Wednesday, June 13, 2007

The Upside of Disaster and Decline

Terrierman as a boy in Kansas.

Walter H. sent me an article from The Wichita Eagle on waste land in eastern Kansas that is being snapped up by folks converting it to hunting camps.

The story is close to my heart, as my grandfather was raised on a farm near Longton, Kansas (population 394), and it's the spot where I first fell in love with fishing, which in turn has led to a passion for the outdoors, dogs, hunting and the rest. One of my most treasured possessions is on a shelf in the garage -- a 40-year old fiberglass pole that I used as a kid when fishing the family farm pond in Longton. That's me in the picture at top -- fishing at about age 5 or 6 with that same pole.

My mother and father returned to Longton some time back to find the farmhouse knocked to the ground and gone, and the wooden barn now covered in metal sheathing to protect it from the elements.

The farm is now owned by a fellow who hopes to turn it into a professionally-managed deer and bird hunting concern. Apparently more than a few people are doing the same kind of thing in Kansas these days. As the Wichita Eagle notes about a portion of eastern Kansas that has been ravaged by a combination of coal mining and declining water tables:

"For decades it's been seen as some of the most worthless wasteland in Kansas.

Not anymore.

Not long ago valued at $300 an acre, some rugged land is now on the market for more than $3,000 an acre.

The increased value isn't from a discovery of coal or oil deposits. The new, most valued natural resources wear fur, feathers and fins.

"If you love to hunt and fish, you'd be hard pressed to find a better piece of property than this," said Brad Harris, as he toured 900-plus acres near Pittsburg. "It's seriously some of the best in the nation."

Some of the best in the nation? That's a bit of a stretch. That said, there's no shortage of scrub farm land available for less than $1,000 an acre, and that's not too bad a price for property, even if there's not much water to be had.

Today Kansas has more land with a population density of 6 people per square mile than it did in 1890.

Six people per square mile, for the record, was the standard used by Frederick Jackson Turner in 1893 to gauge how much "frontier" was left in America. While 388 counties west of the Mississippi River could still be said to qualify as "frontier" in 1980, that number had risen to 402 by 2000.

What's going on in those always-sparsely-settled sections of the country that are now losing population? Well, for one thing, some chunks of the country are starting to run out of water. We got out of the Dust Bowl thanks, in no small part, to fossil water being pumped out of the ground. Nows those wells, drilled in the 1930s, are starting to run dry, and there's no more 10,000-year-old water to be had.

In other parts of the country, once-bustling railroad depots and corridors have fallen silent, replaced by interstate truckers and commercial jets. In the Great Plains, if you're not right along the Interstate, you're nowhere. They don't call this part of America "fly over country" for nothing.

Television, education, and mechanization have had their impact too. It's hard to keep people on the farm after they have been raised on a nonstop diet of Miami Vice, MTV, and Beverly Hills 90210, and after they have been sent off to college and graduate school.

Adding to the push and pull is the fact that farms are increasingly mechanized, while farm prices continue to plummet in a world in which soy beans are imported from Brazil and wheat glutten is imported from China. If you cannot make a steady income from the land, then you can't make a living from it all.

With large areas of the American west slowly depopulating, some have wondered what the "Next Economy" for the region might look like.

About 20 years ago, Drs. Frank and Deborah Popper suggested the next economy might look a lot like the one that existed prior to 1820.

Calling their idea "the Buffalo Commons" the Poppers suggested that Federal and State governments stop subsidizing farmers to pump fossil water in order to grow crops no one wanted and needed, and instead buy up large tracts of land which would serve as a natural corridor through which bison and other native wildlife could once again roam free.

Some people denounced the idea as a crazy left-wing land grab by enviro-lunatics, while others praised the idea for its visionary economic and environmental brilliance.

No matter. Good ideas can hardly be stopped and bad ideas rarely fly too far.

In this case, what has emerged is not quite what the Popper's imagined, but something quite interesting nonetheless.

Instead of buying land outright, the Federal Goverment has decided to lease it. By leasing the land and keeping it fallow under the terms of the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), which began in 1986, a great deal of the Great Plains (and no small part of land in the East and far West too) has been put under modified protection.

The good news is that because of the way it was set up, the CRP program was able to expand very rapidly. CRP land now totals more than 50,000 square miles across the U.S. -- an area about the size of England.

