They’re not laughing anymore.
Back in 1987, when Frank and Deborah Popper
traversed the Great Plains ballyhooing their "Buffalo Commons"
prediction for the region, they were ridiculed. At some outposts,
bodyguards were needed to ensure their safety. A Montana appearance
was canceled because of death threats.
though: Parts of the Great Plains are evolving into a mid-19th
century wilderness dominated by grasslands and bison.
trend continues unabated 16 years after the Poppers’ initial
analysis. Depopulation persists.We are beginning to realize that
despite our greatest efforts, we are unable to conquer this vast
expanse of middle America.
"Instead of beating our land
into submission," North Dakota researcher Gregory Wald once asked,
"why not take what it gives easily?"
Today, many people
believe it is time for new thinking: Why not expedite the
Poppers’ vision and turn a portion of these Great Plains back
to their natural grasslands? Why not re-establish a prairie where
bison roam, other native wildlife is restored and people find
incentive to build new lives? Maybe it’s time, as the East
Coast professors suggested, to embrace our heritage and our unique
At one time, it is estimated, there were nearly
700,000 square miles of grasslands in the Great Plains. That was
comparable to a Gulf of Mexico of bluestem and buffalo grass, or a
Caribbean Sea of blue grama and switch grass -- with some
wildflowers splashed in.
This grassland encompassed
nearly all or part of 13 U.S. states and Canadian provinces --
North and South Dakota, Nebraska, Colorado, Wyoming, Montana,
Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico, Alberta, Saskatchewan and
It would be difficult today to imagine the
enormity of it all, the cornucopia of wildlife and the endless
herds of bison. But many people are doing just that. A great
Northern Plains grassland is the rallying cry of the Conservation
Alliance of the Great Plains, based in Lincoln, Neb. With the
future of Great Plains agriculture uncertain at best, the alliance
says the time is right for change.
A starting point for
such a vision is the existing national grasslands -- Buffalo Gap in
South Dakota, Little Missouri in North Dakota, Thunder Basin in
Wyoming and Oglala in Nebraska.
There are huge chunks of
tribal lands in the Great Plains, mostly in South Dakota and
Montana, and the Native American aspiration is clear: Restore
reservations to native prairie ecosystems, including grasslands,
bison and prairie dogs. A coalition called the Intertribal Bison
Cooperative became a reality in Albuquerque in 1992, and it now
includes 42 tribes and thousands of bison. The Cheyenne River Sioux
in north-central South Dakota have been active in prairie
restoration and have reintroduced black-footed ferrets, once a
vibrant species on the western Plains.
latest farm bill includes a new Grasslands Reserve Program, which
offers incentives for ranchers and farmers to protect sensitive
grasslands. It is small in scope, but perhaps another new
beginning. Much more will be needed if a giant grandeur of grasses
is to become a reality. Since 98 percent of the Northern Great
Plains lands is in private hands, there would be a need to build
public-private partnerships and establish conservation easements.
"The impetus has to come locally," said Tyler Sutton,
president of the Conservation Alliance. "None of this is going to
happen unless local leaders allow it to happen. But do we rest our
future on the single leg of agriculture?"
Sutton and the
Conservation Alliance foresee an economy based on "natural
amenities," offering wildlife watching, hunting, hiking, horseback
riding, tribal cultural practices, other forms of eco-tourism, and,
yes, some livestock grazing.
The Conservation Alliance is
not alone in its dream. The World Wildlife Fund has made a Northern
Great Plains grassland one of its priorities and has compared the
area to the African Serengeti. A nonprofit group called the Great
Plains Restoration Council, with offices in Denver and Fort Worth,
has dedicated itself to a "practical implementation of a Buffalo
Commons." It has launched "The Million Acre Project" to restore and
connect a million acres of native prairie. Pheasants Forever and
Ducks Unlimited have joined the chorus, the latter inaugurating a
"Grasslands for Tomorrow" initiative to "achieve a sustainable
landscape for wildlife, agriculture and rural economies."
Collectively, there is a movement; the Poppers were on to
something. Montana writer Richard Manning, in his book "Grassland:
The History, Biology, Politics and Promise of the American
Prairie," reminds us what’s at stake:
"We are all
creatures of grass," he wrote. "It is silent; we are not. It is
free, and we aren’t. It is large to a degree we cannot
comprehend, so much so that we as a nation have spent 150 years in
an assault on its whole, trying to reduce it to bits that fit our
grasp. Grassland is indivisible. It endures."