The notion that conservation, or lack thereof, is just another problem the nation faces -- no larger, and perhaps smaller, than, say, taxes and health care -- is commonly held. Which explains why most Americans only periodically consider soil, water and air stewardship.
The explosion of an offshore oil rig in the Gulf of Mexico and the threat it poses to Louisiana's coastal marshes provides an example.
These marshes generally extend from Texas to Mississippi, about 250 miles, and can measure up to 40 miles wide. A quarter of North American ducks winter there and all manner of fish and crustaceans use them as nurseries.
The marshes are every bit as spectacular as Yellowstone National Park or the Grand Canyon.
But because they are unseen by most Americans and because they lack the snazz factor of a canyon or a mountain, our nation decided long ago that it's OK to trash them -- something we've done exceedingly well for more than half a century.
Only when TV thrusts upon us a spectacle akin to an offshore explosion or an expanding oil slick do most of us dust off, and consider, "conservation."
This societal malaise represents a clear and present danger to us all -- and to still other national treasures.
Consider as you read this that thousands of acres of North Dakota and South Dakota native grasslands are being plowed under -- lands that throughout history have been thought to be unfit for agriculture because of poor soil type, too little moisture or too many rocks.
Traditionally, their highest value has been for grazing -- benefiting not only ranchers and their livestock but birds and other wildlife and soil conservation
Additionally, this region, known as the Missouri Coteau, is the last and best hope the United States has for duck production.
Here's what's happening:
The federal law governing farm legislation provides access to crop insurance to farmers -- a good thing, obviously. Otherwise, weather's vagaries would spell economic disaster for at least some producers each year.
But a provision in the legislation and the development of genetically modified crops are encouraging Dakota producers to bust up and plant native prairies with virtually with no possibility of financial loss.
In fact, the more native grasslands that producers plow, the more money they make, regardless of whether a planted crop -- usually corn or soybeans -- grows.
Why? Because bushel-per-acre crop-insurance payments often are paid on the rate producers harvest not on these newly plowed marginal lands but instead on their best lands.
It's easy money.
"Cashing in" begins in the fall, when a typical North or South Dakota producer can spray a herbicide on as many as 800 acres in a day. In the spring, the same producer oftentimes makes a single pass over the same fields, tilling and planting in one fell swoop. Crops will grow on some of the newly planted fields. On many others, not.
Either way, the money rolls in even while other (less well-funded) government programs target the same lands for conservation.
Among the biggest losers are taxpayers. Wildlife loses, too, as do, ironically, Minnesota pheasant and duck hunters who -- having sat idly by while their state's uplands and wetlands went the way of the buffalo -- have long considered the Dakotas their adopted autumnal hunting grounds.
Maybe for now.
But not -- if the Missouri Coteau is not saved -- forever.
Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., the chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, knows the problem well. He's trying to remove the incentive to put beneath the plow native prairies that are every bit as valuable to this nation as Louisiana's coastal wetlands. Or Yellowstone. Or the Grand Canyon.
He'd have better luck if more Americans cared.
If only TV would show us what's happening in the Dakotas, perhaps throwing in an explosion for added effect.
Maybe then we'd pay attention, if only for a while.