Plains sense

Frank and Deborah Popper's 'Buffalo Commons' is creeping toward reality

  • BULL MARKET: Bison on the Cheyenne River Reservation inSouth Dakota

    Peter Miller, from his 1996 book "People of the GreatPlains," Silver Print Press
  • FORLORN: Closed post office in western SouthDakota

    Peter Carrels
  • RURAL EXODUS: South of Nekoma, North Dakota

    Wayne Gudmundson, from his book, with poet Michael Moos, "ALong Way to See: Images and Voices of North Dakota"
  • Frontier counties in the Great Plains in 1997

    Diane Sylvain

When the county-by-county census data for the year 2000 are complete, analysis will reveal bad news for the Great Plains: substantial population loss in rural counties, an aging demographic and declining fertility rates.

Deaths vastly exceed births, schools are closing, their contents auctioned, and families are selling the farm. While rural areas across the U.S. have grown overall, the Great Plains, along with parts of the Mississippi Delta and western Corn Belt, remains uniquely forlorn.

None of this grim news is really new. Rural Plains' counties peaked in 1920 and have lost over half a million people - a third of their population - since then. Remarkably, hardly anybody on the outside noticed, despite the recent quickening of the decline. The region is largely invisible - or was, until a pair of academics named Frank and Deborah Popper came on the scene a decade ago (HCN, 9/26/88, 12/16/91).

Since then, the Poppers have more or less been on a roll, like Wall Street's Motley Fools or analyst Henry Blodgett, who had the good fortune to predict the early rise of The Poppers are the Faith Popcorns of the Prairie. Not only did their dire prognostications materialize, they actually accelerated due to tanking commodities prices.

"We clearly hit a nerve through luck and common sense," says Frank Popper. "It didn't take a rocket scientist to figure out this region will continue to de-populate, age and face further economic declines."

Nor did it take a rocket scientist to predict the reaction, which ranged from anger to rage. When the Poppers spoke in Plains towns in the early 1990s, police were often present to protect the couple. The nicest thing they were told in those days was: Go back to New Jersey and solve your state's problems.

Yet this summer, the amiable Poppers rode a manure spreader in a centennial parade down the Main Street of Gwinner, N.D. That the soft-palmed New Jersey academics would ever mount such a machine seems unlikely; that they would do so in a position of honor in a small town on the Great Plains seems nothing short of stupefying. It's been 13 years since the couple first pitched their idea of turning the ailing plains into a vast "Buffalo Commons," a venue for bison and prairie restoration, ecotourism and niche marketing of bison products. Since then, they have gone from being "East Coast academic Martians" (in the words of Frank) to being, well, almost local.

"The Poppers don't have horns any more," pronounces Jack Zalenski, editorial page editor of North Dakota's Fargo Forum.

So pervasive is their influence that the term "Buffalo Commons" is now the name of a chamber music society, an enviro-novel, a furniture cabinet store in Oberlin, Kan., a road bypass in Oklahoma City, a birding safari group, a Web design firm, a University of North Dakota adult outreach program, a North Dakota medical heliport, and a North Dakota company specializing in heavy machinery, named by its owners with thumb-nosing irony, but now, significantly, out of business.

"We started off being very threatening," says Deborah Popper, the geographer and number-cruncher of the pair. "People thought we had power, that we were some sort of front for the government. One of the reasons attitudes are changing is that we really did serve some useful function in causing a discussion. People typically thanked us for giving them a wake-up call, even if they disagreed with everything else. Now we're getting invited back. This has been a really busy year."

The Buffalo Commons concept went from a poetic idea (an exalted way to end a paper on regional geographical decline) to an astoundingly publicized provocation to a useful land-use metaphor and back to a poetic idea, one that is haphazardly but undeniably creeping toward reality. Since the Poppers' proposal, buffalo numbers have increased exponentially, to the point where some 300,000 animals now live in North America, mostly on the Plains. Originally, the Poppers suggested a preserve of 130,000 square miles, nearly the size of Montana. While that hasn't happened, today one man alone - Ted Turner - runs bison over an acreage larger than Delaware, and other ranchers have followed suit (see story page 10).

After a few years of relative peace and obscurity in the mid-'90s, the Poppers are back, in full New Jersey regalia, spending lots of time on and talking about the Plains. "This concept has become an intellectual annuity for ourselves," jokes Frank Popper.

Like most of their triumphs over the years, the Poppers' Gwinner parade ride was tinged with ambivalence, complexity and some awkwardness. They came to town in part to watch a local play, a satire called "Professor Prank's Proposal, or Don't Let the Doctor Buffalo You," about a New Jersey professor who drugs the country-folk and then swindles them out of their land for his buffalo herd.

"We just poke fun," says schoolteacher and playwright Dolly Winger. "Out here, we never trust folks from out East."

Winger says that at first she was suspicious of the Poppers, but now agrees with their assessment of decline. "I grew up in a farmhouse north of here built in 1920," says Winger, 54. "Now you can't even tell it was ever there. Nobody goes any more. My father sold the farm to a bigger farm. It's like we never existed."

Meanwhile, there's a cafe in Gwinner (pop. 1,000) that sells buffalo meat. The town even served some up for the centennial picnic.

The Poppers took in the melodrama with good grace and a dose of academic distance. "It struck me as a nice instance of the grassroots cultural penetration of the Buffalo Commons idea," says Frank.

