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
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
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. …