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May 2004

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Great Plains

By John G. Mitchell
Lebanon, Kansas, used to claim bragging rights as the geographical center of the United States, but you won't hear folks boast about that anymore. A town of some 300 people, perched amid fields of wheat and milo where the Sunflower State says hello to the Nebraska border, Lebanon has lately come to share a less singular distinction—as just one of many small rural communities that are fading away on the cusp of one of the world's richest breadbaskets. "Business U.S. 281," says a rusty sign on the highway as you drive into the center of town. But there's not much here in the way of commerce. Half the storefronts are boarded up. The bank and trust office is open, possibly shuffling foreclosures, but its windows stare across the street at the brick skeleton of an abandoned building. The sidewalks are empty.

At the edge of town another sign directs you to the site of yesteryear's pride. "Welcome to the Center of the USA," it says. There is a stone monument with a bronze plaque citing the center's exact lines of longitude and latitude. A Kansas state flag flaps beside the Stars and Stripes under a brisk wind that carries with it a whiff of the good, rich, tillable earth. If, standing here at the monument, you could put out of mind the images your eyes just recorded back in town, you might experience a warm surge of pride yourself. But then you look beyond the monument and the fluttering flags and notice on a sunbaked ledge the tattered ghost of a long-shuttered one-story motel. And suddenly the thought occurs that while this particular country might be good for growing wheat, it was probably never intended to harvest tourists.

What has happened to Lebanon and the precincts of Smith County, Kansas, may not be typical of the Great Plains of the United States today, but it is no aberration either. The region has been experiencing a culture shock unlike any since the Great Depression of the 1930s, when drought and wind peeled the soil away and evicted the plowman with it. The Plains recovered to help feed the nation and the world and still export huge volumes of wheat and beef. Yet with technology displacing labor and paying jobs moving farther from home, the farms and ranches have another commodity to export to the city—their own children. Scores of remote rural counties have hemorrhaged population at rates of 10 to 20 percent over past decades. In some communities the median age of residents is already creeping into the 60s.

For most Americans without roots or relatives in these parts, the Great Plains represent terra incognita. From the earliest rovers who dubbed this section of the country the Great American Desert to the overland settlers trekking the California and Oregon Trails, the Plains were always a place to get across and put behind you on the way to somewhere else. Even today window-seat transcontinental travelers at 30,000 feet are requested to pull down their shades; those amber waves of grain must not interfere with the in-flight movie. One of the occupational hazards of living on either coast is not knowing exactly where the Great Plains are, much less seeing them.

For starters, wrap your head around half a million square miles, an area about one-sixth the size of the lower forty-eight, embracing more than 400 counties in parts of 10 states stacked between the Canadian border and the mesquite of south Texas. On the west the foothills of the Rocky Mountains draw the line where the Plains play out. But in the east opinions differ. In 1931 the eminent historian Walter Prescott Webb fixed his line at the 98th meridian. He called it an "institutional fault," west of which all the eastern ways of life and living were "either broken and remade or else greatly altered." To trace Webb's fault, drive a bit west of Fargo, North Dakota, and then drop due south, say, to Wichita Falls, Texas. Or eschew Webb and side with President Franklin Roosevelt's Great Plains Committee, which, a few years later, pushed the line about a hundred miles farther west to the 100th meridian. Other criteria have been constructed to define the eastern edge of the Plains, such as the 2,000-foot contour or the 20-inch rainfall line, west of which conditions tend to get semiarid. However one might parse it, the Plains with their shorter grasses are not to be confused with the tallgrass prairie that once prevailed on the sunrise side of the 98th meridian, before Americans plowed it up to grow corn and hogs and robust midwestern cities.

One can find cities on the Plains too, though not very many. In fact, if you moseyed west of Webb's line and skipped over the edge cities and the big oil-and-cow towns of Texas, you'd be hard-pressed to find in all that vast territory more than five municipalities with populations exceeding 50,000. Goes without saying that Lebanon isn't one of them.

