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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Farm Subsidies

Air Date: Week of

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Commentator Richard Manning says that the key to both preserving the West's grassland prairies and maintaining economic prosperity is simple. Bring back the bison.


TOOMEY: Congress is in the process of rewriting the current Farm Bill, which is set to expire next year. For decades, this legislation has provided subsidies to farmers who grow certain crops. But some environmentalists say that money would be better spent on incentives to preserve critical habitats on farmland. Commentator Richard Manning agrees, and has these thoughts on how to restore the grassland prairies of the west.

MANNING: People visit a place like Yellowstone National Park, videotape a few megafauna, then leave, believing they have seen the west. One can get a better picture of the west, however, outside of the parks, where the view opens to gentle grassy hills rolling to the horizon - no buildings for miles, just fences, and a few cattle. Easy to think this landscape is unchanging. The truth is, though, the plains states are changing rapidly. Manifest Destiny said that the plains were to be populated with yeomen farmers, that the nomadic natives and the bison were to be exterminated and the grass was to be plowed under. Our nation accomplished much of this in the last quarter of the 19th century. Then the settlers came, settled, and almost immediately began unsettling. Most rural plains counties peaked in population near the beginning of the 20th century. The central lesson in all of this was best stated on a sign left by an unsettler, as he abandoned a plowed-up chunk of Nebraska's Sandhills: "God made this country right-side-up. Don't turn it over." This was learned individually by every defeated settler throughout a century, which makes it even more curious that, collectively, we have yet to learn it.

We regard farming as a permanent condition of rural life, but in the arid west, it is, in fact, a brief experiment of 100 years. From the outset, it began failing - a destiny now manifest - and farm subsidies are the best evidence of that failure. Last year, our nation spent a total of more than 22 billion dollars on direct farm subsidies, much of it paid to western farmers to grow wheat, or to not grow wheat, on highly erodable lands. Still, the west can have population and economy. It had both for thousands of years, strong ones.

History remembers the plains Indian wars best, because they were the fiercest, and they were the fiercest because the natives were supported with a vibrant economy based in bison and motion; an economy evolved to fit its context. We can have that again by encouraging grazing, not farming. Grass-fed cattle will work, but bison, designed by evolution to suit this harsh place, are better.

There is an exception to the trend of shrinking population in western places. Indian reservations are growing. There is an exception to farmers and ranchers either going broke or depending on subsidy. The bison business is booming.

At the core of this renaissance is a coalition of 30 Indian tribes that are bringing back the bison and, with them elk, prairie dogs, ferrets, hawks and, especially, the grass. During the next few months Congress will write a new farm bill. Lobbyists for tractor manufacturers, seed companies and such, will probably prevent federal policy from actually aiding the grassland renaissance. Perhaps, though, a coalition of wildlife interest, ranchers, taxpayers and unsubsidized farmers can at least persuade the government to stop impeding it.

TOOMEY: Richard Manning is author of "Grassland: the History, Biology, Politics and Promise of the American Prairie." His commentary first appeared in "The New York Times."



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