Victims of the ethanol rush: Loss of the native prairie

The Great Plains of Kansas are being transformed by America's thirst for alternative fuels. Some are calling it an ecological disaster. Leonard Doyle reports from Beaumont

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Beaumont, (pop 286, 70% Rep, 30% Dem,) is a town so tucked away in the Flint hills of Kansas that it boasts its own fly-in hotel.

It is way off the beaten track, far from the bustle of the Interstates, the four-lane arteries that slice through the Great Plains. It was here that I met Pete Ferrell, a rebel rancher burning with anger at the way he says American agriculture is being subverted to the detriment of the planet.

And now almost unnoticed by urban America, one of the great ecological disasters of modern times is unfolding as an ethanol-fuelled gold rush engulfs the Great Plains and risks destroying what is left of North America's most endangered ecosystem, the native prairie. The last 35 million acres of prairie, deliberately left alone to preserve a precious ecology, is being ploughed up to produce ethanol from corn.

The tiny Beaumont hotel is famous (among aviators at least) for having three different guest registers: one each for pilots, motorcyclists and other guests. Pete the rancher came striding in, wearing jeans and cowboy shirt and sat down in the small café overhung by aircraft memorabilia to tell his and Beaumont's story.

For over 100 years his family has been fattening cattle on rich Kansas Bluestem prairie grass, among the last remaining stands of original prairie. Most of the tallgrass that once covered millions of acres of the Great Plains has been ploughed under. Only isolated pockets remain, some preserved by conservation grants.

Now, even in the Flint Hills, what is left of the prairie is under threat as farmers race to cash in on a bonanza created by planting corn for ethanol production in order to ease America's worries about future fuel supplies. The corn economy is nothing short of a disaster for the environment, for the farm economy and potentially for the Flint Hills, in Mr Ferrell's view.

The prairie is some of the most fertile and productive land on the planet. Nowadays it has become the corn-and-soybean belt, with only remnants of the short-grass prairie providing grazing for livestock. A typical section of prairie grass shelters nearly 800 types of birds, mammals and reptiles. It also thrives on being heavily grazed and then left fallow. Prairie grasses hide nearly two-thirds of their buds and mass beneath the ground and when Native Americans set fire to it to burn off brush, the fresh growth lured back the buffalo they depended on.

The Flint Hills were once home to the Kansa Indians who lived off the migrating buffalo. The buffalo were wiped out and the Indians starved off the land to the benefit of the cattle trade. The cattle came to be fattened up at and the cattle barons and ranchers from Texas and Oklahoma stayed in Beaumont's little hotel, while the cowboys camped outside.

In the 1950s, for the convenience of cattlemen, a grass airstrip was put in allowing planes to taxi up the main street and park at the hotel. These days, the hotel attracts flyers from around the world who delight in taxi-ing their planes down Main Street.

What is annoying Pete Ferrell is not the occasional aircraft crossing the road, but what is happening in his own back yard: the rapid ploughing under of the ancient prairie lands he loves.

Ninety-five percent of the tallgrass prairie which once blanketed 240 millions of acres of the MidWest is already gone. It was broken up a decade ago by the "sodbusters" of old. Now King Corn, as farmers call their subsidised bonanza crop, is destroying the last surviving prairie lands.

Some conservation minded ranchers like Pete Ferrell still fatten up cattle the old fashioned way with pasture, and then ship them off to Chicago. But most American cows are raised indoors in enormous feedlots, fattened up with corn and grains, which they are only able to digest with the help of antibiotics.

America wants to become less dependent on foreign oil but instead of cutting back on consumption and reducing emissions, it is planning to substitute ethanol for petrol in order to keep its gas-guzzling SUVs and super-sized pick-up trucks on the road. Ethanol or grain alcohol is the high-octane corn poteen that hard-pressed Mid-Western farmers and top-tier Washington politicians hope will soon replace petrol.

Across the country there is a madcap dash for biofuels, home-brewed ethanol, and vegetable oil diesel substitutes made from such crops as soybeans, sugar cane and corn. Because the carbon in biofuels comes from the atmosphere the theory is that burning it could be carbon neutral. But producing ethanol from corn actually consumes as much fossil fuel as the ethanol itself replaces.

Worse, as the remaining 35 millions of acres of American soil set aside for soil and wildlife conservation are targeted by farmers, it will release even more carbon into the atmosphere from field of prairie left deliberately fallow.

Long known as America's breadbasket, the Great Plains has been the country's primary source of wheat for over 100 years. Insecurity over future oil supplies - worsened by the disastrous situation in Iraq - has created a situation in which ethanol production is expected to reach 60bn gallons by 2030.

