Great Plains Initiative's Twin Goals Aim at Regional Survival Strategies the Ecosystem Management Plan Would Unite a Healthy Environment with Economic Development

Article excerpt

WHOOPING cranes, spotted owls, and the Poppers were on Mike Hayden's mind in 1989 as he pondered spending $20 million to preserve waterfowl habitat in Kansas, where he was governor. The result of his musings is shaping up to be the most ambitious ecosystem management effort ever undertaken.

The Great Plains Initiative aims to unite a healthy environment with economic development. It's ironic, but the arid landscape that became North America's breadbasket with a surplus bounty for export sustains ever-decreasing numbers of people. Developing an ecotourism industry or subsidizing nature-preservation activities may offer the best hope of survival for marginally viable towns across the tri-national target area.

As governor of a plains state, Mr. Hayden was concerned about destruction of bird habitat, the primary reason for the rapid decline of many indigenous species. Today, 26 birds and more than 300 plants and animals in the Great Plains are considered candidates for listing as endangered by the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

Looking to the Pacific Northwest, Hayden saw the collision between the timber industry and efforts to preserve the old-growth forest habitat of the endangered spotted owl. Warning signs that this "train wreck" was coming had been ignored for a decade, Hayden says.

In the Northeast, he recalled Rutgers University professors Frank and Deborah Popper, whose 1987 proposal to create a "Buffalo Commons" out of uneconomical farm and ranch land from North Dakota to Texas had underscored the plight of dwindling rural communities. Initially critical of the undiplomatic outsiders, Hayden says he recognized in their "startling" statistics what plains inhabitants could see but refused to acknowledge.

Hayden says he dared not ignore those "very real" trends. Suppose "another spotted owl" were to come along in Kansas, subjecting already struggling farmers and ranchers to the hardships borne by the Northwest's timber industry? That, he says, could be "the straw that broke the camel's back" for many towns.

Yet no conservation effort by Kansas alone, he realized, would guarantee survival of a migratory species like the whooping crane. Millions of birds pass through the state in their annual journey along the central flyway, a north-south transcontinental corridor. Other states and countries in the flyway were preserving critical habitat, he knew, but without overall coordination.

Hayden concluded that a management plan was needed that would take into account the entire Great Plains ecosystem, a region extending from Mexico into Canada and bounded on the west by the Rockies. (The eastern boundary of the plains is problematic. Some scientists favor the 94th, 97th, 98th, or 100th meridian; others the 20-inch or 25-inch precipitation line; the 1,500-foot elevation contour; the former extents of the short-grass or tall-grass prairies; or even I-35.)

He foresaw jurisdictions, agencies, environmentalists, scientists, and citizens coming together for proactive, voluntary, grass-roots problem-solving. The initiative would aggregate data from hundreds of sources for the first time into a grand model of the Great Plains ecosystem.

Efforts would focus on the "weak links" in the chain, in whichever jurisdiction those might be. Otherwise, habitat destruction thousands of miles from Kansas might trigger a species listing applicable everywhere, with the attendant economic disruption and loss of local control.

Over the next two years, Hayden took the concept to the Western Governors Association (WGA), which in June 1992 adopted it as the Great Plains Initiative. By then Hayden had moved to the Fish and Wildlife Service, where he was able to grant $200,000 to the WGA to get the initiative moving.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) added another $500,000 to collect essential data and to survey public attitudes. …