The Midwestern Dead Zone

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We may not think of destruction as we drive through its green fields of corn and soybeans, but the midwestern United States is as damaged an environment as anywhere in the world. The demolition was swift and complete. Within 100 years of the discovery that prairie soils could be farmed, 98% percent of the tallgrass prairie that covered the center of the continent was gone. In the place of rich native flora, we have corn, soy, and a handful of agricultural weeds. Functionally, biologically, the midwest is deader than a parking lot.

See those dark green areas in the map? Those are corn and soy. Statistically speaking, nothing else lives there. It is dead.

When we talk about planting milkweed to save the ailing monarch butterflies, or adding flowers to our yards to support the bees, we’re just fiddling around the margins of the 2% of whatever is left. Sure, smart gardening helps. But only in the same way as spritzing a squirt gun vaguely in the direction of a burning building. The midwest is dead, and will remain dead, until a significant chuck of farmland is converted back to natural habitat.

25 thoughts on “The Midwestern Dead Zone”

  1. There has obviously been corn grown in these areas for awhile now. How much has changed in the last 10 years? 20 years?
    Have the ethanol/subsidies etc greatly increased the planting of other crops or converting native habitat?

    1. Good questions. Most of the destruction took place in a mad rush in the late 1800’s into WWII. So, the biggest damage was done a couple generations ago. Rates slowed in the second part of the 20th century, but only because there wasn’t much prairie left to convert. However, some of the more marginal lands were maintained as prairie by government subsidies and conservation incentives. Alas, most of these have been overrun by the corn/ethanol boom, so the little bit that’s left has had a disastrous decade.

  2. So why a dead zone? Are you from Illinois or Iowa? More wild life now than 100 years ago. Many species on state ESA listings doing much better. Just need to stop with releasing of invasive species like Ring necks. Might actually have less acres in corn in some area. Most of the increase during the ethanol boom came from either changing crops or farmers using land that had been in the set a side program. And states like Illinois and Iowa do have prairie restoration projects.

    1. I live in Illinois, right in the middle of the corn/soy belt.

      100 years ago is not a great reference point, as that’s already a generation after the prairie destruction began in full. And sure, Illinois and Iowa have prairie restoration projects. I am glad they do. However, these efforts amount to a fraction of a single percent of the original prairie. Which is to say, in the big picture they barely even register.

  3. Good post. I’ve been writing a bit about the same problem in California’s Great Valley on my blog at Geotripper. Some aspects of the problem are different, as we grow literally hundreds of different crops and fruits, but still only 5% of the valley remains in anything approaching a native condition. Some of the game refuges were put together out of former croplands, and from what I saw this weekend, are successful in their limited ways: Thousands of migratory birds present.

  4. Recent reviews demonstrate unequivocally that human vanity and greed are destroying more remnants and other untilled dry and wet lands than ever. Corn/soy acreage is expanding every year, and not an acre is used to directly feed people. The Midwestern Dead Zone is directly responsible for the Gulf of Mexico Dead Zone, and the sub cultural decline of the central United States.

    1. Wow, you must think all your food comes from a grocery store. So where does corn flakes, tofu, tortillas, corn bread, soy oil, corn oil, etc come from if not an acre is used to directly feed people?

  5. I can’t say much about most of the Mid-West, but it has been my fortune to visit Columbus, OH, in the summer every couple of years for the last 30 years or so. I’ve always been depressed by the lack of biological diversity anywhere near Columbus and the sterile nature of the Ohio State University Campus. The Museum of Biological Diversity is located in a biological wasteland. The OSU main campus, even though it has the Olentangy River flowing through it and some very green ‘ponds’, has only the toughest, most human-tolerant native vertebrates. Nearby weedy lots seem to have a higher diversity of pollinators than the campus supports. Conservation of biological diversity just doesn’t seem to part of the ethos of OSU.

    Actually, I’m not sure why I am picking on OSU, other than it is in the Mid-West and an extreme example. I can’t think of a single university campus that I am familiar with (e.g. UC Berkeley, UC Davis, U Maryland, Oregon State U, Monash, Colorado State, New Mexio State Las Cruces, U of Alberta …) that has impressed me with it’s devotion to accommodating native species on campus. The University of Queensland and U Florida Gainsville come closest because of large bodies of water that bring in water birds, dragonflies and the like, but I can’t remember any native plant gardens or any landscaping that was designed to encourage native pollinators. Griffith Uni was built in the middle of a state forest and still has a few bits of the forest left (that it keeps developing for ‘ecological centres’ and the like), but it is an afterthought.

    I think that a good place to start reversing the dead zone is convincing the administrators of your local universities that their grounds can be showcases for the conservation of native birds and butterflies and bees. The three B’s seem the best bet: the ants and mites will thrive where they do. Doug Tallemy’s book on ‘Bringing Nature Home’ could be a useful text. If you can get the universities on board, then it will spill over into the general public and you could develop a base for inducing large corporations to follow suit.

