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  • On the Great Plains: Agriculture and Environment
  • Thomas D. Isern
On the Great Plains: Agriculture and Environment. By Geoff Cunfer (College Station, Texas A&M University Press, 2005) 292 pp. $55.00 cloth $28.00 paper

On the Great Plains challenges the "declensionist narrative" of environmental, especially regional, history exemplified by such works as Donald Worster's Dust Bowl (New York, 2004), which pits humankind against nature on the plains in a story of "ignominy and ecological failure" (10). Cunfer argues that although population has been in flux, land use has been stable. "The patterns of crop and pasture have been so consistent across time and space, in fact, that it is not unreasonable to label American agriculture in the plains sustainable," he writes. "The Dust Bowl was a temporary disruption in a stable system" (5–6).

Cunfer's argument rests mainly on statistical evidence, the agricultural census; he uses manuscript and published sources to supplement the narrative and offer examples. He discovers that the plowing of the plains did not happen quickly, but took decades in any locality. The process was halted and rolled back by drought and depression in the 1930s. At present, "70 percent of the Great Plains has never been plowed," the remaining grassland representing "an enormous stockpile of relatively undisturbed native land cover" (36). Cunfer defends pastoral use of grassland, pointing out that rather than depleting vegetative cover, grazing tends to increase it. In their croplands, too, farmers "crafted a land-use system that was remarkably sustainable and resilient" (112).

This new work directly confronts the given narrative about the causes of the Dust Bowl. "The severe drought of the era," Cunfer concludes, echoing Malin, "might better explain the occurrence of dust storms than the land-use practices of plains farmers" (158)1 . Particularly intriguing is Cunfer's counterintuitive evidence that black blizzards seemed to roll into cropland from rangeland denuded not by grazing but by drought.

Cunfer finds the exploitation and depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer, like the efflorescence of open-range ranching in the 1880s or the expansion [End Page 308] of wheat farming in the 1920s, one more instance of overextension within a broader context of stability. In the long term, however, he perceives an impoverishment of soil nutrients under either grazing or farming.

The arguments in On the Great Plains are not totally convincing. Gross cattle numbers can be misleading, given the drastically different effects of cow–calf and transient grazing regimes. Statistics do not capture the condition of range or the diversity of soils; there is no substitute for boots on the ground combined with sensitivity to local specifics. Statistical diversity of cropping can be misleading, as an apparent diversity of crops and land uses can be focused toward production of one staple product. In general, Cunfer is open to the criticism that his bedrock evidence is statistical. His use of written evidence is selective, and it is impossible to be sure that what he says in his book is verifiable on the ground.

Consider, nevertheless, the enormous accomplishment of the book. It moves the continuum of argument. Before it appeared, scholars could only discuss the extent of human abuse of nature on the plains; they had no grounds to argue that the declensionist narrative itself was inadequate. Cunfer's numbers and maps reverse the burden of proof. Given the overall stability that he documents, the declensionists now must find a way to counter what he has established.

Thomas D. Isern
North Dakota State University


1. James C. Malin, The Grasslands of North America: Prolegomena to Its History (Lawrence, 1947).



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pp. 308-309
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