Great Plains and Prairies
The historian Walter Prescott Webb, in his book The Great Plains, suggested that the northwest Europeans who settled much of the United States faced three great "environmental encounters"--areas where climatic conditions were so unlike those of their home region that the agricultural crops and settlement patterns developed in Europe were inappropriate. The first of these encounters was with the high summer temperatures and humidity levels of the Southeast. The second was the arid Southwest and interior West. The third was the great continuous grasslands located astride the center of the country.
Among the problems on the grasslands, average annual precipitation was much less than in the East, although violent storms accompanied by high winds, hail, and tornadoes were common. Blizzards with wintry blasts intensifying the cold drove the snow into immense drifts. The hot, dry winds of summer parched the soil and sometimes carried it away in great billowing clouds of dust. The region's sparse natural water supply would not support tree vegetation except along the stream courses. Many of these streams were small and flowed only intermittently. Eastern farmers, accustomed to a plentiful supply of water for crops and animals, as well as ample wood for building, fencing, and heating, had to adapt to quite different conditions in their attempts to settle the Great Plains.
The sediments of the Great Plains contain major reserves of energy resources--petroleum, natural gas, and coal. To the south, major petroleum and natural gas fields are traditionally among America's leading suppliers of these products. The Panhandle Field, encompassing western portions of Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas, is the world's leading supplier of natural gas. The same three states are major petroleum producers, and recent developments have also added Wyoming to this group.
North Dakota can boast of sizable energy resources, mostly in the form of soft coal, but it is Wyoming that is the leading coal-producing state in the United States. In 1996, Wyoming mines provided 26 percent of the total U.S. coal output, or 1.06 billion tons.
Denver has become a focus of considerable petroleum-based wealth. Alliance, Nebraska, nearly doubled in size between 1975 and 1980 because of its location on the Burlington and Northern rail line, which carries coal eastward from the Wyoming fields. Gillette, the largest town in the center of Wyoming mining activity in the Powder River basin, saw its population increase by a factor of five in a decade.
The passage of the Clean Air Act in the United States in the early 1970s provided an important boost for the West's generally low-sulphur coal. At least 100 billion tons of low-sulfur sub-bituminous coal that meets strict antipollution laws can be found near the surface in the Northern Plains, an amount equivalent to that needed for 125 years at current levels of national consumption. Within 2,000 meters of the surface, the total is perhaps 1.5 trillion tons. Already the structure of the regional economy is shifting, with agriculture and ranching declining in importance.
Despite record net farm income from 2011-13, the total number of farming-dependent counties fell from 511 in 2001 to 444 in 2010-12, continuing its long-term decline. Most farming-dependent counties are nonmetropolitan counties, and the number of nonmetropolitan farming counties fell from 444 to 391 during the same period. Of the 53 metropolitan farming counties, 52 of them are outlying counties of metropolitan areas. Outlying counties are primarily rural but are part of a metropolitan area because of high commuting flows with adjacent metropolitan counties.
Farming is still a principal source of income and employment in many counties; however, farm consolidation, increasing productivity, and labor-saving technology has led to a significant decline in farm employment. Nationally, the number of farm jobs fell by 14.1 percent between 2001 and 2013. During the same period, total farm earnings increased 63.4 percent (in real terms), according to data from the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Farming dependence has become more concentrated in Midwestern counties, while farm dependence has dropped more sharply elsewhere.
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