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Ecology and Economics of the Great Plains.

Licht, Daniel S. 1997. Our Sustainable Future. Volume 10. University of Nebraska Press, Lincoln, Nebraska. xii + 225 p. $45.00, ISBN: 0-8032-2922-4 (alk. paper).

Before there was the Wildlands Project, there was Ernest Callabach's vision of a wind-powered, bison-fed society, Montana's Big Open, and Frank and Deborah Popper's Buffalo Commons. There is no shortage of proposals that address the sustainability of the North American Great Plains, and concern for its future is not new but stretches back at least to the earlier part of this century. Indeed, most of the original prairie, what Walt Whitman called "North America's characteristic landscape," has disappeared beneath the plow, to the extent that less than 1% of the original tallgrass prairie remains. And the biota of the prairie bioregion continues to incur losses due to habitat-fragmentation, elimination of natural predator-prey associations, introduced species, and various commercial practices. Now, Daniel Licht offers a new proposal to preserve the Great Plains landscape and its biodiversity that is eminently sensible, and he lays out a scenario for its implementation that is both clear and plausible.

The purpose of this book (Volume 10 in University of Nebraska Press's "Our Sustainable Future" series) is to argue compellingly for a plan to restore the native ecosystems of North America's heartland while at the same time revitalizing its diminished rural economies. The author, a biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service stationed in Ft. Snelling, Minnesota, has an obvious passion for the Plains and its human and nonhumman inhabitants.

The book is organized into 12 chapters. The first chapter, appropriately entitled "The Land," orients the reader to the 207 million ha prairie bioregion. Here, Licht introduces the biota of the region, and discusses briefly the factors that have drastically reduced its species richness during the past two centuries. The next three chapters are a kind of primer on the history of biodiversity loss in the region and the various attempts and costs incurred to halt these extinctions. The news is sobering. Approximately 500 plant and animal species have gone extinct in the region since 1492, and another 9000 species remain at risk in the U.S. Particularly useful at this point in the discussion is Licht's highlighting of 10 case studies (four mammals, three birds, two insects, and a plant) to illustrate that the sources of the threat are as diverse as the taxa involved. He closes by discussing the failure of species-level approaches to conservation, arguing instead for the necessity of landscape-level protection of endangered ecosystems.

Up to this point, Licht has dealt mainly with ecological subjects. In the next two chapters, he turns to issues of public policy, land use, economics, and agricultural production. In reviews of public and private lands management, he summarizes the philosophical changes that have taken place in wildlife management since the 1930s. Conventional wildlife management, with its typical short-term planning horizon and focus on game animals, contrasts starkly with the science of conservation biology, which has a centuries-long perspective and a broad emphasis on biodiversity. Another impediment cited here is the variety of U.S. government agencies, ranging from the National Park Service to the Department of Defense, with their very different missions and priorities, that hold and manage public lands in the Great Plains. A third major hurdle confronting restoration is that public lands exist as nearly 1400 non-contiguous blocks intermingled with private lands. The resulting high perimeter: area ratio is an administration nightmare that argues strongly for an effort to consolidate conservation holdings into fewer, larger tracts.

Chapters 7 and 8, on the waning rural economy and the various U.S. government farm programs, bring economics more into the conservation equation. Many environmental historians contend that the collapse of Great Plains rural communities after the turn of the 20th century was inevitable given the region's inhospitable climate, lack of natural resources, and great transportation distances. Hence, economic viability of the region has always depended heavily on federal subsidies to stimulate and maintain settlement. Licht blames direct government payments to farmers, not the market, for much of the overcultivation of the Plains. The point here is that government farm programs, in shoring up agricultural economies, have merely supported excess production capacity at the dire expense of grassland biodiversity. Even the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), commendable in its goal of paying farmers to stabilize highly erodible soils, is inadequate to restore grassland biodiversity mainly because it comprises too little land area and ignores many conservation principles (for example, that introduced grasses may not substitute for native grasses in providing habitat suitable for ground-nesting birds). A remarkable conclusion is that U.S. taxpayers could have purchased the CRP land directly and restored suitable wildlife habitat for less money than the total cost of the CRP payments over the life of the program and with far greater benefits for biodiversity conservation.

Finally, 10 chapters (and 160 pages) into the book Licht details his proposal for a set of 10 large grassland reserves, containing a total of 7.3 million ha, to be established within the various grassland ecoregions of the central U.S. In what is probably the most valuable part of the book, Licht maps precisely where the reserves could be established and presents a reasonable estimate of the total cost for such a program. Although representing only 4% of the U.S. grassland biome, the plan could potentially reduce federal agricultural subsidies while protecting critical ecosystems. A beauty of the proposal is that the system of reserves would require no net increase in federal ownership of land. In Chapter 10, he deals necessarily with the politics of his proposal, detailing the benefits to such stakeholders as farmers and ranchers, outdoor recreationists, and adjacent rural communities.

Overall, Licht succeeds in presenting a case that is organized, thorough, clear, and approachable by non-specialists. Clearly, he has given this proposal a lot of thought. The title of the book may be misleading. Rather than the potentially dry subject matter implied, Licht's argument for setting aside large tracts of land to create grassland wildernesses is instead provocative and well developed. This book has much to offer to conservationists, policy-makers, and land managers interested in the current state and future of the Plains bioregion. Portions of the book would make useful addenda to a conservation biology curriculum. Except for one or two minor typos, and misuse of the term "ecotype" to mean "habitat type," the book appears free of errors. Ecologists may desire more scientific treatment than this short book provides. But what is lost in depth is gained in the book's valuable blending of conservation, public policy, and economics. There is a nice appendix that lists all the threatened and endangered species in the Plains.

The real strength of this book is Licht's translation of his vision into a concrete plan for implementation. The proposal is grounded in the reality of an uncertain economic future for the region and certain extinction for many of its wild species. With the recent creation of the Tallgrass Prairie Preserve near Strong City, Kansas, the political climate seems to be propitious for a renewed effort to conserve grassland biodiversity. One can hope that this book will at least expand our imagination about a future both wild and sustainable for all the inhabitants of the Plains.


Bethel College Department of Biology North Newton, Kansas 67117
COPYRIGHT 1998 Ecological Society of America
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Copyright 1998 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Piper, Jon K.
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1998
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