The Great Plains of North America is a roughly triangular area covering 1.4 million square miles that extends for about 2,400 miles (3,870 km) from Alberta, Saskatchewan, and Manitoba southward through Texas into Mexico and approximately 1,000 miles (1,612 km) from foothills of the Rocky Mountains eastward to Indiana. Rainfall increases from west to east, resulting in different types of prairies, with the shortgrass prairie in the rain shadow of the Rockies, mixed-grass prairie in the central Great Plains, and tallgrass prairie in the wetter eastern region. Today, these three prairie types largely correspond to the western rangelands, the wheat belt, and the corn/soybean area, respectively1. Annual production of wheat, oats, barley, rye, sorghum and corn in the region is greater than 334 million tonnes - roughly 25% of the world's total production of these grains2. With a population of approximately ten million, it is one of the least densely populated agriculturally productive areas in the world.
The Great Plains an ideal region within which to study the interaction between humans and the environment using an ecozone approach. The ecozone approach is a holistic and integrative approach to solving the interlocking problems of poverty, environmental degradation, and disintegration of rural communities. It takes into account the scale of sustainability and recognizes that comprehensive development interventions must be taken at a level which will have lasting consequences. The appropriate scale is seen as one in which there is a critical mix of environmental, economic, socio-cultural and socio-political factors. At this level, communities are woven into complex networks across diverse ecosystems; production, marketing and communications systems; and political administrative units3.
The ecozone approach is a useful method to approach the Great Plains because of the similarities between the ecosystems and people throughout the region. Differences in progress toward sustainable development can therefore be seen largely as the results of different policies and political systems. By focusing research and action at the level of the entire ecozone, we can quickly begin to learn from each others' experiences and to identify the policies which support communities' abilities to adapt to changing cirumstances in ways that preserve their communities and their land.
The purpose of IISD's Great Plains activities is to study the relationship between economic development, societal needs and the environment and to apply sustainable development concepts to the region. We aim to integrate all of our programmatic work in community adaptation, trade, business, communications, and measurement to prove that sustainable development is more than an abstract concept. It is a reality being shaped through the everyday actions and decisions of people living in this vast and magnificent region.