The Nebraska Sandhills region consists of about 12 million acres of sand dunes with a thin layer of vegetation draped across them. That vegetation has come and gone over the last several thousand years, as long-term climatic patterns have shifted from wet to dry and back. We are in a relatively wet period (geologically speaking) today, and grassland is clinging to the hills. For now.
Except where it can’t. Here and there, throughout the sandhills, particularly on steep hills, sand breaks through. Most of the time, blowouts are triggered by a combination of topography and some kind of physical disturbance. A two track road or cattle trail up a steep slope, for example, or a favorite hangout of livestock. Just as with frayed fabric, once a small hole in the vegetation starts, it tends to spread. Most Sandhills ranchers see blowouts as a great risk to their livelihood and work hard to prevent them, or to heal them once they start. Those ranchers are encouraged in that view by watchful neighbors and a long history of agencies and university extension staff warning of the dire impacts of wind-induced soil erosion.
The Sandhills is ranch country, and all but a tiny fraction is privately-owned and managed for livestock production. Most ranchers are conservative with livestock numbers and grazing strategies, trying to preserve that thin fabric of grass that feeds their livestock, and thus their families.
While there are certainly places that are prone to wind erosion and practices that can accelerate it, the risk of blowout creation and spread has also become a kind of mythology. In much of the Sandhills, blowouts are actually difficult to create (we’ve tried) and the percentage of a ranch that could potentially be covered by blowouts is very small.
While conservative grazing has helped maintain healthy prairies in the Sandhills, it has also led to a loss of open sand habitat for a group of plant and animal species that depend upon blowouts and similar areas. Those species are important, but asking a rancher to allow, let alone encourage a blowout, is much like asking a business man to go to work wearing Bermuda shorts with his sport coat. The peer pressure and social norms associated with blowouts can be more influential than any potential loss of livestock forage they might cause. Just as farmers judge their neighbors by the weeds in their fields, Sandhills ranchers judge their neighbors by the blowouts in their pastures.
Regardless of the social or economic ramifications of blowouts for ranchers, bare sand patches really are important habitats for many prairie species. The discussions I’ve had with ranchers about the ecological values of blowouts have always been polite, but I can’t say they’ve been met with great enthusiasm. I understand that, but that doesn’t change the need to continue having those discussions.
It may be that changing climate will render moot our discussions about whether or not to allow or encourage blowouts in the Sandhills. Eventually, we will experience enough consecutive years of hot dry weather that even the most conservative grazing won’t prevent widespread blowing sand once again. We can’t predict whether those conditions will arrive in the next few years, or not for many decades. When they do arrive, both the ecological and human communities of the Sandhills will be glad to have species that are well adapted to open sand. Plants like blowout penstemon and blowout grass, for example, can help restabilize areas of bare sand, and they also provide food for both livestock and wildlife.
For now, the Sandhills provides a vibrant grassland that supports both humans and wildlife. That will likely change at some point in the future. Hopefully, blowout-dependent species will find enough habitat to maintain their populations until we really need them.
…and hopefully no one will feel like they have to wear Bermuda shorts in order to make that happen.