Sometimes a great notion
What to do with the Great Plains, that vast, sprawling area between Alberta and the Rio Grande, where, in the words of one 19th century traveler, one can see all the way into next week? With loss of industry and businesses, environmental degradation, failing farms and an aging and ever-declining population, the prairies are in danger of becoming a vacuum. With no easy solutions in sight, some suggestions seem as fantastical as science fiction.
One idea espoused at “The Buffalo Commons Revisited: Conversations about the Future of the Great Plains,” a public discussion held at Kansas State University’s Forum Hall on Wednesday, Feb. 11, called for converting the agricultural base of the plains into the manufacture of high-grade marijuana for both national and international trade.
The suggestion, made by a doughy young man, was one toke over the line for the crowd, who loudly derided it.
Seventeen years ago, another suggestion was voiced, one that was met with equal derision. So much so that police were called out to protect the authors, Frank and Deborah Popper, when they visited the area to discuss their idea. Then-Kansas Governor Mike Hayden characterized his reaction as a modern-day Matt Dillon gunslinger, pistols blazing. What could a couple of interlopers from back East know about Kansas? he scoffed.
Hayden, now secretary for the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, stood on the stage at Forum Hall and looked at the Poppers, who were seated to the right of the podium. “I’m here to say that I was wrong,” he said. “Not only did what Frank and Deborah predict come true, the truth is that the out-migration of the Great Plains, and the depopulation and the aging of the population has been even stronger in many quarters than they predicted.”
While Hayden and the Poppers were speaking mainly of the Great Plains west of the 100th meridian, many of the problems facing that area are similar in Marshall County. The song’s the same; the location is just a little farther east.
Filling the Void
The Poppers were at K-State for a reevaluation of the idea that put them at the forefront of prairie planning – a return to the “Buffalo Commons.” The discussion, sponsored by the Kansas Center for Rural Initiatives, also included Associate Professor Leonard Bloomquist, head of the department of sociology, anthropology and social work; Professor John Harrington, head of the geography department; and Associate Professor Bonnie Lynn-Sherow of the history department. The moderator was Professor Stephen White, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences.
The idea of the Buffalo Commons had its genesis in a trip the Poppers took in 1985. Mr. Popper was interested in writing a paper about the American frontier, so he and his family drove across the plains, talking to people at cafes, city offices and laundromats. They were captivated by the sweeping views, but realized that the area needed to make serious adjustments.
Back in New Jersey – Mr. Popper teaches at Rutgers University and Mrs. Popper teaches at the City University of New York’s College of Staten Island – the Poppers sat down to write their paper.
“We imagined the Buffalo Commons basically sitting over an electronic hearth – that is, we’re sitting over our computer,” he said. “We tried imagining what the Great Plains would be like.”
The region was destined to cycles of boom and bust, of agricultural miscalculations, of environmental degradations – and ripe for population decline. It was, as historian John Opie said, “An experiment station in crisis management.” They proposed an ecological and environmental restoration of much of the region. “There should be new uses that fall between conventional agriculture and pure wilderness,” they said, uses that emphasized environmental protection and eco-tourism as a supplement, and possibly as an eventual replacement, for existing agricultural and resource land uses. Buffalo and other native animals, plants and grasses should replace cattle in many areas.
The Poppers never mentioned anything specific. It was, said Mr. Popper, more metaphor than blueprint.
That’s when the fur began to fly.
It all seems so clear now to Hayden.
What he saw back then was a bunch of Eastern intellectuals sticking their noses in his business. Fiercely proud of his heritage – “Born, bred and raised west of the 100th meridian,” he said – he lived and worked on a farm that went back generations in his family. But two things in particular made him see the shifting demographics of the Great Plains around Atwood, in western Kansas.
In 1963, he said, there were 16 family members whose primary source of income came from that farm. In 2003 there were four people and three of them were over 80 years of age. “Same land. Same farm,” he said. “Producing more than we ever did. But there are twelve of us who had to do something else.”
Projecting that number another 15 years, he said there would be only one person left whose income came from the land.
Another factor related to when he and his family moved into a house at 201 N. 7th in Atwood. He was nine years old. “My parents still live there,” he said. “For fifty years, if you sent my dad a letter he’d pick it up in the same mailbox. If you sent me a letter in those fifty years, you would have had to send them to twenty-nine different addresses.”
Those two examples show the changing social structure of the Great Plains, he said.
“It’s very hard for me because my family came from the land, came from the soil,” he said. “They loved western Kansas. But most had to go somewhere else to find economic opportunity.”
Kansas is not alone in its plight, he said. From Canada to the Mexican border the problem is the same. Some places are even worse.