Neither is Seneca, in the Sand Hills of Nebraska. For all their rolling big-sky beauty, the hills have not only been losing population over the years, they have also been sinking into deep pockets of poverty. Five of the ten poorest counties in the United States, in terms of per capita income, are located here. Seneca itself sits beside the Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad in the shallow valley of the Middle Loup River. It used to be a thriving community of some 800 people when the railroad was making regular stops here for passengers and freight. There were two small hotels down by the tracks. But nowadays the trains no longer stop at Seneca, the hotels are gone, and the resident headcount has fallen below 50. For groceries, Senecans have to drive 11 miles to Mullen, or 15 to Thedford in the opposite direction. There is still one church and the Cattleman's Restaurant and Lounge, where Ruth Andersen, a widow and retired schoolteacher, makes a habit of lunching at noon. I missed her, passing through, but reached her later by telephone to ask why Seneca's District 6 grade school sits shut down and crumbling at the edge of town, like an echo of that ghost motel back in Kansas, skulking at the Center of the USA.

You can't have a school if there aren't enough children, Ruth Andersen said. And you won't have enough children if the younger people have to go away to find work and never come back to raise a family. And then she said something I had already heard in one form or another along my way across the Plains, and would hear yet again. "When you lose the school," Ruth Andersen said, "you've lost the town."

Though cattle ranching plays a huge role in the rural economy of the Great Plains, especially in the westernmost sections (and in the Sand Hills), the glue that holds the overall region together is the farm. Corn, wheat, soybeans, grain sorghum are the major crops; alfalfa, some places; barley and sugar beets too. Unlike the native prairie grasses they have replaced, these are annual crops that, for the most part, are sown and reaped each year by big fuel-gulping machines, pampered with pesticides, pumped up with chemical fertilizers, and all too often irrigated expensively from a shrinking supply of groundwater needed to replace what fails to fall from the sky. As always, there's the weather.

The weather wasn't especially kind to the Plains at the dawn of the new millennium. Drought swept the region from Montana and the Dakotas south into Texas and eastern New Mexico. The High Plains of eastern Colorado turned to powder. Backhoes and bulldozers were summoned to clear county roads of windblown dirt. Farmers greeted each morning with the same wry wisdom: "Well, we're sure enough one day closer to rain." But in some places the rain would not come for months—and then too late in the season to do any good. Newspapers proclaimed 2002 the driest year since the Dust Bowl of the 1930s; in parts of the northern Plains the year was the driest in a century. So the pumps and windmills and center-pivot sprinklers sucked at the earth ever more urgently. Under the Panhandle Plains, the level of the great Ogallala aquifer plummeted closer to depletion.

A few Plains precincts began to green up last year, thanks to a salubrious dose of winter and spring precipitation. In South Dakota wheat rebounded from the devastating losses of the year before. And in parts of Kansas the corn in July would soon be as high as an elephant's eye.

I could almost hear the corn growing as I drove across the Smoky Hill River south of Salina to call on a man who believes he's found a way to stop the chemical contamination of the countryside, reduce the farmer's dependence on fossil fuel, and drop aquifer depletion and soil erosion to zero. How? By creating an agriculture as sustainable as the grasses that flourished here, before the plow, for a million years.

Wes Jackson is the founding father of the Land Institute, a project he launched back in 1976 to develop an ecological approach to agriculture—growing mixed perennial crops in unplowed fields and allowing only sunlight and rain to bring them to harvest. Jackson holds a doctorate in genetics, and his revolutionary idea and its ongoing execution won him a MacArthur "genius" grant in 1992.

In the living room of the farmhouse that serves as his office, we sat that afternoon and talked about his work and his fundamental beliefs. "Ten thousand years ago," he said, "the terrestrial parts of the Earth featured, almost everywhere, perennials in mixtures. Then humans introduced an agronomic program that began the journey of reversing that."

Jackson's method is to work on what he calls the genomic architecture of a plant, nudging some of the wild perennials, such as the Illinois bundleflower, toward domesticity, and pushing some domestic annuals, such as corn and wheat, in the other direction. After years of incremental change, the annuals will be transformed into bona fide perennials.

