Oil Interests and Environmentalists: The Battle Over American Grasslands

The Decline of American Grasslands

Grasslands have historically dominated central North America since the arrival of European settlers. However, through a combination of agricultural practices, urban development, and fossil fuel interests, American grasslands have been irrevocably altered and critically endangered. These important biomes support a wide array of biodiversity, like historically large populations of Bison, and numerous natural resource services such as carbon sequestration, erosion control, nutrient cycling, water purification, wildlife habitat, and recreational opportunities (Banchand, 2001). Environmentalists say that a coordinated policy approach that supports effective conservation practices is needed to address immediate and long-term threats. These threats include fragmentation, conversion to agricultural cropland, urbanization, climate change, and fossil fuel development (Mac et al, 1998).

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Oil, Gas, and the Environment

While environmentalists have been fighting to conserve and restore endangered American grasslands, the oil and gas industry has been lobbying the U.S. Forest Service to open up as much land as possible for new oil and gas exploration. There are three primary bodies of native grassland that include tall-grass, short-grass, and mixed-grass prairies, each of which occupy distinct ecological zones. However, tall-grass prairies have suffered the greatest decline. Since 1830, there has been an estimated 76.9 to 99.9 percent decline in tall-grass prairies throughout the U.S. and Canada (Mac et al, 1998). Environmentalists fear that future oil and gas exploration could completely decimate the remaining tall-grass prairies.

Joseph H. Williams Tallgrass Prairie Preserve

The largest remaining protected area of tall-grass prairie is the 39,650-acre Joseph H. Williams Tallgrass Prairie Preserve, which is located in Osage County of northeastern Oklahoma. The Nature Conservancy oversees the protection of this preserve as part of its international conservation efforts. The Joseph H. Williams Tallgrass Prairie Preserve is an area that is rich in biodiversity and supports 2,500 bison, over 700 plant species, over 300 bird species, and 80 mammal species (The Nature Conservancy, 2020). Located approximately 100 miles to the north in the Flint Hills region of Kansas, the US National Park Service protects an additional 11,000-acre region known as the National Tallgrass Prairie Preserve. While these reserves do not permit oil and gas infrastructure to be located within them, there has been debate about the possibility of horizontal drilling from adjacent private lands.

Environmentalists have been calling for policy interventions that specifically address fossil fuel exploration, the preservation of existing tall-grass prairie patches, and the linkage of key patches through contiguous tall-grass corridors. This would require an enhancement of incentives for the protection and reestablishment of tall-grass prairies and more funding for the U.S Fish and Wildlife Service, the Grassland Easements Program, the U.S Department of Agriculture, and the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP). Concurrent regulations that enact strict limitations on urban development and the elimination of agricultural incentives that encourage conversion of natural grasslands to cropland are also being requested by environmental advocates.

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Grassland Threat Assessment

In the Homestead Act of 1862, about 800,000 kilometers of land was provided to American citizens, and much of this was grassland in the Great Plains Region (Samson et al, 2004). The fertile soil and relative ease of clearing resulted in grasslands being targeted as prime ground for agriculture. By 1950, 97 percent of the native tallgrass prairie was lost to agriculture (Primack, 2014). Moreover, food production is expected to grow by 75 percent by the year 2040 to accommodate the expanding population, further adding pressure on the grasslands (Ceballos et al, 2010). In addition to the pressure from industrial farms, fossil fuel companies are hoping to be able to access a slice of the remaining grasslands.

Tallgrass prairies once stretched from Manitoba, Canada to Texas (Mac et al, 1998). Fragmentation through continued urban development, transportation corridors, and fossil fuel pipelines has limited species dispersal, hindered access to food, and disrupted a massive amount of wildlife habitats (Primack, 2014). Climate change from burning fossil fuels is also expected to have an adverse impact on the prairies. Increased atmospheric concentrations of greenhouse gases are directly contributing to global climate change. Temperatures are predicted to rise by an additional one to three degrees Celsius by the end of the century (Primack, 2014). Rising temperatures will cause many species to change their ranges to find a more hospitable climate. Unfortunately, due to heavy habitat destruction and fragmentation, many prairie species with limited dispersal capacity will likely become extinct (Primack, 2014).

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Existing Protections and Policies

Globally, only about four percent of temperate prairie grasslands have been conserved (Wright et al, 2013). Within the United States and Canada, nearly 98 percent of prairie grasslands have been altered or destroyed as a result of land development, farming, and pressure from fossil fuel interests (Primack, 2014). In recent years, a number of well-known organizations like the Nature Conservancy and the U.S. National Park Service have been working together to develop conservation initiatives to combat new attacks from the fossil fuel industry.

In addition to conservation organizations raising awareness about grassland protection and pressure from fossil fuel interests, the U.S. Department of Agriculture has enacted numerous policies to protect threatened grasslands. The Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) is one of the most influential conservation programs developed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Signed into law in 1985 by President Reagan, the CRP has protected wildlife habitat, limited oil pipeline development, and secured billions of dollars in environmental funding (Mac et al, 1998).

The most recent policy that has directly impacted prairie grasslands has been the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP). The ACEP is unique because it combines the Farm and Ranchland Protection Program, Wetland Reserve Program, and the Grassland Reserve Program under one federally mandated program (Hofberg, 2014). The ACEP has been successful at establishing public-private partnerships to conserve privately owned grasslands through the use of federal funds and technical support (Hofberg, 2014). In the first year that the ACEP was established, over 45,000 acres of grasslands were conserved and made unavailable to future fossil fuel exploration (Hofberg, 2014). After successfully protecting tens of thousands of acres of grasslands in the Great Plains, environmental scientists can now effectively monitor and evaluate the natural resources of privately owned grasslands.

