Shortgrass Prairie, No Man’s Land

Northeast New Mexico is a vast area of shortgrass prairie. Towns are small and far apart. It’s sparsely populated, with cattle ranching the only obvious activity.

The roads seem endless, grassland to the horizon.

Moving east, we drove through the mixed rangeland and cropland of the western edge of ‘No Man’s Land’, the western Oklahoma panhandle. From west to east, we saw rangeland/grassland, irrigated cropland (corn, pumpkins, hay, sorghum, cotton) and a bit to the east, non-irrigated cropland.

The land here is dry. The wind blows strong and steady. There is a lot of history in this area.

Driving through this area, I’m reminded of Timothy Egan’s book “The Worst Hard Times” on the horrible conditions the people faced during the 1930’s drought and dust storms. According to Egan, this area – Clayton, New Mexico; Guymon & Boise City, Oklahoma; Liberal, Kansas and Dalhart, Texas – was at the epicenter of the dust bowl – up until now the nation’s worst environmental disaster.

What happened?

Mechanized plowing made it possible to plow up large tracts of shortgrass prairie. A period of wet years and high crop prices encouraged farmers to plow and plant. The Federal government encouraged plowing with forty-year loans, crop price supports, and advice such as ‘The soils is the one indestructible, immutable asset that the nation posesses …’. So tens of millions of acres of prairie got plowed and planted.

And then…

…crop surpluses, the 1929 market crash and Great Depression drove prices down. Farmers who had to make mortgage payments reacted by plowing more land and planting more wheat. More prairie sod was overturned and converted to cropland.

A multi-year draught ruined crops. Speculators left their land barren with no crop cover to prevent wind erosion. Farmers went bust, banks failed. Fields and farms were abandoned. The tough, draught tolerant shortgrass prairie was now exposed.

By the mid 1930’s the dry, barren land was consumed by dust storms so intense that visibility was zero, houses were buried in drifts of dirt. People died from dust pneumonia. The land fell victim to ‘Black Blizzards’ that unlike up north, didn’t melt away.

An epic environmental disaster.

Americans have plenty of hubris. We thought that we could run roughshod over nature, rip up ten-thousand year old prairie and turn it into cropland. We were wrong. Round one – nature won.

Today, the parts of the panhandle that we traversed have a lot of cropland, some of which is irrigated. Much of it appears to be worked with conventional bare ground cultivation instead of no-tillage methods. But Soil Conservation Districts and better awareness seems to keep the land productive.

Round two, climate change, who will win?

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