"If you want quick, cut-rate science," he said, "this isn't for you, because it's going to take decades to shuffle the chromosomes. Oh, we'll have something promising in 25 years that will energize us. Sorghum and wheat will come first, corn and soybeans later. But we'll need people who can commit to long time frames, people with the ability to set up results they won't even see in their lifetimes."

Long time frames might be tolerable in the venue of a greenhouse, but they are unlikely to catch on out in the fields where Great Plains farmers toil for their daily bread. While the big corporate farms rake in the lion's share of federal subsidies, and often turn a profit, the family farm is still a place of long hours, large debts, and small returns. The old days of making do with a couple of mules on 160 acres have been replaced by an era of exponentially expanding needs—more than a thousand acres per farm, on average, and a fleet of machines valued at half a million dollars. "It's sad," a retired dryland farmer in Oklahoma said to me one day. "There's just no way a young person can farm nowadays —even if he wanted to."

About 350 miles west of Salina, in the rain shadow of Colorado's Rocky Mountains, a notion not altogether unlike Wes Jackson's promises to challenge the wisdom of ranching beef cattle in conventional ways. The idea is to manage the range as if it were wild, and cattle as if they were bison. One cowman who stands behind this idea is Dale Lasater.

Lasaters go way back in the ranching business, back to the 19th-century time and place of the Texas longhorns. Tom Lasater, Dale's father, brought a herd north to eastern Colorado in 1949 and promptly shocked neighboring cowmen by making his spread a wildlife sanctuary where coyotes—anathema to most ranchers—would be left unmolested, and the no-kill policy would even be extended to prairie dogs and rattlesnakes. "I like to sit back and let nature do the work," Tom Lasater was fond of saying after making his mark as a breeder of top-grade grass-fed cattle. "She's a hell of a lot smarter at it than we are." Now Tom's son carries on as managing partner of the family ranch.

On a brilliant blue-sky day last June, Dale Lasater ushered me to a dusty vehicle, and we headed out to see how smartly nature was working the ranch for him. It turned out she'd been doing all right, of late. There had been snow in the mountains and good spring rains, and now the grama and switchgrass were coming up green and thick on the range to the north side of Big Sandy Creek. "Looks like we're making a comeback," Lasater said, referring to the four-year drought that had forced some other ranchers roundabout to sell off their stock.

Lasater is a friendly, soft-spoken man, a Princeton graduate who spent two years in the Peace Corps working to improve ranching practices in Colombia. We pulled over and walked to a water trough hooked to a windmill, and I was not surprised to hear him confess that it takes more than nature to maintain equilibrium between having good grass and growing healthy cattle. He said, "We used to think the answer was balancing the number of animals with the number of acres. But that turned out to be the problem—continuous grazing in the same place. Timing is the critical factor, with a long rest for the grass. If you keep the cows moving like the bison kept moving, then the grassland has a chance to sustain its natural diversity."

The formula works like this: With electric wires for fencing, Lasater can stock a pasture with cattle for seven to ten days of grazing, then rotate the animals into the next pasture, and a succession of pastures after that, in order to give each pasture in turn an 80-day rest, or such time as its mixed grasses may need to regenerate. A Lasater animal will never see the inside of a feedlot or taste corn.

In addition to selling live cattle, Lasater now successfully markets cuts of organic beef by website mail order, as well as directly to retail stores. Before I left the ranch that day, I got a taste of Lasater's grass—transmogrified into a free-range filet, stove-topped to perfection by the cowman himself. His promotional literature has it right: "Lasater Grasslands Beef... Dry aged 14 to 21 days for that old-fashioned flavor."

The people of the plains have a warm affinity for the past, perhaps to an extent greater than that of regional folk anywhere in the United States outside the Old South. It isn't exactly history that excites them, for much of that—and especially the darker side—tends to get pinched in the plainsmen's fervor to celebrate the rodeos, stampedes, and mythic reenactments that perennially stoke their collective psyche. Call it nostalgia for times gone by, or for times that might never have been exactly as grand as people would paint them.