Instead of returning things to a kind of unified "American Serengetti" with huge herds of Bison, however, the land has remained a tapestry of private land that has simply been left fallow. The result has been about perfect for deer, coyote, fox, and some game birds, even if it has not done much for the buffalo (which are in no danger of extinction in any case).


The land in green is fallow CRP land, the land in grey is other federal land (National Forest, National Park, etc.). You can see a larger version of this map at >>

The depopulation of the Great Plains and the return of prairie wildlife is not a complete aberration. It turns out that Mother Nature is a tough old girl, and if we will only take our boot off her throat, she will generally spring up on her feet and heal in time.

The problem, of course, is that we now have a lot of boots on her throat. To be specific, we have 600 million boots in this country right now, and we are adding more every day. Across the world there are 12 billion boots, and more are being added every day. With so many boots on the land, a great deal of wildlife and wild places have necessarily been stomped into the ground.

Which brings us to "the exceptions that prove the rule" -- places which, for one reason or another, have become (or remain) people-free zones.

A look at a sampling of these from around the world suggests there may be (as hard as it is to believe) an upside to disaster and decline:

  • Chernobyl: Prior to 1986, the area surrounding Chernobyl in the Ukraine was an agricultural area populated by about 135,000 people. After an uncontained nuclear power plant accident, however, livestock and crops across a vast area were systematically destroyed, and all of the people within a 2,800 mile area around the nuclear plant were evacuated. With the removal of humans has come the return of some of Europe's most endangered species, including lynx, wolves, cranes, beaver, eagles, hawks, wild boar, roe deer, badger, and otters. Populations of human-dependent animals, such as rats, house mice, sparrows and pigeons, have declined. While some folks may imagine that the Chernobyl site must be filled with two-headed frogs, radioactive fish, and sterile deer, scientists have found relatively few visible wildlife side-effects. Dr. Ron Chesser, a senior research scientist and genetics professor at the University of Georgia's Savannah River Ecology Laboratory (SREL) in Aiken, South Carolina notes that "There are no monsters. The Chernobyl zone is actually a very beautiful place with thriving wildlife communities. Without a Geiger-counter, you wouldn't know you were in a highly contaminated place."

  • The Korean Demilitarized Zone (DMZ): The Korean Demilitarized Zone is about 2.5 miles wide and 155 miles long, stretching across the entire length of the Korean Peninsula. It is one of the largest unmanned areas in northeast Asia. Festooned with barbed wire, landmines, tank traps, sensors, automatic artillery, and patrolled by scores of thousands of soldiers with "shoot-to-kill" orders, the Korean DMZ is also home to hawks, eagles, antelope, two kinds of rare cranes, frogs, black bears, and roe deer. The DMZ is also rumored to be home to the last Korean tigers on earth. In total, more than 20,000 migratory fowl utilize the DMZ border area which encompasses a broad cross-section of Korean ecosystems and landscapes.

  • Military Weapons Production Facilities: Military weapons production facilities in the U.S. have resulted in the creation of several large "no man" zones. In Washington State, for example, the Hanford Nuclear Reservation was created as part of the WWII-era Manhattan Project. Today the 586-square mile site is one of the most contaminated spots on earth due to nuclear waste, but it also contains the best undisturbed "shrub-steppe" habitat in the Columbia River basin, and the only undammed stretch of the Columbia River. The healthiest populations of wild chinook salmon on the river system can be found along the Hanford Reach, and more than 200 species of birds and more than 40 rare plants and animals, such as the long-billed curlew, call it home.

    In Colorado, the Rocky Flats nuclear weapons facility and the Rocky Mountain Arsenal (which produced and stored vast quantities of chemical weapons) systematically kept out humans for more than 40 years. As a result, the 10-square mile Rocky Flats complex outside of Denver has been described as "a rare biological treasure" -- one of the last remaining Front Range open spaces with natural prairie grassland -- while the Rocky Mountain Arsenal (also just outside of Denver) has thriving colonies of prairie dogs and over 100 overwintering bald eagles, as well as trophy-sized mule deer and impressive populations of ferruginous hawks, burrowing owls and mountain plovers. Both locations, for the record, are now National Wildlife Refuge's.

