About 20 years ago (1987) Frank and Deborah Popper, geographers at Rutgers, proposed the Buffalo Commons, their answer to land-use problems in parts of the American West. The subtitle of Anne Matthews’ book about the Poppers and their plan is appropriately The Storm over the Revolutionary Plan to Restore America’s Great Plains. Written in 1992, only five years after the initial proposal, Matthews follows two earnest academics to conferences and town meetings where they propose, explain, answer questions and receive abuse.
The Poppers observed that, in response to the repeated boom and bust cycles of drought on land which should never have been plowed, many areas of the Great Plains were depopulating, back below the level of six persons per square mile which had caused Frederick Jackson Turner to declare the end of the Frontier in 1893. The return of the buffalo is a metaphor for a return to sustainable land use, as in the time of the buffalo. Stop plowing, return the land to the prairie, and let the buffalo roam free.
The Poppers’ proposal was just that, an attempt to get those responsible for agricultural and land-use policies to accept the realities of what the dry lands west of the 98th meridian can sustain. The residents of Oklahoma and Nebraska, South Dakota and Montana, did not greet the proposal in that spirit. The almost usiveral reaction was to admit the facts, but to resist the conclusions and suspect a plot to turn them off the land. But, as Deborah Popper says,
“This generation of ranchers and farmers cannot be the ones to accept it,” she points out. “They’re already locked in to and rewarded by an agriculture based on heavy inputs of capital, fertilizer, pesticides, intensive grazing. But their kids, who go off to the land-grant schools and learn to think about sustainable agriculture and active management, will have to bring home a new sensibility.”
Even during the time that Matthews tracked the Poppers she found a gradual shift in opinions. Now, 17 years further on, I found during my own recent visit to South Dakota and Montana that the buffalo is coming back and that land-use is being reconsidered. Besides the national and state parks, non profit groups like the Nature Conservancy and the American Prairie Foundation are acquiring grasslands and placing there that symbol of the strength of the Plains, the buffalo.