  6. Native vegetation restorations and reconstructions require management to retain their diversity-supporting habitat quality. “Natural” sites in urban areas are extraordinarily prone to invasion and subsequent domination by non-native plants and animals, and native generalist, disturbance-adapted species. Recent biological surveys of the famous Walden Pond have documented this process quite well, with around half of the plant species recorded by Thoreau now extinct there, and rampant populations of Norway maples, garlic mustard, and such.
    Natural area management is the ongoing effort of knowledgeable paid staff, with help from volunteers (or students), to keep the invasive species at low levels and to create vegetation structure, species composition, and other habitat features (e.g., coarse woody debris, grassy openings, aquatic components, artificial nest boxes for bats, birds, bees, parasitoids, etc.). Universities have become so concerned with their (preverse view of the) almighty Bottom Line that I am left with little hope they will rise in any effective way to Macromite’s (Doug Tallamy’s) noble cause. Indeed, some corporations (e.g., Alberici Constructors in St. Louis, builder of bridges, etc.) seem to be doing as good job of creating, and especially, dedicating resources to maintaining natural vegetation on their campuses as well or better than any university I’ve ever visited (including U. Florida, where I spent 8 years Ph.D. and post doc.)

    1. I don’t disagree that returning a parcel of land to its previous state usually requires specialist knowledge and extraordinary effort (and conflicts between, e.g. burn crazed botanists and bug lovers), but I don’t think that it has to be an all or nothing program. The lot next door here is a good example. An engineer from Groote Eylandt up north retired here 32 years ago and put in a deep pond and has been planting native trees and lianas supplied by Landcare on what was once overgrazed pasture. The understory is full of weeds, part of the over story is bird-dispersed non-natives and the species assemblage of ‘natives’ is not at all like the patches of surviving forest nearby. Yet there is an extraordinarily higher diversity of birds and insects there than in the pastures next door. I think a continuum of refugia of various stages of ‘nativeness’ have a part in maintaining biological diversity. Even individuals can make some difference, at least for a time (who knows what will happen when the neighbour dies). I think that is Doug Tallamy’s main point and I agree.

      The Wiki entry on Walden Pond indicates that individuals did make a difference there – Walden deeded the land to the Commonwealth, a judge stopped the County Commissioners from violating the deed with development, and a rock star started a project to limit development around the Pond. It may not look just like it did when Emerson and that tedious Thoreau lived there, but it is still a nice place. If the Norway Maples are a real problem (and I’m not convinced – I bet a lot of birds and insects depend on them now), then it should be possible to educate the trustees and get them to gradually selectively log them out. Convert the maples into knickknacks for the tourists and it might even pay for itself.

  7. Very interesting perspective! Let’s take 1,000,000 acres out of corn and bean production and put it back into native grasses. Why are we now better off? We have taken 85,000,000 bu. of corn off the market and roughly 21,000,000 bu. of soybeans off the market. We have reduced the food supply to both people and animals. Now more people in our world can starve. This has taken jobs away from people who used to process the grain, package the products produced from the grain, trucker who used to transport the products, and by the way, everyone also now pays more for your fuel to run your cars. You live in a dream world.

    1. LOL @ Dennis. Marxists, hobbsians, and anti-humanists have problems with the results of what remains of free market capitalism while they enjoy the fruits thereof and gnash their teeth.

      Alex, if you want native habitats to increase and thrive, find a way for people who own the land to profit literally or figuratively from the land in that state. Otherwise, who cares ? Not me, I just vote with my feet.

      OTOH, Detroit can show you the way to convert a city into countryside – let the corrupt democrats run it for a few decades, rofl.

    2. That’s an overly simplistic picture of agricultural economics.

      The costs of reducing agricultural land use in the midwest may be partly offset by increases in downstream productivity of the Gulf of Mexico fisheries, by decreased pollination costs to specialty crops, and other mitigating factors. It’s not a linear system. Our current intensive practices will eventually tax the soils and water supply enough that production will drop anyway, incurring the same costs you describe. It’s a choice between pay now, or pay later.

      Plus, isn’t it enough that humans have already taken 98% of the land? Is asking for an extra 2% back as an investment in our future too much to handle?

      1. If you want another 2% of the land as a park, you can always BUY IT (never mind paying to maintain it in perpetuity). Otherwise, let the state of Illinois just continue going along like it has to date. Eventually the “Democratic” Chicago machine can drive away the population via corruption and then destroy the land through neglect (like they already do with state parks) and we will get the worst of all worlds, one giant Detroit-on-the-Mississippi. Great plan, eh ? Eventually such land will return to a more or less “natural state”, hopey-changey.

        Funny you should mention Federal AG subsidies. They were the brainfart of F D Roosevelt, that Democratic Party champion of fiscal conservatism and small government /sarc. Of course, country club republicans always will jump in like hogs at the trough. Crony capitalism does not equal capitalism which is why I mentioned “what remains of”. Corruption hardly cares about political leanings when there is money to be made at others expense !!!