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Solutions to the Threats

The threats of urbanization, agricultural conversion, fragmentation, fossil fuel exploration, and climate change serve as an uphill battle for the conservation and restoration of American grasslands. Environmentalists say the solution must be an approach to integrate various elements of legislation, land management, education, governments, non-governmental agencies, landowners, and citizens.

Natural resources specialists say that the long-term solution to prairie conservation must revolve around sustainability initiatives that prevent fossil fuel interests from accessing the remaining grasslands (Samson et al. 1994). Implementing sustainability initiatives requires a fundamental shift in economic theory, the application of less-damaging fossil fuel extraction technology, and regulations in international trade of essential natural resources (Samson et al. 1994). The economic value of the prairie in its original form must be realized and combined with the implementation of land management strategies that utilize efficient and low- impact technologies to promote a traditional and holistic American prairie biome that can be resilient to exterior threats.

Legislation at federal, state, and local levels is being reaffirmed by public interest groups and are complementing other jurisdictional capabilities. Consistent and increased funding for actions by the USGS through initiatives like the Native Prairie Adaptive Management initiative (NAPM), the Grassland Reserve Program (GRP), and the Agricultural Conservation Easement Program (ACEP) are up against the powerful and well-funded fossil fuel lobbyists. Environmentalists say that funding these programs assists and motivates non-governmental organizations (NGO’s) such as the American Prairie Reserve (APR), to partner with landowners to develop strategies to disallow the development of oil and gas leases on American grasslands (NRCS, 2010).

Environmental organizations say that prairie management will either ensure for the resilience or the failure of the American grasslands. Public, private, and governmental prairie conservation initiatives have been working against the interests of powerful fossil fuel companies (Samson et. al 1994). The Prairie Conservation Action Plan and the Great Plains Initiative are seen as steps toward the long-term goal of prohibiting oil and gas leases from being granted on sensitive prairie land. However, while lease initiatives have been praised by environmentalists, other federal organizations have ruled in favor of oil and gas exploration. For example, the U.S. Forest Service recently started to allow oil and gas drilling on the Pawnee National Grassland in Weld County, Colorado. The Trump administration has sided overwhelmingly in favor of fossil fuel interests rather than environmentalist requests.

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Trump Administration Support for Fossil Fuels

Even though the Trump administration has vowed to allow the fossil fuel industry to continue to expand into the American grasslands, environmentalists have been trying to educate the administration on the importance of the prairie, its conservation, restoration, and overall value. Environmental organizations portray the prairie as an extremely valuable multiple-use resource for humans and the natural world. If restored and preserved in a historical context, the American prairie would provide grazing land for bison and sporting game, carbon sequestration from air pollution, as well as remediation of watershed impacts from urban development (Morrison, 2006).

Since the majority of traditional grasslands and prairie are held under private ownership, outreach programs have been targeted at private landowners to perform best-practice land management, species control and conservation, landscape continuity, and limits on fossil fuel leases (Morrison, 2006). Acquiring and protecting prairie landscape plots by non-profits and similar protective easements could fulfill the challenge of reconnecting the fragmented and threatened biome, while providing cost savings to federal, state, and local agencies. On the other hand, fossil fuel companies hope that continued efforts by the Trump administration will allow new opportunities to expand drilling operations.

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Environmentalist Hurdles

Overall, environmentalists face extreme hurdles in the battle over the American grasslands. In addition to the challenges related to agriculture, urbanization, and climate change, fossil fuel companies have stepped up efforts to secure new pipeline infrastructure though sensitive lands and expand horizontal drilling operations from privately held parcels of land. From a private landowner’s perspective, the notion of oil and gas leases paying a monthly dividend for access to land has made for some lucrative investments.

Environmentalists have been working diligently with non-governmental organizations and various public-private partnerships to secure funding aimed at incentivizing private landowners to disallow fossil fuel companies from having access to land within the American grasslands. While a “no surface occupancy” stipulation has traditionally protected sensitive grassland ecosystems from oil and gas infrastructure, the Trump administration has vowed to revaluate this rule on all federally protected grasslands.


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Ceballos G., et al. (2010). “Rapid Decline of a Grassland System and Its Ecological and Conservation Implications.” PLOS ONE: 5(1): e8562.

Nelson, R. (2010). “Plains and Prairie Potholes Landscape Conservation Cooperative.” Conservation in Action.

Hofberg, F. (2014). “The Farm Bill: Agricultural Conservation Easement Program.” The Wildlife Society.

Mac, M., et al. (1998). “Status and trends of the nation’s biological resources”. U.S. Department of the Interior, U.S. Geological Survey, pp. 437-964 Vol. 2. Reston, VA.

The Nature Conservancy. (2020). “Maintaining Fire’s Role.” The Nature Conservancy.

Morrison, J. (2006). “Grasslands of the World.” Food and Agriculture Organization of the United nations: pp. 514.

NRCS. (2010). “Grazing Management Plan. Practice Activity Code.” Natural Resources Conservation Service: (110). 1-4.

Primack, B. (2014).” Essentials of Conservation Biology.” (Sixth ed.). Sinauer Associates, Inc.

Samson, F., et al. (2004). “Great Plains Ecosystems: Past, Present, and Future.” Wildlife Society Bulletin: 32, 6-15.

USGS. (2013). “Native Prairie Adaptive Management: A Multi Region Adaptive Approach to Invasive Plant Management on Fish and Wildlife Service Owned Native Prairies.” United States Geological Survey.

Wright, C., et al. (2013). “Recent Land Use Change in the Western Corn Belt Threatens Grassland and Wetlands.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: 4134-4139.

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