In 1985 we founded Gallatin Writers to explore pressing Western issues. Gallatin is sponsoring a writing contest for college students. The three prizes are modest, $1500, $1000, and $500; the challenge huge. The Stegner contest solicits essays to help our decision makers and opinion leaders understand and wrestle with the implications of demographic, cultural, and economic changes on the Northern Plains.
Contest winners will demonstrate sound analysis and good writing. The coordinator of the panel, John Downen, holds degrees in both English and economics. Other judges, who will remain anonymous until the winners are announced, are westerners who teach literature, law, and policy analysis.
Essays should build on Wolf Willow. Wallace Stegner crafted the book from his articles in American Heritage, Atlantic Monthly, and The New Yorker. Forty years later, it remains valuable for understanding the emerging West.
Stegner's life spanned most of the twentieth century, 1909-1993. Author of two dozen fiction and nonfiction books, he is one of our most perceptive and insightful western writers. Wolf Willow: A History, a Story, and a Memory of the Last Plains Frontier foretold the population and economic decline of the vast region between the 98th meridian and the Rockies. As a New York Times book review noted: "Stegner has summarized the frontier story and interpreted it only as one who was part of it could do." His story has sad endings and woeful but prescient predictions.
Using his analysis as a starting point, we hope the essays will generate constructive ideas for adaptation to changed circumstances. That is our goal in sponsoring this contest. Here's our take on how the problems afflicting this region came about.
John Wesley Powell got it right when he submitted to Congress his 1878 Report on the Arid Lands. However, his suggestions for settling arid regions were ignored. Political payoffs and blind optimism trumped science and common sense.
No matter what politicians promised or did, homesteaders could not replicate earlier success in the Midwest. Here, the climate was against them. Many explanations of how we got into this fix include good intentions gone awry. Here are four to consider.
First, there was a widely believed myth that "rain follows the plow." Tilling soil raises dust, raindrops form on dust particles, and precipitation follows. Consider Illinois and Iowa. Lots of farming, lots of dust, and about 40 inches of rain. The Northern Plains, which include eastern Montana, weren't farmed and got only 14 inches.
Second, undisturbed grasslands gradually accumulate nutrients in the soil. Over a few thousand years, the ground becomes quite rich. The first few years of crops mined the nutrients. Yields were impressive. Farmers were off to a good, but false, start.
Third, the area was settled during the WWI period, the time of the highest grain prices in our history. Even a modest yield would produce a good income. Farmers' expectations for future prices were unrealistically high.
Fourth, settlement coincided with a cycle of unusually high rainfall. But normal aridity soon returned. As Stegner noted, "the lesson that the Plains settler could not learn, short of living it out, was that no system of farming, no matter how strenuously applied, could produce crops in that country during one of the irregular and unpredictable periods of drought and that the consequences of trying to force the issue could be disastrous to both people and land."
That's history. What about today when human capital trumps natural endowment? Couldn't the region capitalize on its talent? If not, why not? Stegner observed: "…those who go hunting wider opportunities are nearly always the brightest and most energetic…. Time acts like a great slow cream separator."
After a century of wishful thinking, boosterism, and flawed government programs, the Northern Plains falls ever further behind. For generations subsidies have prolonged the pain of marginal farming and thwarted adaptation. Generating constructive, humane, and sustainable alternatives requires honest assessments of assets and opportunities.
Clearly, the initial ideal of replicating the Midwest failed the region's reality checks. The winning essays should help us identify realistic and prudent expectations for public policy. We invite college students to submit 2000-word essays by April 23, Earth Day. Contest information will be available on Gallatin's web site (www.gallatin.org) by January 15th.