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Published February 04, 2013, 10:23 AM

Set sights on sustainability

Changing landscape affects soil, air, water and wildlife

By: Kristine Larson, Agweek

Roughly 10,000 years ago, the Red River Valley of eastern North Dakota and northwestern Minnesota area was covered by Lake Agassiz. About 8,000 years ago, our tallgrass prairie started to develop. It was the fastest ecosystem to ever develop.

As conservationists, we cannot focus our attention on one thing. Our world functions as a system. How well that system functions is based on its structure.

Grasses such as Big Bluestem extended roots down 25 feet and Buffalograss, with its stoloniferous growth structure, grew under the millions of bison that roamed. Forbs such as Black Samson and Indian Breadroot provided medicine and food to the people living here.

The habitat was so diverse that it provided habitat for bears, elk, moose and other animals. The animals adapted to the plants, and the plants adapted to the animals.

There was continuous cover and continuous management 365 days a year. The different root structures served as filters for our rivers, using up extra nutrients before they could get into the stream. They also provided channels for faster infiltration of moisture and a great deal of water-holding capacity. The riparian forests shaded the bodies of water, allowing them to stay cool and support such aquatic life as trout. The living plants created a shield for the soil, much like our skin provides a shield for our most important organs. The vegetation also provided food to the billions in the soil. Some of those microbes were specialists, only living off of one species of plant, while others were generalists, surviving off of many.

One thing is for sure: diversity was abundant everywhere you looked.

Disappearing prairie

Today, we have less than one-tenth of 1 percent left of our native tallgrass prairies in North Dakota.

It is the most endangered ecosystem in the world. The millions of bison that once managed our vegetation freely no longer exist.

Those wonderful plants that helped develop the fertile soils from which we benefit are all but gone. We have turned those soils over, and the once bountiful nutrients have been released into the air or washed away into our water bodies.

Instead of continuous cover, we see rows of monoculture crops for less than one-third of the year. This has disrupted the soil’s water holding capacity and the water table. The 100- year floods will become more frequent if this continues, and no amount of drain tile can fix this.

We cannot keep adding nutrients to our soils for them to be washed away, because they eventually will run out. They are limited. This also has affected the diversity of soil microbes. We have changed the vegetation in the past two centuries. In turn, that has had negative impacts on our soils, water, air and wildlife.

As leaders in conservation, we need to start focusing our attention on sustainability. We need to think outside the box and step out of our comfort zones. It is time to start preventing problems instead of reacting to them.

Editor’s Note: Larson is watershed coordinator for the Grand Forks County (N.D.) Soil Conservation District.