    In Georgia, a 300-square-mile property along the Savannah River was set aside for nuclear research and development more than 50 years ago. For most of the Cold War this site produced plutonium and tritium for atomic bombs. While a small part of the complex remains heavily contaminated, most of the area was left in pristine condition as a security buffer zone -- an area that today is home to more than 240 species of birds, 100 species of reptiles and amphibians, and nearly 100 species of freshwater fish. Because Savannah River wildlife was left alone to matures, many state record holders have been caught or trapped here, including the largest South Carolina alligator ever caught (13 feet) and the largest South Carolina largemouth bass. Despite jokes about "glowing frogs," University of Georgia's Whit Gibbons says there is no evidence to date of genetic damage to wildlife. "It's a pretty simple formula," he note, "The best protection for the environment is no people."

  • It's a pretty sobering reality that no amount of barbed wire, spent fuel rods, PCBs, landmines, live ammo, or coal slag is as dangerous to wild animals as the mere presence of humans.

    So what's next when it comes to the upside of disaster and decline?

    One word: Katrina.

    It looks like one of the lasting legacies of Hurricane Katrina is that private insurance companies along the Louisiana and Mississippi coasts are going to change how they do business. Many are pulling out of the region altogether, while others are jacking up the price of their policies so much (and writing in a lot of escape clauses when they write a policy at all) that sensible developers are reevaluating their construction projects.

    With large parts of the Louisiana and Mississippi coast already saddled with the Cancer Alley monicker due to the previous dumping by the oil and chemical industries, it's a safe bet that coastal land prices are going to remain low for some time, that development will be slow to return where it has been wiped out, and that more wildlife may yet return to some areas.

    In fact, the best possible outcome for parts of Louisiana and Mississippi may be if Federal and private interests buy up large sections of the coast and simply allow them to return to nature.

    Maybe -- just maybe -- God was sending us a message. One does not have to a Bible-thumping Christian to read Matthew 7:25-27, as a sensible construction code:

    "And rain came down, and floods came, and winds blew, and the house built according to my teachings did not fall down, for it was founded on stone.

    "As for the house built on sand, and not according to my teaching, rains came down, and floods came, and winds blew, and hurled against the house, and it fell in a mighty roar."



    Matt Mullenix said...

    Lo, findeth me a stone in southeast Louisiana, and I will build my house upon it.

    -Matthew 13-6-07

    Reid Farmer said...

    Wonderful, Matt! Can you imagine how strange it was for me to take geology courses at Tulane where there are no rocks!

    Patrick, I'm glad you mentioned Rock Mountain Arsenal here in Denver. I worked on an archaeological survey out there when we were here in the early 80s. At that time, the plan was to build the new Denver International Airport there, but luckily that didn't happen. There is a stream out there that is designated "Blue Ribbon" water for bass. It's all catch and release - you'd die if you ate any of them.

    clandauer said...


    Here's a link to the excellent program that runs on the land adjacent to the old Stapleton Airport and the Rocky Mountain Arsenal.

    I attended one of their programs as a pre-teen and it was simply amazing to watch a hawk hunt up close.

    As for the above post about using the Arsenal for a new airport, I think it was more like Stapleton needed one more runway which could have been built on the Arsenal land; instead Denver Mayor Federico Peña (of Transportation Secretary Shame) managed to ram through the largest and most expensive public works disaster in recent memory, save the levees in New Orleans.

    I think you'd have a hard time trying to weigh the environmental impact of the (un-needed) largest US Airport, worse in almost every way than the one it replaced, and all the roads leading out to its remote location in the grasslands vs. the environmental impact of turning part of the Arsenal into a runway vs. allowing it to go wild.

    Sadly, I think we're at a net loss environmentally, but that's not to say that a lot of good can't come out of the example.

    Also, I hope that nature really finds a way to survive in the radioactive zones and it's not just some temporary appearance of abundance and life while somatic cell damage is going on under the surface, only to spring up in morphological change and disease in future years.

    Reid Farmer said...

    Those of us who used to fly out of Stapleton never thought we'd ever say that we missed it!!

    Great fishing pic of you as a sprout!

    Steve Bodio said...

    Good book on Chernobyl: Wormwood Forest: a natural history of Chernobyl by Mary Mycio. It actually looks pretty good-- only a few organisms show any genetic damage and even THEY thrive. Weird.