It was energy anxiety, and fears about cancer from additives added to petrol to raise its octane, rather than climate change that caused Congress to decree two years ago that 7.5bn gallons of the country's fuel must come from crops. This triggered a boom in grain alcohol distilleries in the Mid-West followed by a surge in railroads to carry the grain and the ethanol, which happens to be too corrosive to use in the country's network of fuel pipelines.

So great has been the rush to cash in that a glut of ethanol hit the market causing prices to plunge 30%, since spring. This has forced the government to fork out more subsidies to the loss-making ethanol producers and blenders of ethanol and petrol. Another problem is that the government provides crop insurance and rewards rather than penalises farmers whose crops keep failing so there is no incentive to stop farming marginal land.

Driving across the plains of Kansas to its geographical centre, I watched its farmers bring in their biggest corn harvest since World War II. Corn now completely dominates the landscape. Bruce Babbitt, like Al Gore, is a nearly man of US presidential politics. Like Al Gore he is an environmentalist who ran for the White House and failed. Babbitt fell at the first hurdle, in Iowa, in the heart of America's Corn Belt although later became US Secretary of the Interior in charge of its national parks and is now chairman of the WWF(US).

"Riding across the Iowa landscape at dawn is a beautiful experience," Mr Babbitt said. "You can almost hear the corn growing." It is only when you stop to think that the beauty starts to fade, there is just one crop, no wildlife, the skies are empty and the creeks run muddy. It is an industrial landscape stripped of its diversity, an American tragedy.'

Environmentalists are now seeing corn being grown for ethanol in places it was never seen before, from southern Texas to marshy "pothole prairie" of rural Iowa. The total private grassland area declined by almost 25 million acres from 1982 to 2003 – and the pace is quickening along with energy insecurity.

"For now the prairie is in crisis," Mr Babbitt says. "My great fear is that the push for ethanol will cause a great wave of 'sodbusting' and break up what remains of the prairie ecosystem." There is compelling evidence that this is already happening.

Three years ago WWF placed the northern Great Plains on a list of threatened areas around the world which it pledged to help conserve in the next decade. But its efforts to increase the protected prairie from 1.5% to 10% seems doomed to failure.

The greatest loss of habitat has been in the Corn Belt, which takes in a vast stretch from Iowa, to Kentucky. There, some 5 million acres - about 25% of grassland - has already been lost to ethanol paid for by subsidies that cost the US taxpayer about $2.7 billion in 2006.

But the worst damage may be taking place in Montana and the Dakotas, where farmers who have been hurting economically are embracing King Corn with abandon. To the shock of environmentalists, between 2002-2007, more than 400,000 acres of prairie were ploughed under in these states.

The fuel E-85 (85% ethanol, 15% petrol) which arrives at the pumps is sold as a "completely renewable, domestic, environmentally friendly fuel".

And it is America's 300 million consumers who enable the corn bonanza to take place. American taxpayers hand over £40bn in subsidies a year to farmers (more that the CAP costs the EU) and the political system is rigged to keep it that way. Small, poorly populated Mid-Western farm states have extra political clout because every state however small or under populated has US two senators and along with it disproportionate influence in Congress.

But in a cruel irony, many of the "absentee farmers" collecting the subsidy cheques of $1m-$2m are absentee landlords in far away cities like LA, New York and even London.

For all the damage being done, there is plenty of big money behind attempts to save the Great Plains. The media mogul Ted Turner is one of the largest private landowners in the country with holdings in seven states from Colorado to Montana and Nebraska. An ardent environmentalist, Mr Turner also believes his land should make money and he receives subsidies to leave the prairie unploughed.

Jarid Manos is head of the Great Plains Restoration Council, a multi cultural organisation of mostly black and Native American members. "This corn-based ethanol orgy is not only helping destroy what tiny fragments of virgin prairie we have left," he says. "It also releases thousands of years of soil-stored carbon into the atmosphere as the native prairie is destroyed, not to mention all the carbon pollution from the energy used in its production."

But his is a voice in the wilderness, drowned out by the roar of the 18-wheeler trucks as they head across the interstate laden with corn or ethanol.

Back in Beaumont, Kansas, Pete Ferrell remains adamantly opposed to the corn mania gripping the country. He takes me on a tour of his ranch, where cattle graze as hundreds of wind turbines turn gently overhead. He too was harshly criticised by environmentalists when he installed the two years ago for ruining, as they said, one of the most pristine environments in the American Mid-West.

"Now we have tourists coming out to see us and business in the hotel is booming as a result," he said.

Looking around the expanse of rolling hills he says: "This is what a sustainable future looks like, sunlight, soil, grass, water and now wind. There is some hope that at some stage in the future we figure a way to replant the prairie and extract fuel from perennial plants like switchgrass."

Although everyone accepts that that day is a very long way off, Pete Ferrell is enthused. "With perennial prairie grasses below and wind power above, this is the future," he says. "Remember our state is named after an Indian tribe, the Kansa, or Kaw which means People of the South Wind."

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