Dealing with an endangered ecosystem


November 20th, 2012

Lincoln, NE -The Great Plains have undergone major changes through history, and the vast grasslands are now threatened by everything from climate change to grazing. Nature photographer Michael Forsberg knows this area of the country as well as anyone. He’s teamed up with NET Television for a new documentary that premieres this weekend called Great Plains: America’s Lingering Wild. NET News Director Dennis Kellogg talked with Forsberg about the threats to our region.

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Dennis Kellogg, NET News Director: In the documentary coming up from NET Television, “Great Plains: America’s Lingering Wild,” you say you wanted to “take an honest look to see what shape our plains ecosystem is in today.” So what’s the answer? What did you find out?

Michael Forsberg, nature photographer: I think in any project of this scope, you come out with more questions than answers, but look at the Great Plains. Think about it. It’s a million square miles. It stretches from southern Canada to northern Mexico; the foothills of the Rockies in the west to the western shoulder of Iowa in the east. It’s a really big place and before settlement 200 years ago or so it was one of the greatest grassland ecosystems on the planet. I mean people came from Europe to come here to go on safari. It’s a very different landscape today. It’s a working landscape. It’s completely altered. It helps grow the country. It feeds the world. Increasingly it’s being asked to help fuel our energy needs.

Photographer Michael Forsberg (Photo courtesy NET Television)

Kellogg: In the documentary you’ve got a number of voices and some of them sound some pretty alarming warnings about the future of the Great Plains. What I want to do is play a short clip from the documentary with some of those different people and then have you elaborate on what they say.

“Great Plains: America’s Lingering Wild”:

“Well, looking down the road, I hope we don’t have to have a picture showing the last place we had a Willet nesting in North Dakota.”

“We see cattle as a tool we can use to manipulate the surface of the ground to achieve our conservation values.”

“Future generations will look at us and shake their heads. They’ll just go, ‘Those guys – what they had and what they squandered.”

“Wild areas and wilderness is really kind of part of who we are as Americans. We’re losing that over time.”

Kellogg: So what’s it mean for the Great Plains if those warnings become a reality?

Forsberg: I think what we have at stake to lose is that ecological infrastructure that underpins everything else that we do in the Great Plains today. If we degrade our water quality, if we lose our topsoil, if we lose our grasslands and wetlands that benefit us all greatly in our place that we call home here, if we lose biodiversity, it doesn’t matter what else we do in my view on the landscape because things will start to collapse. It’s just like you start taking out pieces, parts of your engine and eventually the car doesn’t run very well and after a while it starts to break down. And I think we have to look at the landscape in the same way. Maybe take a new look, a systems-based approach look at the landscape today.

Kellogg: One of Nebraska’s greatest treasures is the migration of the Sandhill Cranes. You’ve studied them. You’ve photographed them. How are they being affected by the changes we’re seeing in the Great Plains?

Forsberg: The Platte River is a river that has many masters. It’s a main artery of this state. It serves our state and all these different needs. But the Platte River is a very different river than it was a century or so ago too. What you see today is a river whose pulse flows are reduced by 70 percent. You see a lot of the grasslands and wetlands along its banks have been converted to other uses over time. So you know here in the Central Plains in Nebraska it’s by far the most critically important habitat for these birds anywhere along their several thousand mile flyway. And it’s because people have worked hard here to keep it that way.

Photo courtesy Michael Forsberg/NET Television

Kellogg: The grasslands of the Great Plains have been described as potentially the most endangered ecosystem in North America. If that’s the case, how do we turn it around? Is it too late, or what do we need to do?

Forsberg: No, I don’t think it’s too late at all. Here in Nebraska, we’re extremely blessed with grasslands. I mean look at the Nebraska Sandhills as an example. 20,000 square miles in the north central part of the state that’s protected by the good stewardship of ranchers that make a life on the land here. Again, though, I think we have to be careful. We can’t plow it all up, you know. We just can’t. We won’t.

Kellogg: So I have to ask you. You spent more than three years on this project, traveled more than 100,000 miles. Did anything surprise you? Did you find anything you weren’t expecting?

Forsberg: You know what surprised me was…. I worked three years on this documentary film and before that several years on the book of the same title. The thing that surprised me was the diversity of landscapes and wildlife that we have in the Great Plains. I mean the perception is that it’s flat, but it’s anything but flat in most places. And the diversity of wildlife that’s here and the diversity of people. We can agree to disagree on a lot of things here, but I think the thing that I like about the plains is we often times do it with a lot of respect for each other and if you sit around the table and talk long enough you find you can agree to disagree with some things, but probably 75, 80 percent of what you’re talking about on this landscape you can find common ground and have a conversation. And that’s really what this film is about in one sense, is keeping a conversation going about this place that we call home and why it’s important.

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