Let us go now to Sturgis, South Dakota, where the banners above Main Street welcome us to that popular annual event called Cavalry Days. Out on the grounds at Fort Meade we can see the reenactors dressed in their Seventh Cavalry blues, the Sioux resplendent in feathers and buckskin, the tepees and the canvas tents, the cutout of George Armstrong Custer that will serve as a target for arrows, the bright, bobbing balloons that will burst—pop! pop!—as the horsemen gallop hell-for-leather among them with their .45-caliber revolvers.

It was Walter Prescott Webb (he of 98th meridian fame) who historically enshrined the Colt revolver as the firearm that "won" the West, while others tipped their hats to the Winchester rifle. But a third weapon may have played a more significant role in the taming: the Sharps rifle, which in a few short years destroyed a commissary of bison that had clothed and sheltered and fed the Plains tribes for generations. A market for buffalo robes had gone big-time in the 1840s. Then as railroads crossed the Plains in the '70s, and tanners back East and in Europe found a way to turn bison skins into industrial leather, the slaughter toppled the herds to a precious few. One buffalo hunter claimed that in 1875 the Indian fighting Lt. Gen. Phil Sheridan told the Texas legislature that buffalo hunters were doing more "to settle the vexed Indian question than the entire regular army... for the sake of a lasting peace let them kill, skin, and sell until the buffaloes are exterminated. Then your prairies can be covered with speckled cattle, and the festive cowboy, who follows the hunter as the second forerunner of an advanced civilization."

Sheridan would have his way. Soon bone collectors gathered up the sun-bleached buffalo skeletons and shipped them east to be ground into phosphate fertilizer to sweeten the soil of the onrushing corn belt. With bison virtually out of the way (barely a thousand would survive to 1900), and Native Americans incarcerated on their parched reservations, festive Texans could indeed move their speckled longhorns—by the millions—north to the Plains. There was nothing to stop the homesteaders either, now that they had barbed wire to fence out the cows and steel plows that would tear up the sod and open the erosive earth to the grasping wind. Besides, the railroads, wanting to people the Plains in order to profit from hauling their freight, promised an Eden. This wasn't the Great American Desert the early scouts had described. This was the Garden of the World, where the rain would surely follow the plow.

Settlers clearly embraced that myth in Cimarron County at the western tip of the Oklahoma Panhandle. In 1926 in Boise City, the county seat, a farm machinery dealer was able to sell new tractors at the rate of five a month, and he wasn't the only smiling salesman in that little town. Over the next few years annual precipitation would average 19 inches, two above normal; the acreage planted in wheat would double, and by 1931 the bountiful harvest was averaging better than 21 bushels an acre. Back east, the Great Depression had the jobless stacked up in soup lines, but not in Cimarron County. Then, under bluebonnet skies, annual rainfall began to slide down through the lower teens. In Boise City, gauges failed to record even nine scant inches for 1934. The crops failed, and in came the dust.

The first of the big dusters would miss Oklahoma. It rolled out of the northern Plains in May of '34 and powdered Chicago with 12 million tons of Wyoming and Montana dirt. A day or so later the fallout dirtied the rooftops of New York City and the decks of ships a hundred miles at sea. But Cimarron County and the rest of the southern Plains would be next. And no one who was there to experience Black Sunday, April 14, 1935, would ever forget it.

Norma Gene Butterbaugh Young was ten that spring. She remembers playing in the front yard of her parents' home in Boise City on a beautiful sunny day, when she looked up and saw a strange cloud on the horizon. "I'd never seen a cloud like that," she recalls. "It was so big and so black. So I ran in the house, and in a little bit that thing struck, and you couldn't see anything. It was just as black as night. And Granddad came up from the basement and yelled at Mother, 'Why don't you turn on the lights?' But she already had. Oh, it was terrible!"

