Home on the Range

by Lewis Rice

Twenty years ago, Frank Popper MPA 1968, PhD 1972 and his wife, Deborah, wrote an article for Planning, a publication little known outside the professional planner community. But as a result of that article, the Poppers became well known – and well criticized – in a large chunk of the country.

"If [the article] had completely disappeared, if there had been no reaction, we would not have been surprised," says Popper, a professor in the Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy at Rutgers University. "To our great surprise, it hit this enormous nerve."

That can happen when authors offer "a daring proposal for dealing with an inevitable disaster." In this case, the Poppers trained their analysis on the Great Plains region, which encompasses all or parts of ten states: Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Wyoming, Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, and New Mexico. They describe a region suffering from declining population and lack of economic opportunity, laden with "dying towns, departing young people, closing banks, schools, churches, and farm implement dealerships."

Their proposed solution called for "restor[ing] large parts of the Plains to their pre-white condition, to make them again the commons the settlers found in the 19th century." They dubbed their vision the "Buffalo Commons," which would return buffalo and other animals like antelope and elk and deprivatize vast swaths of land in the region. "The Buffalo Commons will become the world's largest historic preservation project, the ultimate national park," they wrote.

It's a daring proposal indeed, particularly from two academics from the Eastern Seaboard who never lived in the Plains region, though they traveled in the area and spoke to residents. But in fact their distance from the area gave them a perspective that benefited their research, they say.

"Because we were not of the Plains, it was much more comfortable for us to intellectualize what would happen," says Deborah Popper, an assistant professor of geography at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York.

Their ongoing fascination with the region began in the mid-1980s, soon after Frank began teaching at Rutgers, while Deborah was a graduate student there. He had spent time in the Plains as a consultant and liked the area, which was understudied, he says.

The history of the region is a classic example, they say, of the tragedy of the commons, whereby individuals acting in their own best interest cause a collective ecological calamity. For example, late 19th-century homesteaders plowed the short grass that buffalo fed on in order to grow crops, but abandoned the land during the Dust Bowl of the 1930s.

More recently, they contend that the Plains suffered because of federally subsidized settlement and cultivation that led to overproduction of natural resources. "Today," the Poppers wrote in 1987, "the pressures on the Plains and their people are as ominous as at any time in American history."

To make the Buffalo Commons a reality, they wrote at the time, the federal government could buy back the land, "deprivatize" it, and assist repatriated populations. Such a plan would allow the government to restore the land to its former sustainable state – "the only way to keep the Plains from turning into an utter wasteland," they wrote.

"We didn't mean that every acre of the Plains would have buffalo on it," says Frank Popper. "It was just a way of saying, do something more environmental, less extractive, look into ecotourism and nontraditional farming and ranching possibilities."

Nevertheless, the people who made the region their home didn't take kindly to the proposal. One local publication said the reaction of Plains residents "ranged from anger to rage." In a conservative part of the country suspicious of government, residents chafed at the suggestion that federal intervention was needed to rescue the region. Farmers and ranchers also felt the article insulted their way of life, according to Popper, though he says that wasn't his intent.

"I can imagine if one is feeling threatened and running scared to begin with," he says, "an article like this – especially from Eastern Martians like us – would seem very threatening."

The Poppers didn't hide away in the East, however. They traveled frequently to the Plains to air their views at "very tense meetings," says Popper. They'd speak in formal gatherings to academics and in barns and back rooms of bars to local farmers (according to a Plains publication, the couple sometimes required a police presence at the meetings).

The hostility has died down in recent years, they say. In fact, more people of the region have come to accept their idea. A few years ago, the Poppers even rode in a parade in North Dakota as honored guests. "Back in 1987, the Poppers were considered radicals," Carol Gould, director at the Center for Rural Initiatives, told a Kansas publication. "But a lot of their predictions, I'm afraid, have turned out to be more accurate than what we wanted to believe."

People have also become more attuned to environmental issues in the intervening years, say the Poppers. That and the fact that conventional economic development hasn’t helped the region have helped sway people’s thinking.

"I think there's very serious frustration on the part of people who are responsible for revitalizing the rural Great Plains," says Frank Popper. "The mastery model has created a whole set of problems that we didn't anticipate. So working with rather than trying to conquer nature is a better way to think of things."

Their theoretical idea is approaching reality, they say. Indeed, as the Poppers wrote in a more recent paper: "The issue is no longer whether the Buffalo Commons will happen, but how." Some of it is happening without federal intervention. They cite examples such as the Nature Conservancy buying land to restore buffalo and other native animals and plants and even entrepreneurs like Ted Turner raising buffalo on huge tracts of private property.

People don't call such efforts "buffalo commons" because the term is still politically inflammatory in the region, the Poppers say. But their vision has begun to find a home on the range.

Originally published in the Winter 2008 issue of the Harvard Kennedy School Bulletin.

Deborah and Frank Popper.

Deborah and Frank Popper MPA 1968.

"I think there's very serious frustration on the part of people who are responsible for revitalizing the rural Great Plains," says Frank Popper. "The mastery model has created a whole set of problems that we didn't anticipate. So working with rather than trying to conquer nature is a better way to think of things."

Native grassland and wildflowers.

Native grassland and wildflowers in the Great Plains region.

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