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Feature Story
Prairie Crossroads
Page 5

Reading Footprints

Many of these failures grew out of good intentions. The impulse for progress stood squarely behind the New Deal, behind the Homestead Act, behind the yeoman myth. Progressivism even propelled Jim Hill's railroad into the plains. The story of the West is often cast in terms of greed, and there is plenty of that to be found, but one can make the case that it was the do-gooders, the people with a plan, who caused the real damage.

Example of satellite imageryTheir failures are clearly readable on the landscape of the Missouri Breaks, and it is no accident that the GIS software should have zeroed in on this area, as if it knew all of this social history. The footprints of past policy on the land are literally visible from space, but so was the opportunity for conservationists. Their work here did not originate as a local endeavor; rather, the conservationists' overarching concern was to address the gaping hole in protection that shields only 1 percent of temperate grasslands, an odd exclusion given that many biologists now think these areas are among the most productive of all ecosystems, both in terms of diversity of megafauna and total biomass. Think thundering herds of bison.

GIS mapping layers different sets of values on the land. It can, for instance, map out on the landscape remaining areas of native grasses, then superimpose a layer of rivers, then a layer of roads, then ownership data, then socioeconomic data (such as where ranching is failing economically) over variables such as topography, weather, and population. It is a way to look for an alignment of the stars. And it's the most powerful tool we have for both land management and conservation, in that it allows us to layer human values over natural values, to see where they conflict and where they harmonize.

In this particular case, conservationists wanted to find the best remaining large chunks of habitat for grassland species. Topping the list of areas where the stars aligned was the plain surrounding the Missouri Breaks.

Grazing was indeed an issue, but the landscape can recover from its effects, since the native vegetation remains. More critical was identifying areas that had not been stripped of their vegetation by the yeoman's plow, no small task in the plains. The conservationists also wanted to find private lands intermingled with large areas of federal land. This is the key to the whole project. Back to the vexations of the Taylor Grazing Act.

As it has evolved since 1934, the act gives leasing ranchers de facto private property rights on their grazing allotments. They treat the leased land as if they owned it; under a provision of the act known as the preference clause, the leases function like permanent land grants and attach to the property when it is sold. A rancher may say, for example, something like, "My place is 45,000 acres -- 15,000 deeded and 30,000 leased." This is not an unusual ratio. Until now, this system has been viewed by conservationists as an enormous obstacle to controlling grazing on public lands, but in fact it presents an opportunity. If you own that private land, you can stand the law on its head. Buy a little bit of cheap private land and you can have more influence over the management of a whole lot of abused federal land. Conservationists saw that buying some of those ranches would also allow them to control the use of federal lands that taxpayers have paid for many times over through buyouts and subsidies. That explains the importance of finding an area where ranching was economically marginal -- in other words, where ranchers were willing to sell and land was cheap.

Simply put, by drawing up a list of ranches for purchase -- with 800,000 acres of privately held land-conservationists could leverage control of an extra 2.7 million acres of federal land to create a public-private prairie preserve of 3.5 million acres. The total cost would be between $200 million and $300 million -- a pittance when weighed against the federal money that already has been squandered on pumping up a series of bad ideas. The conservationists believe this is doable, under a plan to raise the funds for acquisition over a 20- to 30-year period. Some members of the original coalition have spun off a stand-alone nonprofit, the American Prairie Foundation, which is raising money to buy ranches, matching willing sellers with willing buyers, a market that will finally give wildlife more standing. This is the road to a new, sustainable economy, one from which both local residents and communities and our national wildlife heritage will benefit.

What is at stake here is more than the cost of federal subsidies. Beyond that, the Breaks can provide a fundamental economic justification for conservation. The reason for this can be traced not only to Franklin Roosevelt's conviction that land use had to change in the Breaks because farming was uneconomic but also to an important and overlooked bit of his legacy -- the Russell wildlife refuge.

