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National Assessment of
Quality of Rural Life on the Great Plains
Current demographic changes are imposing challenges to the rural areas of the Great Plains. The decrease and aging of rural populations, and the increased remoteness of neighbors place rural communities at increased socioeconomic risk. The growing urban areas are magnets for jobs and people. This shift in population increases the demand for services in urban areas, while increasing the burden on rural governments to provide health and education services with a declining economic base. The vulnerability of the rural population on the Great Plains will affect the region's ability to marshal resources, both natural and societal, to cope with increased risk and uncertainty. As the urban centers continue to grow, problems such as air quality will likely compromise the quality of life in urban areas, including the health-related aspects.
Because it is difficult to separate environmental, social, and economic impacts when considering quality of life on the Great Plains, these issues will be discussed together. Potential adaptation options follow.
Environmental, Social, and Economic Impacts
The quality of rural life on the Great Plains is dependent on the weather and the climate, the impact that the weather has on the plants and animals of the region, and on the weather in other agricultural producing areas of the globe. Because rural populations and their communities are highly dependent on the natural resources of the Great Plains, they are at risk from climate change and from potential increases in climate variability. Rural economies in semi-arid regions are economically vulnerable due to lower profits and tax bases, fewer resources, and their reliance on livestock and cropping systems that are often stressed. Of particular importance, opportunities for international export will also depend on how climate change affects the global agricultural markets.
The projected changes in climate -- increases in temperature, reductions in soil moisture, and more intense rainfall events -- are likely to require changes in crop and livestock management in the Great Plains. The elevated atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide will possibly lower forage (food for grazing animals) quality of native grasses. Legumes, a potential source of nitrogen, could be a new and important part of farm and ranch management in the region. Increases in the extent of warm-season plants could be a welcome addition to a forage mix in the northern Great Plains. However, the loss of the current mix of warm- and cool-season forages in the central Great Plains could pose limitations in expanding grazing options.
Changes in when and what type (rain or snow) of precipitation occurs, particularly changes in precipitation during the growing season, are likely to affect rates of plant growth of both native vegetation and crops. Whether or not the plant community will be able to accommodate changes in growing season climate or hydrological (water cycle) patterns is a matter of concern among stakeholders who have come to depend on these weather patterns for their livelihood. Warmer winters are likely to mean an increased chance of rain rather than snow -- resulting in enhancing the competitive advantages of shrubs. This is a potentially important issue for forage animals. More intensive storm activity and an increased frequency of heat waves will likely be an increasing problem for the southern Great Plains.
The consequences of weather and change on agricultural economics, beef cattle production, and grassland use can be subtle and complex due to indirect effects from international trade, cost of feed, and markets. Most agricultural commodities are subject to production/price cycles. The time between peaks and troughs of production are controlled largely by the producer's ability to respond to prices and consumer behavior. However, climate variability, especially drought, can significantly modify the dynamics of, for example, cattle inventories and production/price cycles, resulting in losses to producers. For example, the 1995-96 Texas drought resulted in larger numbers of cattle being sent to market due to poor range condition, increased corn feed prices, and a significantly diminished winter wheat feed crop that resulted in lower prices for producers. While this could be a short-term advantage to consumers, such stresses can have important, negative impacts on the economics of farm communities in the Great Plains.
Strategies to Address Potential Impacts of Changes in the Quality of Rural Life on the Great Plains
Strategies for improving the quality of rural life in the Great Plains under changing climate conditions could include numerous options. This list is not exhaustive and should be used as a starting point. For example:
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