      2. I am still waiting to see how all your new native prairie acres are going to do anything other than increase bio-diversity. It is almost impossible to put the genie back in the bottle. Most farmers soils are higher in N,P,K,S, and Mg now than they were even 50 years ago because they better understand what all is taken out by the crop so they are replacing more. If you want to get on a high horse, talk about The effects Round-up does to the soil and genetics!

        1. Since Alex’s lament is about the loss of prairie biodiversity, I don’t think I understand your complaint. Although you do not appear to be one, there are people that think that a lack of natural ecosystems severely degrades their quality of life. As a biologist and nature photographer, Alex has very good reason to bemoan the monotony of mile after mile of corn and soybean. Perhaps the hyperbole is uncalled for (I thought of the Aral Sea when I first read the post); and perhaps, Alex’s attitude has some similarities to the beliefs that Thomas Hobbes famously warned about; but he and most people who read his blog including me could be expected to find an increase in biodiversity as a positive benefit. I suspect quite a few farmers in the Mid-West might enjoy some patches of native prairie too.

    3. Chauncey Peppertooth

      I thought a blog such as this would be free of trolls but yeah….the internet. It is a shame that instead of speaking/discussing the tragedy of losing natural fauna and diversity you talk about Alex “living in a dream world.” I for one believe the homogenization of our ecosystem IS a tragedy. Yes, we have created a culture where we need all those bushels of corn and soy so we can have all of our processed foods. Yes, for the most part ease and convenience have backed us into a corner. These are widely known things and bringing them up in a sarcastic manner accomplishes nothing. Like my mom always used to say, “If you have nothing constructive to add, keep it to yourself.”

  8. I’m neither a marxist, hobbsian or anti-humanist, nor do I confuse subsidized agribusiness with a free market. Yet, I still find much of the Mid-West more of a biological desert than the much maligned Alberta Oil Sands. There at least the corporations are forced to repair some of the damage that is done – and they seem to be able to make just dandy profits and employ a lot of people for what is by its very nature a difficult and costly extraction process in a truly miserable climate.

    Without the subsidies, and the insanities like the ethanol scam, it is likely that the intensity of large scale agriculture in the Mid-West would be reduced and there would be more space for native flora and fauna. Convert the subsidies into incentives to revegetate a few percents of each farm and the farmers would still get their bribes and people would have jobs, but it would be put to a better use than more ethanol, high fructose corn syrup and soybeans.

    1. Great in concept but unworkable in reality. From the biological perspective, many separated small parcels will not do the job of returning the land to it’s prior biodiversity, as we have learned from island-biogeography studies. The larger the contiguous land area, the more sustained diversity. Purchasing a large area of more or less contiguous land will better do the job. But as James Trager has stated above, to get the desired result, considerable management effort must be maintained over long periods. Perhaps only some private endowed organization has the capability and persistence to do the job that needs to be done and politicians CERTAINLY are not to be trusted with it. Go talk to the Bill Gates of the world, for they are truly the only people capable of setting that situation up. — Or you could just wait for a few million years and something is bound to change.

      1. Maybe it isn’t workable now – but if so, then I think that is mainly a problem of ignorance, false dichotomies and political polarization. The greenies are primarily thwarted marxists and anti-humanists who would rather send their minions to burn a GMC crop or chain themselves to a tree than plant a garden for pollinators. In general, the agro-industrial complex and their co-opted university departments can only see the big profit picture and greenies that hate them. Without strict regulation they currently have no incentive to protect biodiversity. I think incentives would work better in the long term.

        You don’t have to return a plot of land to its pre-industrial state to start conserving biological diversity. Even individuals can make a local difference – an all-or-none solution is not required. Nature is not set in stone – it changes all the time. The Walden Pond that James refers to is a kettle lake – made by a glacier. It didn’t exist 12,000 years ago and if not re-glaciated will probably gradually and naturally fill in. Maintaining biological diversity by preserving functioning ecosystems should be the goal, not a mindless return to some allegedly pristine pre-human state.

        Yes, edge effects and plot size are important, but more important for some species than others. Maybe the Nature Conservancy or similar large organizations are the best solution for conserving large plots of land and those species that require such extensive contiguous habitats, but that isn’t all species. It isn’t even most.

  9. Most species are already extinct. Macromite, I understand and agree in very small part with your viewpoint. However, if you want to convert profit generating land into biologically diverse habitat, you just can not forget the PROFIT part. Even in what remains of our capitalist society, laws that would be needed to enforce such rules (takings) will only generate vicious lawsuits and even more polarization. Frankly, given all the current equivalent natural land (national forests in eastern deciduous forest biome) I hardly see the super-critical need for more preserved land. People need to eat too. If someone doesn’t like Illinois the way it is, they are free to leave (I would in a New York minute). There are 49 other states and well over 100 other countries. Find one you like better. Give us time – we may well trash those too !! Eventually we will probably be gone like virtually every species to date. Patience – the earth abides.

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  11. Interesting article! As a child I enjoyed the “Little House” series, and I was disappointed to learn that those prairies Wilder describes no longer exist.
    I might get a chance to help restore some former pasture in Western NY. It seems like so much of what is growing there now is invasive. Hard to even know where to begin!

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