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Feature Story
Prairie Crossroads
Page 6

Nature's Economy

The Missouri Breaks area is headed for restoration, almost with a will of its own. Ever since the days of the cattlemen, it has pushed people and their plans away. The current proposal to restore the Breaks may well fail, as every other plan has, but if it does, it will be because of organizational shortcomings, not because the idea is unsound. The GIS mapping was not prescriptive, but descriptive of the volition of this place.

I've spent all of my 20 years as a Montanan imagining that something like this might happen, as have many westerners I know. To be in the plains is to accept a vision of a landscape covered with bison. This is a matter of imagination, but also of hard-core, fundamental economics.

The Missouri Breaks, including the Russell wildlife refuge, is hunted for big game and birds, a harvest of protein that nature produces in abundance when left to its own devices. According to federal surveys, hunters and anglers annually push about $11 million into the local economy. Spread that amount over the million acres of the refuge, and it means this partially restored ecosystem pumps about $11 an acre into the economy, not counting the money spent by the visitors who come just to look at scenery or birds. Those people, according to the same surveys, add another $1.3 million annually, a figure that can be expected to jump dramatically as wildlife populations recover to the spectacular levels that the plains could support. The preserve could well become an attraction comparable to Yellowstone, only larger.

Ranchers too spend their money in the local economy. Data for Phillips County from the Department of Agriculture indicate that the entire county -- virtually all of it agricultural -- makes about $10 per acre per year. That's for all the land, including the more productive, irrigated croplands along the Milk River, north of the Breaks. The land surrounding the Breaks is the very worst for crops, the most arid. That figure also includes federal subsidies. Unsubsidized, the land would make about $5 an acre.

Photo of a waitress at Johnnie's CafeWhen I first made these calculations, I thought them original, the sort of phenomenon generated by our postmodern world, with its huge disposable income to be squandered on inefficient exercises like hunting. A hunter is not simply buying a pound of protein; if so, an economist would tell him to stay home and spend his money on shrink-wrapped burger. A hunter is buying an experience and a unique way of relating to the land. Economic surveys can measure only a small part of this value, but as it turns out, that value has held up over the years.

In 1963, when the government was writing a management plan for the Russell refuge, someone thought to run the same set of numbers. Even then, the same ratio obtained: Hunting was about twice as economically productive per acre as ranching. Those numbers didn't put a halt to grazing then, and they won't now. But a good idea backed by some sound science might.

The American Prairie Foundation closed on the first of the ranches it hopes to buy, 20,000 deeded and leased acres, early in 2004. It added a second small parcel later that year and was close to acquiring two more this spring. The first bison will return to that land this fall -- just a handful, an experiment, but a beginning. Once the foundation learns how these first few bison are faring, they will be supplemented with additional animals and begin increasing through reproduction.

More is happening here than money changing hands for wildlife. This is fundamentally an economic experiment. We know enough about coevolution and prairies by now to know that nature produces with complexity. Nature does not dig ponds in a vain attempt to undermine fundamental conditions; it evolves a natural community that thrives on these conditions.

It covers a landscape with not one but literally hundreds of species of plants, and they support each other. They store solar energy, fix free nitrogen from the air, shelter each other, and build root systems that are accounts of natural capital banked against drought years. In this system, prairie dogs aren't pests to be poisoned with public money. They colonize and dig tunnels that bring subsurface minerals to within the reach of plant roots. They eat grass and stimulate new growth. Predators eat the prairie dogs and cycle those nutrients far beyond. Bison, pronghorn, and cows selectively graze prairie-dog towns because the forage is better at certain times of the year.

Bison do not have the same destructive impact on riparian areas as cattle, so willows, wild rose, and snowberry will flourish along streams, support streambeds with their roots, and hover over banks to shade and protect water that will flow there again once FDR's dams are breached. And on and on and on in permutations and combinations we can only begin to imagine, but in the end a system in which the whole is so much greater than the sum of its parts. We can understand this phenomenon only if we allow the whole to exist. This is what nature means by economy.

The now-ranched lands along the Missouri Breaks may be abused, but they are still mostly covered by short grass native to the prairies. This is the matrix that can allow for the return of a landscape monumentally productive of wildlife, a wild system for producing protein -- some for humans, some for top-end predators and the ecosystem as a whole.

The creation of 3.5 million acres of intact and functioning short-grass prairie would be an accomplishment in its own right, but something larger is happening here. Our notions of conservation and preservation are deeply embedded in the rising industrialism of the nineteenth century and have been from the beginning deeply dichotomous. There is the lineage of Thoreau and Muir, of Franklin Roosevelt and Bob Marshall, which today is labeled "preservationist," the idea that nature ought to be set aside for its own sake and that any human involvement is contamination. Nature must be protected from economy.

Then there is the lineage of George Perkins Marsh, Gifford Pinchot, Theodore Roosevelt, Jim Hill, and Franklin Roosevelt (he was of two minds on this -- most of us are). In this school, conservation is simply a way of wisely husbanding natural resources for continued human use and the perfection of human communities. Nature feeds economy.

The prairie can dissolve this dichotomy by teaching us that nature is economy.

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Click to enlarge

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Photo: Vern Evans
Map: Small World Maps

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