February 12, 2012

Revisiting the "Buffalo Commons"

Back in the 1980s, two New Jersey professors raised a ruckus on the High Plains by arguing that, given falling populations and the gradual depletion of the Ogallala Aquifer, the plains should be given over to some combination of parks and a different, non-irrigated agriculture including buffalo ranching, activities that would support a smaller but sustainable population—a concept known as the Buffalo Commons.

Few people wanted to hear that. Not only was it coming from New Jersey professors who by definition could not know anything about anything, but it was a slap in the face to the whole survivor mythos of the High Plains—that the people there had survived grasshopper plagues, droughts, blizzards, the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, ups and downs in commodity prices, isolation, and indeed, a gradual decline from the "good years," the first two decades of the 20th century. In general, they reacted angrily to the proposal that they "surrender."

But population was falling:
Their continuing research showed that hundreds of counties in the American West still have less than a sparse 6 persons per square mile — the density standard Frederick Jackson Turner used to declare the American Frontier closed in 1893. Many have less than 2 persons per square mile.

The frontier never came close to disappearing, and in fact has expanded in the Plains in recent years. The 1980 Census showed 388 frontier counties west of the Mississippi. The 1990 Census shows 397 counties in frontier status, and the 2000 Census showed 402. Most of this frontier expansion is in the Great Plains. Kansas actually has more land in frontier status than it did in 1890.

My personal connection: in the early 1920s, the era of prosperity, my maternal grandparents as a young couple ran a store in the High Plains town of Arriba, Colorado (pr. "AIR-a-buh"). When I saw Arriba in the 1970s, it had no business district at all except a Flying J truck stop and an antiques store. Now there is a wind farm too. My grandparents got out before the collapse, but it caught up to them elsewhere.

Meanwhile, the professors, Frank and Deborah Popper, geographer and urban planner (yes, ironic) have not given up on the Buffalo Commons idea.

At a recent conference in Salina, Kansas, Frank Popper said, "We never really expected it to have the impact it did and does. We would have recoiled then that we would still be talking about it 23 years later. It's clear that in the intervening years a quiet muscle of reality, a lot of the trends we saw in the depopulation of the Plains has continued."
"I've been accused of having a slightly un-American approach to the land and the environment, where growth is not always the be-all and end-all, where growth can go too far, and the Buffalo Commons implies a quietism or defeatism," Frank Popper said. "Instead, the Buffalo Commons implies too much growth can be a mistake, overburdening the land, overmastering the environment and in the end always getting kicked in the rear or the pocketbook--or someplace else.

"I realize there is a social comedy in two people from back east who are telling people in the Plains what to do with their land. I've enjoyed it, but there are important things to look at in how we treat this vast, characteristically American chunk of land. There are lessons here on how to live on the land that can be applied to the Corn Belt, the lower Mississippi delta, and parts of our largest cities--like Detroit--that are depopulating like the Plains. It's about sustainability. It's about being American."
 Some politicians are quietly coming around, he notes, and a Great Plains National Park "may actually happen."

3 comments:

Darrell said...

Arriba, at/near the intersection of Hwy 94 and US 40, right? One of the weirdest things I ever saw happened there--I'd gone out to the site of the Sand Creek Massacre, and was returning to the Springs. I'd just crested the rise on 94 just west of the intersection, which gives a sweeping view over the plains. A storm was blowing in from the west, it was grey, cloudy and very windy. Looking over the plains, it looked like a stormy ocean, with tossing waves as far as the eye could see. The waves were actually tumbleweeds, millions of tumbleweeds, doing what tumbleweeds do in the wind... it was eerie to see. Then I had to drive down into it. I was instantly submerged in the sea of buffeting tumbleweeds, which quickly jammed under my car, clogging the grille, and generally making a mess of my vehicle. It took quite a while to drive through the mess. I did feel like I was piloting a boat through the roiling storm...

Darrell said...

I apologize, the place I'm thinking of is Aroya, CO. Sorry, Chas!!!

Chas Clifton said...

Still, the tumbleweed waves must have been a little unsettling.