Buffalo Commons Essay

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In the december 1987 issue of Planning magazine, Deborah Popper, a geography graduate student at Rutgers University, and Frank Popper, chair of the Rutgers urban studies department, published an article proposing that the U.S. Great Plains be transformed into the world’s largest historic preservation region. The Poppers suggested that the vast area be called the Buffalo Commons, and that the federal government would inherit the task of bringing the region back to its 19th-century condition. The Poppers proposed that an extensive area of the Great Plains be taken out of the private property category as part of roughly 20 million acres of native grassland. Initially, landowners in the Great Plains spoke out harshly against the Popper’s ideas. There was the belief among residents that their land would simply be taken from them by federal mandate

However, this was not the idea. In one plan, farmers and landowners would enter into contracts with federal agencies and be compensated for their estimated financial loss over a 15-year period. The landowner agreed to the planting of native grasses for the transition to the new era.

The Poppers contended that modern human settlement and agriculture on the Great Plains were not environmentally sustainable. The Dust Bowl era saw thousands of settlers leave the region as the winds blew away what little topsoil existed. John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath is a vivid account of the drought’s devastation. As a result of this natural disaster and the aridity of the region, the Great Plains lost over a third of its population between the 1920s and the 1980s. As late as the 2000 census, some counties registered population densities below two people per square mile, a figure used by Frederick Jackson Turner in 1983 to proclaim the end of the frontier era. Declining population densities in the Great Plains belie Turner’s pronouncement. Along with low population densities and remote communities comes a paucity of essential services, such as full-service hospitals and shopping centers. Schools in the Great Plains regions are either closing or yielding to consolidation with other districts. The loss of a school in a small community can spell its demise. The smaller the community, the greater the influence of the school. It may very well be the largest employer in the community, and will open its doors to community members during afterschool hours.

Water availability in the Great Plains is also a serious problem. The region relies to a large degree on the vast Ogallala Aquifer, an extensive underground source of fresh water extending from Texas north to South Dakota. The aquifer at its highest volume was estimated to hold an amount of water equal to that of Lake Michigan. Over the years, the level of water has declined dramatically as more and more wells have been put in place and the amount of water taken out of the ground has far exceeded that gained through natural recharge. Adding to the problem, recharge occurs primarily at the northern terminus of the aquifer in an arid area. Thousands of farms in the Great Plains have ceased operations because of the inability to reach the lowered water level of the aquifer.

Invoking the frontier notion has given rise to the acceptance in the U.S. House of Representatives of a formal definition of a frontier county: one that has a critically low population density, does not have medical facilities readily available, and is significantly distanced from other essential services. Hundreds of counties, primarily in the western United States, are officially classified as frontier counties. As provocative as the Popper’s initial proposals seemed, it appears that the era of the Buffalo Commons may occur in some parts of the Great Plains in a de facto sense, and not as a federal program.


  1. Daniel Licht, Ecology and Economics of the Great Plains (University of Nebraska Press, 1997);
  2. Anne Matthews, Where the Buffalo Roam: the Storm over the Revolutionary Plan to Restore America’s Great Plains (Grove Press, 1992);
  3. E. and F.J. Popper, “The Great Plains: From Dust to Dust,” Planning (December 1987);
  4. Richard S. Wheeler, The Buffalo Commons (Forge, 1998).

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