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Northern Prairie Wildlife Research Center

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America's Northern Plains

An Overview and Assessment of Natural Resources


The NRCS recognizes that the Northern Plains region is a land of extremes in soils, climate, crops, and animal agriculture. Northern Plains farmers and ranchers have made substantial progress in soil and water conservation since the 1930s and especially in the past ten years, as documented by the 1992 National Resources Inventory.

The agricultural community's progress in reducing wind and water erosion on croplands and rangelands often has exceeded the national norms. The stabilization of and net gains of wetlands over the past ten years are significant accomplishments (especially since the national trend was slightly negative) and have improved wildlife populations, increased flood storage capacity, and contributed to carbon sequestration.

Similarly, the 14.7 million acres of land submitted to the Conservation Reserve Program contributed to successes in maintaining wildlife populations, reducing wind and water erosion, and supporting carbon sequestration in Great Plains soils. Furthermore, these accomplishments occurred during a period of greater climatic variability and stress, including such events as the "Drought of 1988."

However, more than 130,000 acres of CRP lands were released in 1995. The importance of CRP will not be apparent until the region experiences another extended drought analogous to that of the Dust Bowl years. With 97 million acres of fragile soils in the region, the natural and agroecosystems have little capacity to adapt to a changing environment.

Soil quality and health issues in the region require more extensive evaluation than currently possible through the NRI or soil survey process. Saline seep development, alkalinity, carbon storage, and wind erosion are dominant soil quality concerns. Over the longer term, how will these soils and landscapes respond, physically and chemically, to climate changes?

Water quality problems are well recognized in the region, particularly along the major drainages where irrigated corn monoculture occurs in association with soils of high leaching potential. The Central Platte River reach may serve as a good barometer for progress in reducing nitrate and atrazine levels in groundwater.

The decrease in forests on nonfederal lands, although minor in extent, may be signaling movement of timber harvesting from federal lands. The Northern Plains region also has a large hidden infrastructure across the landscape-- windbreaks. Since 70 to 80% of the windbreaks need some type of renovation to maintain their function, the past successes recorded across the region in reducing wind erosion may be at risk. With the initiation of the Wetlands Reserve Program, wooded riparian corridors should expand and are hoped will offset CRP releases.

Rapid urban growth along the Colorado Front Range, and increasing irrigation demands, particularly in Nebraska, are reducing downstream flows and depleting major aquifers in the Northern Plains region. The NRCS SNOTEL stations in the headwaters will become increasingly important for forecasting water supply, particularly under an uncertain climate.

Paralleling water supply issues, the loss of prime farmlands-- which are the soils with the best set of physical properties for soil moisture retention-- will become increasingly important in periods of high climatic variability. The regional research and monitoring framework will improve our land resource and climate databases and provide important information for natural resource analysis.

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