For many years, he said, he drove the 321 miles between Atwood and Topeka, sometimes daily. He passed through many towns, many communities, and as they rose and faded from view he thought of them and of their uncertain futures.
“I remember one time when I was running for governor,” he said. “I drove through Courtland and a train came and I had to stop, so I had a minute to think before I had to rush on. And I thought to myself, if I do get elected governor, what can I do for the people of Courtland? And I’ll tell you the truth: in seventeen years, I’ve never been able to answer that question. It still eludes me today.”
You can see the future from here
Hayden likened the economy of southwestern Kansas to a three-legged stool. It’s held up by the Hugoton gas fields, the Ogallala aquifer and the influx of Hispanics, he said, but two of the legs “are going the wrong way.”
The gas fields, once the third largest in the world, are now declining at the rate of eight percent annually. The Ogallala aquifer continues to drop, and there are places around Cimarron and Sublette that in 20 years will not have mineable water. On the other hand, the Hispanic population continues to grow.
Hayden said he read recently in the Atwood newspaper, The Square Deal, that the first baby of the year born in Rawlins County was Latino. He’d never seen that before.
“It wasn’t a quirk,” he said. “It’s a sign of the future.”
An imperfect map, but a start
The idea of the creation of a Buffalo Commons does not mean a wholesale displacement of farmers and rural communities, though some suspect such a conspiracy. Hayden, the Poppers and the other panelists presented their strategies for reversing the decline of the Great Plains, all the while insisting that much more research needs to be done.
Mr. Popper noted some of the changes made since their first paper was published: Ted Turner has restored millions of acres to a more natural state, replacing cattle with buffalo; organizations like the Nature Conservancy, the Great Plains Restoration Council and the Conservation Alliance are strengthening; and government agencies are not only providing technical and financial assistance to buffalo ranchers, but also sponsoring conferences dealing with regional depopulation.
But the government must do more, Hayden insisted. There must be an investment by government at some level, whether federal, state or local. Kansas needs more public land, he said. If you go to one of the state-owned lakes around any summer holiday, there will often be more people there than in many surrounding towns. “We haven’t made enough of those investments,” he said, “but in the communities we made them in, there’s a whole lot better economic health than in those communities without them.”
Art, science and geography must be an integral part of the solution, Mrs. Popper said. Restoration will come when we can see the prairie as Walt Whitman did in 1878 when he wrote, “I am not so sure but the prairies and plains, while less stunning at first sight, last longer, fill the esthetic sense fuller, precede all the rest, and make North America's characteristic landscape.” Then, she said, we need to go back to our arts and our literature and redefine how we see the region.
Some form of the Buffalo Commons is inevitable, Mr. Popper said. “There are a lot of questions of detail, of timing, of mechanism still to be settled, but intellectually speaking we believe it’s a done deal. It’s going to happen.”
The poem is ours to write
“Today, the small independent farmer who makes the majority of his or her income from farming is not just in trouble, she’s in a coma,” Lynn-Sherow said.
Mark Twain once quipped that history never repeats itself but sometimes it rhymes, she said. Songs from 16th century England and 19th century America are remarkably similar in terms of showing farmers being driven out by landowners, just as history has proven. What’s taking place on the Great Plains today is an illustration of Garrett Hardin’s theory of “the tragedy of the commons,” she said.
The theory holds that any common, whether a field, a fishery or a water source like the Ogallala, is only sustainable if everyone limits their consumption. Decay occurs when someone takes more than their fair share. Eventually, as everyone tries to grab an extra portion and the incentive for limiting oneself seems foolish, the resource upon which everyone depends is destroyed.
A number of commons on the Great Plains have been destroyed, she said, like the buffalo herds, riparian woodlands, topsoil and clean water. Now, middle-sized farms are disappearing while large agribusinesses expand. Towns that once had businesses and schools now consider themselves lucky if they can sustain a convenience store on the highway. The rural communities of the Great Plains are being over-harvested, she said.
But even as middle-sized farms disappear, over 7,000 small farms have been created since 1997, many operated by women. This new type of farmer, she believes, is one who is committed to producing products for a local rather than an international market. Their goal is not to compete with the giants of industry but to provide an alternative, a case of recreating and remaking the commons.
“The USDA knows that the most efficient farm on the plains is not 4,000 acres, but 400,” she said. Farmers are beginning to reconnect with the people who depend on them. Those farmers, she said, are the best hope for the Great Plains.
“As an historian, I do not pretend to know what the future holds,” she said. “I can only hold the past up to view. The next verse in the poem is up to all of us to write.”