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Preview: Prairie Fire - The Progressive Voice of the Great Plains -

Prairie Fire - The Progressive Voice of the Great Plains


Oil, Culture, and What Small Places Have to Teach Us

Tue, 01 Sep 2015 05:00:07 +0000

By Rick EdwardsOil production in North Dakota’s Bakken shale formation and Alberta’s tar sands is helping to reshape oil markets, creating a worldwide glut and sending prices plunging. Opposition to developing these resources has focused mainly on their contribution to global climate change and on the Keystone XL pipeline, designed to carry crude to refineries. NASA scientist James Hanson famously declared that if the tar sands are developed, “it will be game over for the climate.”Less attention has focused on the social and cultural effects of frenzied, reckless oil exploitation. While most small towns in the Great Plains wrestle with depopulation, western North Dakota is presumably enjoying the pleasures of growth. The boom has indeed brought an influx of newcomers, new businesses, and tax revenues, yet in some ways its effects are as devastating as population decline.I grew up, to age twelve, in Stanley, North Dakota, then a small, dusty wheat town. I left in 1956. When I returned in 2007 to begin work on Natives of a Dry Place: Stories of Dakota Before the Boom, I found that the town had remained largely unchanged. The Dakota Drug was still there on Main Street, Springan’s Furniture a block away was doing a quiet Saturday business, and the majestic courthouse stood amid its outriders of ash and a few surviving elms. Folks still gathered for morning coffee and pancakes at Joyce’s Cafe. Now they were talking on cellphones and driving air-conditioned pickups, of course, but otherwise much seemed as I had remembered.But it turned out my trip was like visiting New Orleans before Hurricane Katrina or the Jersey shore before Superstorm Sandy. For a time Stanley was the exact epicenter of the oil boom, which has completely changed the town, rapidly sweeping away the Old Stanley I knew. As oil does almost everywhere in the world, it brought to Stanley disruptive, transformative change, straining friendships and rupturing community ties. New folks, truckers, drillers, construction crews, heavy-equipment mechanics, project managers, roustabouts, land and leasing agents, supply and logistics men, and all manner of other oil-field types flooded the town, overcrowding housing, bringing previously unimaginable crime, adding kids to the schools faster than new teachers can be hired. The pressure on housing is intense; one national survey in 2014 found that Williston, an oil hub seventy miles to the west of Stanley, has the highest rents in the nation.Houses became dormitories for the overwhelmingly male labor force. Late morning one weekday in 2011 I drove past our old house, the three-bedroom, one-bath structure my father had built in 1928.Now eight mud-spattered SUVs and pickups were parked in its littered, untended yard: my dad’s handiwork had been demoted to a dormitory.The boom has made millionaires of some town residents. Larry Lystad, a retired science teacher with a well on his property, was reported to be reaping as much as a million dollars a year. His Scandinavian and German homesteader ancestors, he said, “have been farming rocks for generations. It’s like winning the lottery.” Derald Hoover worked for the rural electric company for forty-two years; he reportedly receives royalties from three wells. “It’s not very hard to be a millionaire nowadays,” he says.But town residents who don’t own land haven’t shared in the bonanza, and even some farmers have lost out as well, having sold their mineral rights years or decades ago. Mountrail County Extension agent James Hennessey characterizes the oil boom as “the good, the bad, and the ugly. The good is the guy with seven wells who’s a millionaire in twenty-four hours. The bad are those who own the land but not the minerals underneath, and whose roads are tore up and they’re not getting anything. And the ugly is the disparity, which creates a lot of animosity.”Then too, oil is fickle. Oil prices were high—ninety to one hundred dollars a barrel—for the past decade, so Bakken oil, which costs about seventy dollars a barrel to produce, crea[...]

No Home on the Range: Climate Change and the Buffalo Commons

Tue, 01 Sep 2015 05:00:04 +0000

By Robert K. Schneiders In 1987 geographers Frank and Deborah Popper wrote their now-famous “Buffalo Commons” article. In the article, published in December of that year in Planning magazine under the title “The Great Plains: From Dust to Dust,” the Poppers argued that the interplay of environmental, economic, and demographic variables would foster the eventual formation of a “Buffalo Commons” across remote, depopulated segments of the American Great Plains. This “Commons” would consist of large bison herds, which according to the Poppers represented the most environmentally sustainable and economically viable use of the semiarid grassland regions of the continental United States. Yet, over twenty-five years after the publication of the widely readarticle, it is now evident that the Poppers’ vision of the Great Plains will never come to pass. Three environmental factors (all related to climate change)guarantee that the Buffalo Commons will remain only a theoryrather than an actual means of organizing the Great Plains environment and economy. 1. A Warmer and Drier Climate. Scientists have concluded that the western regions of the Great Plains, which includes many areas examined by the Poppers, are becoming drier and warmer. In the last century, the Plains have have warmed between three and four degrees Fahrenheit. This warming will continue. As climate change accelerates, portions of the western Plains will experience more frequent drought episodes, which translates into less forage for bison. Forage is the single greatest determinant of herd size and survivability. The sparseness of forage across the western Plains will limit, or completely impede, the reintroduction of bison to their former range. Put simply, desertification stemming from climate change will forestall a Buffalo Commons. You can’t have bison without grass. 2. The Dwindling Water Resource. As the western Great Plains heats up and annual precipitation amounts decline, rivers will carry less water; reservoirs, wetlands, stock ponds, and glacial potholes will no longer fill to capacity; and the Ogallala Aquifer will be tapped out of existence. In the new American desert that emerges, the Great Plains’ dominant species, Homo Sapiens Americanus (which is a particularly large subspecies of Homo Sapiens) will increasingly monopolize the area’s depleted water resources, leaving little or none for other life forms. Without water, bison will have no place on the Plains. 3. The Absence of the Region’s Former Oases. The third, and most important, reason the Buffalo Commons idea will forever remain the pipe dream of the Environmental Left is tied to the first and second reasons. Homo Sapiens occupy, and will continue to occupy, the prime ecological real estate across the Great Plains. In the nineteenth century, before European Americans violently seized the grassland from the Native Americans, and when bison still roamed the Plains in the millions, there existed a series of oases between the Missouri River and Rocky Mountains. These oases held the bulk of the region’s biological diversity. An array of plants, birds, mammals, and reptiles concentrated in the oases. During drought episodes and severe winters (or the occasional little ice ages that descended on the Plains), the oases acted as sanctuaries, sustaining bison herds and other critters against the ravages of the Great Plains’ frequently violent climate. The oases were instrumental in the long-term survival of large bison herds. In the nineteenth century, plainsmen, wholly ignorant of ecology and convinced of their God-given right to slaughter everything possessing a hide or devilish beady eyes, referred to the Great Plains’ oases as “bottoms,” which was a derivative of the term “river bottomland.” But the bottoms were not just any bottomland, they were parcels of land situated next to rivers and streams that contained robust timber tracts, fertile soil, tall grasses, and a perennial[...]