Norma Gene still lives in Boise City, long retired from editing the weekly newspaper her father had acquired in the 1920s. She and the other Dust Bowl survivors of Cimarron County don't quite fit the popular image of the Okies who, as John Steinbeck told it, dusted themselves off and fled to California to pick the grapes of wrath. Many people, it turned out, stayed.

"It takes a certain kind of person to live out here," Phyllis Randolph was saying in her office as director of the Cimarron Heritage Center in Boise City. "People here are known for their stubbornness and contrariness," she said. "It runs with the land."

If there was any surprise in the findings of the 2000 U.S. census, it wasn't so much the loss of population from half the counties in the Great Plains; those numbers had been ebbing for decades. The surprise was the disproportionate gain in counties that contain the region's Indian reservations, a growth that could not be pegged entirely to higher birthrates, better health care, casino jobs, and the availability of federally subsidized housing. Thousands of Native Americans long off the "rez"—Blackfeet, Crow, Flathead, Northern Cheyenne, Sioux—were putting the white man's cities behind them and heading for home. "A lot of these people returning from the cities are retirees," says Fred DuBray, a Sioux who manages the InterTribal Bison Cooperative near the Black Hills. "This is where they want to be. This is where their heart is."

The heaviest surge of reverse migration has occurred on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, home of the Oglala Lakota people and already the most populous of the many reservations scattered across the Great Plains. Though tribal and federal officials disagree on the Pine Ridge numbers, Shannon County, where most of the Oglala Lakota live, registered a gain of 26 percent in the 2000 census, second highest for ten-year growth in the entire state.

One day at Kyle, a Lakota community northeast of Wounded Knee, I spoke with Ivan Sorbel, a Sioux who came home to Indian Country after four years at out-of-state colleges and six in the U.S. Marine Corps. Sorbel works with the Pine Ridge Chamber of Commerce to promote small, entrepreneurial businesses on the reservation as an alternative to government handouts. "What we're trying to do," he said, "is get away from selling poverty." But it won't be easy. Unemployment on the reservation still runs 60 to 80 percent, with all the attendant problems of substance abuse and short lives.

One prospect that Sorbel finds encouraging would capitalize on the tribe's proximity to vacation destinations such as the Black Hills and Badlands National Park. Already the Lakota are promoting a kind of tourism that celebrates "living" tribal culture. Reenactors need not apply.

Tourism is occasionally touted as an economic panacea not only for the reservation but for the region as well, as if frigid winters, sizzling summers, constant wind, and a paucity of traveler services were mere inconveniences, easily tolerated in the pursuit of all this glorious open space. Yet however devoutly some folks might wish the Plains to develop a recreation-based economy, the safer bet is on those who say it will never happen. So what are the alternatives?

Manufacturers, apart from meatpackers and other food processors, have never found the Plains an attractive region for doing business, at least relative to the rest of the country. Most of the cities at the edge of the Plains have a healthy and diversified industrial base, but such a base is not to be found in the remote areas that need the jobs. The energy sector might provide some new jobs, but beyond that there are few real prospects unless innovative technologies can be fashioned to develop new products from the region's agricultural bounty. Outside Omaha, for example, a high-tech plant now processes corn into synthetic fibers that can be used in a variety of products, from diapers to upholstery. The plant employs a hundred people. But Omaha is not on the Great Plains—and is not suffering from out-migration.

Once upon a time, say about 10 to 20 years ago, as the information age flexed its modems and suburban sprawl began to frazzle the human spirit, some demographers predicted that rural communities would soon experience a reverse migration. Educated urban white-collar types, sick of it all and no longer bound to a downtown office, would simply pack up their computers and fax machines and relocate to some quiet, inexpensive hamlet way out in the boonies. Working electronically from their new homes, the migrants would invigorate places like—who knows?—Lebanon, Kansas, or Seneca, Nebraska. And all would be well with the world, except for one thing.