The establishment of the refuge did not end the battle over grazing. In fact, the refuge continues to be grazed to this day. Nor did it satisfy another goal spelled out in its founding document: that it become the home of free-roaming bison. One section of the refuge started out as wildlife refuges did in those days, as something of a duck farm, according to Mike Hedrick, then a young wildlife biologist and later the refuge's director. Much of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's income back then came (as a certain amount still does) from the sale of duck stamps to hunters, so the agency skewed habitat and built ponds to raise ducks -- the wildlife manager's analog to the rancher's stock ponds. Hedrick, however, was not ready to take on the role of duck farmer that the government had in mind for him. Even then, there was percolating among young biologists a sense of a more sound approach to refuges, one that would allow them to become habitat for a full community of native species.

Hedrick and others protested a plan by the refuge to build power lines 60 miles south across the Breaks to run the pumps that would flood duck habitat. The protest succeeded, and slowly the refuge has evolved. True, there are still no bison, but the area is home to viable populations of elk, deer, antelope, bighorn sheep, cougars, and even the bane of all ranchers, prairie dogs, in colonies stretching to more than a thousand acres. It is one of the very few sites in the plains attempting reintroduction of the black-footed ferret, one of the most endangered mammals in North America. The painstaking work of bringing back the ferret is already under way; at least a dozen individuals now live on the refuge. In other words, the biggest opportunity presented by the Missouri Breaks as a conservation area is that it already has a million acres of occupied habitat at its core.

Hedrick has the gait, the boots and jeans, the squint of eye and cadence of speech of a plainsman, but he is a battle-hardened advocate for wildlife. Through attrition, through enforcement, through a long, painstaking series of slow, incremental, and politically volatile moves, such as refusing to replace worn-out fences and corrals with public money, Hedrick had succeeded in cutting grazing on the refuge by about two-thirds by the time he retired in January 2005. One large area has not been grazed for 30 years, and so dramatic is its recovery that the border between it and adjacent grazed lands shows up in satellite imagery.

Photo of Randy MatchettThe refuge's wildlife biologist is Randy Matchett, who can, if anything, best Hedrick in gait, boots, hat, and drawl. He bounces around in a mud-spattered, tool-laden pickup truck, worrying about everything from sylvatic plague in prairie dogs to ponds that attract mosquitoes that infect sage grouse with West Nile virus. He can call a coyote from as far away as 300 yards with an imitation of mouse chatter barely audible to the guy standing next to him. His typical day begins at night, with a full shift of spotlighting ferrets for a census, hoping against hope for kits, then a dawn flight to locate sage grouse, followed by an afternoon of logging data on a laptop in the middle of the prairie. That same laptop contains a copy of the satellite map that shows the effects of ending grazing, but Matchett says this is just the beginning of what is possible.

He has spent more than a decade watching prairie dogs and can speak for hours about their habits. These talks, though, usually come back to a single point -- that prairie dogs are an essential component of the prairie ecosystem and many species benefit from the unique habitats prairie dogs create and maintain. This includes cows. One sweltering, drought-plagued August day, he sent me off to a prairie-dog colony, where I found a herd of cattle grazing -- there and nowhere else. They stayed for days.

As I rattled around the Breaks interviewing ranchers with grazing leases on the refuge, I heard them again and again describe its evolution as "the handwriting on the wall." They say the transition in the Breaks is clear, that wildlife has won, and they would as soon leave.

There is a good bit more handwriting to read. The area peaked in population around 1918, long before Mike Hedrick was born. Meeting its ranchers is meeting octogenarians. Their children and grandchildren live in Billings, Missoula, Seattle, or Denver. The landscape is dotted with boarded-up schools.

Empty Nest Syndrome
Alaska's Meltdown
Father Nature Says...
Come to the Laissez Fair

Click to enlarge

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Satellite image: Randy Matchett
Map: Small World Maps

OnEarth. Summer 2005
Copyright 2005 by the Natural Resources Defense Council