Thursday, January 31, 2013

Signs of Things?

The other day I was driving home from the Fargo VA hospital and I noticed something disturbing, a proliferation of “No Hunting” and “No Trespassing” signs.  Along one stretch of highway there were posted signs for every field, on both sides of the road.  Frankly, I don’t blame landowners for posting their property because it is one of the few methods available to them for the control of who is hunting their lands because here in North Dakota posted signs are required if a land owner wants to exclude people, especially hunters, from venturing onto their property. If the land is not posted the presumption is that the landowner is allowing access.  There are restrictions, of course, but the point is that unlike many other parts of the country, where privately owned lands do not require posting to be closed, North Dakota’s privately owned lands are considered open unless they are posted. The system works here because more than 95-percent of the state is privately owned and even with the state’s PLOTS (Private Lands Open To Sportsmen) program to provide hunting opportunities, many of the state’s better hunting lands are not enrolled in PLOTS. Traditionally, North Dakota’s farmers and hunters had a cultural bond going back to the state’s 19th and early 20th century Northern European immigrants that assured the state’s sportsmen and women a place to hunt.
What I find distressing is that the increase in posted signs seems to be a corollary to the disappearance of lands enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP), and the number of tree lines being cleared to add a very few acres of cultivated land to a farm. I understand and appreciate the farmers’ need to profit from their crops but a significant amount of these land losses are being driven by the lure of inflated profits being generated by the growth of the bio-fuel industry. So, what we are seeing is that the sword of our drive for alternative fuels has its “other” sharp side and it too, cuts. In a state like North Dakota, where there is very little publicly owned land, as compared to the western states with vast tracts of public land, there is the threat of huge losses of habitat and the subsequent crash of wildlife populations, if the grasslands, and other private lands once maintained as habitat, are lost to cultivation. 

I don’t know how much of this land loss to cultivation is by local landowners and how much is being orchestrated by absentee landowners giving instructions to farm managers.  I have heard complaints from some locals that absentee landowners, primarily corporate landowners, are to blame for the losses.  I do not know the veracity of the statements, but where there is smoke there is usually some sort of fire.  What I do know is that when Michelle and I moved here there was an amazing amount of game and there was nearly twice as much CRP land. In the last four years there has been a steady decline in CRP and a corresponding decline of wildlife (game and nongame). The declines can be attributed to successive severe winters and natural causes but at the root of the numbers is loss of habitat and its compounding effect on wildlife survival. 
These problems are not exclusive to North Dakota. At writers’ conferences and by email I’ve heard similar complaints, i.e. we are trading lands that had once been marginal for crops or energy production, but ideal for wildlife habitat, for the production of energy regardless of how marginal the production.

A very real result of these losses is something that we may not recognize until it is too late to recover from it, and that is the loss of aesthetic value of the lands and the wildlife as they contributed to the whole of the state and the nation. It is not rocket science to look back in the nation’s history and see where one of the recognized values of wilderness was its “existence” whether a person was able to experience it or simply know it existed.  For some it may be a stretch to compare a wilderness or even a second or third growth forest to a half section of grass covered land set aside in CRP, but the notes of song birds, thrill of seeing a deer or flushing a game bird is exactly the same regardless of location. The presence of lands where men and women could go and restore their connection with nature, even if only in books, magazines and pictures, was a cherished national aesthetic throughout our Republic’s history.
Every new posted sign, or row of trees ripped out of the ground and burned, and each acre of land pulled from the CRP, is a loss. I wonder if we should formulate a miles per acre rather than miles per gallon exchange rate. It should be obvious to everyone that the sword of energy independence that we’ve been swinging has two sides and no one knows that fact better than the hunter who no longer has a place to hunt.

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