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America's Northern Plains

An Overview and Assessment of Natural Resources

Basic Region Land Resources

The Northern Plains region consists of roughly 420 million acres, distributed across 55 Major Land Resource Areas (MLRAs). The MLRAs are geographic areas characterized by a particular pattern of soils, climate, land use/land cover, water resources, topography, and potential natural vegetation (Figure 1).

JPG-Northern Plains region physiography and MLRAs
Figure 1. Northern Plains region physiography and MLRAs.


The soil resource base is a good indicator of regional land resource diversity, which is considerable in this region. Together, more than 4,427 soil series and 48,165 soil map units represent the Northern Plains landscape (Waltman, 1995).

Climate regimes range from arid to humid, and soil temperature regimes extend from warm temperate to tundra and permafrost. Precipitation ranges from less than 6 inches (142mm) in the Bighorn Basin of Wyoming to 44 inches (1,110mm) in southeastern Kansas.

Topography ranges from elevations of 14,433 feet (4,500m) on Mt. Elbert, Colorado, to under 800 feet (213m) in Kansas. Elevation is below 4,920 feet (1500m) for over 70% of the region, and only 4% of the land area is higher than 9,000 feet (2,743m).

National Significance

USGS's Land Use and Land Cover Digital Data (1986) indicates that the Northern Plains region contains a significant proportion of the nation's basic resources. Although the region includes only 15% of the conterminous U.S., it contains:

The region's nearly 280,000 farms and ranches total 13% of the nation's farms, but they manage 28% of the U.S. farmland area. Less than 1% of the region is urban land, but this urban area makes up 5% of the nation's total urban land.

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