In the December 1987 issue of Planning, we wrote what we thought was an innocuous article on land use in the Great Plains. The piece explored the state of the short-grass, semi-arid region between the 98th meridian and the Rockies, a sixth of the Lower 48.
The most rural parts of the Plains
faced long- standing problems - droughts, disappearing topsoil,
depopulation, declines in the traditional agricultural and energy
economies, and dependence on federal farm subsidies. We argued that
in response, the Plains' future would draw on pieces of its past.
We called this approach the Buffalo Commons.
us, restoring a commons for buffalo offered a metaphor for a change
to new uses of land that fell between intensive cultivation and
pure wilderness, with less emphasis on agriculture and extraction
and more on preservation and ecotourism.
exercise in social prophecy, the Buffalo Commons has enjoyed
surprising impact, accuracy and endurance. Its tenth anniversary
provides an occasion to reflect on its reach and ponder its
The Buffalo Commons touched off a
national debate about the fate of the Plains. Many
environmentalists, Native Americans, and preservation- and
tourism-based interests were inspired by the Buffalo Commons.
Ranchers, farmers, energy interests and
communities often saw it as an assault on their livelihoods,
legitimacy and ancestors. Some of our early speeches in the Plains
required armed guards, and a 1992 Montana talk got canceled because
of death threats.
The Buffalo Commons remains
controversial. Reports regularly appear claiming that the Plains
economy is booming, but they tend to focus on the Plains states
overall or their urban centers, rather than on the most rural parts
of the states. For example, in September 1997 the Center for the
New West, a Denver group, issued a report celebrating "Economic
Resurgence in the Great Plains," and the center's president, Phil
Burgess, used the report to write off the Buffalo Commons as
"folly." Yet the report included a section titled "Why Growth Slows
at the 100th Meridian" and described the area west of that
longitude as "still a kind of frontier where development often
grinds to a halt and falling birth rates and out-migration take
their toll." Exactly!
development was grinding "to a halt," by the middle 1990s the
Buffalo Commons was forming on the ground, particularly in the
Northern Plains. Public-lands buffalo herds increased markedly. On
private land a noticeable number of Plains ranchers switched from
cattle to buffalo and prospered economically and environmentally.
Buffalo have nutritional advantages over cattle - less fat and
cholesterol, more protein - and they drink less water, trample
riverbank areas less and need less ranch work, especially in
calving. They survive winter better, as in the 1996-97
Dakota-Montana blizzards and the October 1997 Colorado storm, and
they yield higher profits.
The buffalo market,
which barely existed 10 years ago, thrives while the cattle (and
sheep) markets keep slipping. North Dakota Gov. Edward Schafer sees
buffalo production and buffalo tourism as vital to the state's
growth. The state's bank lends enthusiastically to buffalo
ranchers, and its agricultural extension service offers them
technical help. North Dakotans have established a marketing
cooperative and a slaughtering-processing facility specially for
buffalo and plan another one, which the state is encouraging. In
1996, its agriculture commissioner, Sarah Vogel, told The New York
Times that North Dakota will someday have more buffalo than
In 1992, 19 Plains Indian tribes formed
the InterTribal Bison Cooperative to reinvigorate buffalo's
historically central place in their cultures. The cooperative,
based in Rapid City, S.D., trains Indian buffalo producers and
tribal land managers; promotes buffalo art and artifacts; operates
a joint venture with an Indian-owned farming company; and has plans
for a slaughtering-processing facility. The co-op has grown to 42
tribes, including some outside the Plains. The buffalo population
on Indian land has tripled since 1992.
1990s, the Nature Conservancy, the country's leading
land-preservation organization, tended to ignore the Plains, but it
has recently made many purchases in the region. It often restores
buffalo and ecologically associated animals and plants and sets up
ecotourism enterprises. The conservancy and other preservation
groups plan more such projects.
are also abetting the Buffalo Commons. The Forest Service may allow
buffalo to graze on more of its forest and grassland holdings in
the Dakotas, Nebraska and Wyoming. And in 1992, the U.S. Interior
Department began the Great Plains Partnership, a wildlife
protection effort by federal agencies, state governments, and their
Canadian and Mexican counterparts. The Clinton administration
expanded the program and assigned the Environmental Protection
Agency to lead it.
Our research has stimulated
other work on the Plains. Anne Matthews' book, Where the Buffalo
Roam (Grove Weidenfeld, 1992), which focuses on our work (HCN,
12/16/91), was one of four finalists for the 1993 Pulitzer Prize
for nonfiction. Since 1993, Lawrence Brown's bimonthly newsletter,
From the Deep Plains, has presented a South Dakota rancher's
friendly attempts to find alternatives to the Buffalo Commons.
Ernest Callenbach's Bring Back the Buffalo! A Sustainable Future
for America's Great Plains (Island Press, 1995) and Daniel Licht's
Ecology and Economics of the Great Plains (University of Nebraska
Press, 1997) support the Buffalo Commons and suggest new ways to
achieve it. Local environmental groups - for instance, South
Dakota's Sierra Club chapter and Bring Back the Bison in Evanston,
Wyo. - lobby for buffalo.
It has been exciting
to watch our metaphor spring to life and acquire the muscle of
reality. We see a growing recognition that the idea makes
ecological and financial sense - that it offers a plausible option
for many places, especially if the other choices are casinos,
prisons, hazardous waste, agribusiness or continued slow-leak
The emergence of the Buffalo Commons
shows the adaptiveness of the rural West. We confidently await the
further return of the buffalo.
Nick Romanenko, Rutgers
Deborah E. Popper teaches geography
at the College of Staten Island/City University of New York, and
Frank J. Popper teaches land-use planning at Rutgers University,
New Brunswick, New Jersey.