Travel to U.S.: West: Little Missouri Badlands
One of the tougher sections of the Great Plains is the block of badlands bordering North Dakota's Little Missouri River. They're illustrated here. For more about the national grassland that now exists here, read A New Epic, a chapter from At Odds with Progress.
For more about retiring marginal cropland today--akin to what the Poppers have called the Buffalo Commons--see The Return of the Prairie . For a 1993 update of that 1985 paper, see The Evolution of An Idea.
The Great Plains of western North Dakota may not look too dry, but the pattern of fallow and stubble is a reminder of the dryfarming technology that helped settle them: rainwater percolated into the fallow earth, where a "dust mulch" was supposed to keep the moisture stored for the next year, when a crop could be grown on two years' worth of moisture. It works if there is enough moisture.
It was still a lonely life. Here's an antidote that once built a culture: the public library.
Cultivated land extends to the very break of the plains, whether it's the edge of the High Plains east of Amarillo, Texas, or here: the edge of the Little Missouri badlands.
Sometimes, it's rough pasture that gives way to the same break of the plains. The Little Missouri is flowing north to the Missouri through a broad, rough valley.
At certain places, the Little Missouri's valley is prime ranching country, even within the larger block of badlands.
Elsewhere, there's more forest than range.
Most often, as the name badland implies, the Little Missouri flows through a valley where every surface is steeply sloping: soft material is carved by erosion and never stabilized by vegetation. Graze here and the risk of rangeland degradation is high. That's what happened historically, especially after the large ranches of Theodore Roosevelt's time were replaced around World War I by smallholdings authorized by homestead legislation.
The federal government bought a lot of this land back from homesteaders in the 1930s, and this acquired land is now administered by the U.S. Forest Service. It hasn't won a lot of friends among local ranchers, who graze the land under restrictive permits, but the national grasslands have done a lot to improve the health of the range.
Water is as important here as fencing and grass seeding, because cattle congregate at water points, natural or artificial. A lot of money has been spent developing water points and then limiting grazing around each, mostly by fencing.
Like most of the Great Plains, these badlands have a bad reputation, but this prejudice is as unfounded as most others. Maybe it's just as well, because most of the people out here--permanently or temporarily--like it empty.
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