Engineers holdings, and parcels owned and managed by local and other wildlife and conservation organizations.

Essential pieces  —  pieces which draw too little attention —  are the individual farmers and ranchers who, in O’Brien’s words “understand the true value of land is not what you can exploit from it.”  These manage their lands as part of the natural world, seeking to maintain productivity as well as diversity into the future.

These private landowners are also voluntarily placing their lands under permanent conservation easements to protect their lands from development, keep them permanently in agricultural or conservation uses, and facilitating transfer to the next generation. In 2012, such easements protected 13.2 million acres nationwide.  States with the most acres are Colorado, Montana, North Dakota, California and Georgia.  Through 2011, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service held 3.4 million acres of voluntary conservation easements, principally on wetland and native grassland properties. The U.S. Congress, in 2015, ratified this trend by passing a permanent tax incentive for farmers and ranchers who donate conservation easements.

An encouraging trend is the formation of conservation land trusts by state stock growers and cattlemen’s associations.  At present, 9 state-wide land trusts sponsored by these groups exist, and the number is growing.  The impetus is to maintain the viability of ranching and ranching communities, protect ranchlands from development and facilitate transfers to the next generation. The principal tool used by these groups is the conservation easement.

Today, conservationists must use the tools they have while also developing new and innovative tools, so that the archipelago can continue.  The new ideas will come from the young people, now stepping forward to lead.

J.H.D December, 2017