"It never happened," said Jim Hoy, "because most people are social animals." A Kansas cowman turned college professor, Hoy is director of the Center for Great Plains Studies at Emporia State University. We were spending a sociable afternoon talking about some of the great books, such as Willa Cather's, that the Plains had inspired, and suddenly we were into this other subject—about why the miracle of the modem had failed to repopulate the Plains. "At work or play, people like to be with people," he said. "It's not much fun to gather around the water cooler if you're the only one there."

In Congress there was talk last year of a New Homestead Act to give the rural economy a shot in the arm. Introduced in the Senate by Byron Dorgan, Democrat of North Dakota, and Chuck Hagel, Republican of Nebraska, the measure would establish a three-billion-dollar venture capital fund and provide generous tax credits to businesses willing to locate or expand in counties with high rates of out-migration. Though the bill failed to pass, it was reintroduced this year and is pending in committee.

No doubt in the long run it will take more than an act of Congress to lift the prevailing melancholy from the region's rural communities. For even if ways can be found to stanch the rate of out-migration and throw open the shuttered windows of commerce on Main Street, the fields and pastures beyond will need some mending too. There are limits to what the land can yield.

A generation ago, in his classic account of the Dust Bowl tragedy, historian Donald Worster warned that U.S. agriculture must not "repeat all the old mistakes of over-expansion" and ignore the lessons of the 1930s. "The Great Plains," he wrote, "cannot be pushed and pushed to feed the world's growing appetite... without collapsing at last into a sterile desert."

In an effort to avoid "the old mistakes," a number of American farmers have been turning to more sustainable practices such as crop rotation and conservation tillage, which in some cases can mean no tillage at all. Others are retiring some of their acres into the federal Conservation Reserve Program, which pays the farmer to maintain those acres as grassland. In fact, grass appears to be staging a comeback on some public lands too. fifteen national grasslands embracing more than three and a half million acres are scattered across the Great Plains from North Dakota into Texas—a legacy acquired by the government after bankruptcies and foreclosures evicted thousands of unlucky homesteaders in the 1930s. It's enough to make a person wonder: When grass returns to the Great Plains, can buffalo be far behind?

Since a small herd of bison was protected in Yellowstone National Park in 1894, these large, shaggy ruminants have multiplied and increased across the land until their numbers now exceed a quarter million nationwide. A consortium of Native Americans now manages bison herds totaling 12,000 head, mostly in the Dakotas and Montana. Ted Turner runs 37,000 bison on 13 of his ranches (1.8 million acres) in six of the Great Plains states and has launched a chain of restaurants called Ted's Montana Grill. The media mogul and philanthropist aims to whet a public taste for the low-fat bison burger.

Rustle up thousands of free-range bison across millions of acres of native grass and what else might you have besides burgers? You have a sweeping perception of what the Great Plains used to be—and might in some ways be again. You have the "Buffalo Commons," a provocative vision first laid out in 1987 by Frank Popper, an urban studies professor at Rutgers University, and his wife, Deborah, a geographer at the College of Staten Island. The Poppers found that by leaving the shape of their Commons somewhat ambiguous, people began thinking and talking about long-term ecological and economic restoration of the Great Plains. To them, the Commons became a metaphor for using the land with a lighter touch, although in their initial proposal they did recommend that the federal government acquire "more and more" private land. Some farmers and ranchers saw it as a scheme to get them off the land and turn the region into some kind of mega-national park. Tempers flared, and in at least one Plains community, a scheduled appearance by the Poppers had to be cancelled in the interest of public safety.

Time has cooled most of those tempers, especially in the northern Plains, where local banks are helping many ranchers switch from cattle to bison. Moreover, a number of conservation organizations, including the Nature Conservancy, have been buying up farms and ranches and, if not stocking them with bison, managing them for their intrinsic value as wildlife habitat. The Commons is catching on.

"I guess some things are beginning to change," that Kansas visionary Wes Jackson allowed one day. And how's that? "Well, heck," he said. "I hear the Poppers can come out here now and won't even need the sheriff for escort when it's time to leave town."


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