It was Deborah Popper's geographical research that showed huge chunks of the Plains as lacking large hospitals, interstates and nearby retail service centers, chunks that had lost more than half of their residents between 1930 and 1980, where poverty and median age significantly exceed national averages. Seventy-two percent of the Great Plains lost population between 1960 and 1990. Kansas has 6,000 ghost towns, some still warm.

It's Manifest Destiny in reverse.

In 1893, historian Frederick Jackson Turner both overstated and over-anticipated the closing of the American Frontier. He saw westward migration occurring in orderly yeoman-filled waves, first to the Mississippi River, then to the Rockies and on to California. But if you use Turner's definition of frontier - two people per square mile - all censuses after 1890 show the sparse frontier returning to the Plains. Thousands of disillusioned homesteaders picked up and left. Those who stayed either consolidated the land into larger farms or ranches, or eked out a substandard living.

Demographically, the frontier reversed itself early in the 20th century, making a U-turn east. Kansas has more frontier counties now than a hundred years ago. By 1998 population estimates, 35 of North Dakota's 53 counties meet the frontier definition. Forty-six of them have lost, rather than gained population. The only places that have grown surround metropolitan areas, where rural people are moving for jobs.

Over a third of the Plains' counties - 900,000 square miles - hold fewer than six people per square mile, and nearly half of those counties hold fewer than two people per square mile.

The frontier is not only surviving, it is also expanding at rates unprecedented since the Dust Bowl. If Turner thought taming the frontier helped define American values and character, what does it say about us that we have failed? Did Western communities ever really exist as separate and insulated from urban markets and corporate or federal capital?

Most Americans are so used to grumbling about the problems of growth that we are stunned, and not a little excited, to learn that a fifth of our interior looks post-apocalyptic. In a voyeuristic sort of way, the Great Plains just got interesting. Sparseness and abandonment now seem like a novelty. The Poppers have been doing the most American thing imaginable, turning a reversal into an opportunity: a clean slate for the next new myth.

An evolving metaphor

In Souris, N.D., just shy of the Canada border, no one is in at the Cenex gas station. A bulletin board advertises a "canola risk management meeting" and haircuts for $7. The post office, hardware store, grocery, and cafe all share the same low-slung aluminum-sided, red-roofed building. No one is there, either. This is Bottineau County, which had 17,295 people in 1910. It had 7,241 people, and dropping, in 2000. In the 1990s alone, 10 percent of the county either died or moved. Two counties to the West, Burke County lost 24.5 percent of its population in just a decade.

The change is mostly gradual, but the difference on the land and in the towns is huge, from four homesteading families per square mile, to mile after mile of marginal farmland owned by one aging family or efficiency-minded company. Driving north of Minot and the sustenance of a military installation, one sees increasingly empty roads, derelict farm machinery, tilting, gutted-out farm houses, some still with their hopeful Formica kitchens intact.

Some country roads see so little traffic that tufts of grass sprout in their asphalt center.

It's not that this land is empty; it's that it's post-industrial. Weeds have taken over the road-sides, piles of rusting sheet metal sit in fallow fields, and even the oil derricks have squeaked to a halt. This is the South Bronx of the prairie. To be redeemed, it also needs to be restored.

Ecologically, the Plains are in trouble. Only 40 percent of the northern mixed-grass prairie ecosystem remains, along with 25 percent of the southern mixed-grass prairie, according to Daniel Licht, author of Ecology and Economics in the Great Plains. Only 1 percent of prairie dogs' original habitat survives, and the black-footed ferret, which depends on the prairie dog, is arguably the most endangered mammal in North America. Some experts predict the Ogallala Aquifer will dry up in 20 years. Record amounts of pesticides flow onto the land and into rivers, and substantial soil loss continues despite conservation programs.

North Dakota is the state most tolerant of the Poppers and the Buffalo Commons idea, perhaps because it has suffered the region's most dramatic population losses and financial blows.

With both droughts and floods, the state was declared a federal disaster area in four of the last five years. By the year 2015, a fifth of that state's population will be over age 65. It is not at all hard to imagine bison herds taking over the neighborhood.

"Early on, we might have questioned the Buffalo Commons concept," recalled Zalenski of the Fargo Forum. "In fact, just a few years ago they (the Poppers) were greeted by a lynch-mob mentality. But as the process unfolded and we got into their research, you would have to be as dumb as a stump not to realize they were right on. It's more than just mythological nonsense about buffalo, it's the whole concept that embraces land use of all kinds and points out mistaken land uses."

Mythology aside, bison are, in fact, re-colonizing the Northern Plains. Frank Popper notes that North Dakota's state bank now lends for buffalo ranching ("the lending officer is nicknamed Buffalo Bob"), the extension office hands out booklets on buffalo, and the North Dakota Bison Association's processing plant turns 12,000 animals a year into sausages and steaks. "North Dakota is the leader," he says.

Unthinkable just several years ago, a recent report by the North Dakota state Labor Market Information Center applauded the Poppers' ideas and even suggested that the state consider moving toward a Buffalo Commons.

"The vilified Buffalo Commons idea could be turned on its head, applied in measured degrees, and provide new industry in areas of North Dakota ravaged by the rural exodus ..." said the report. "The Buffalo Commons could fit nicely into a plan to transform our rustic, barren landscape into a natural attraction."

If the Great Plains has evolved toward a clearer, more resigned understanding of its plight, the Poppers' vision, too, has evolved toward a softer, more humane proposal. The couple no longer speaks of federal buy-outs on the Plains, or of massive, communally owned preserves and herds.

"Our thinking became more nuanced as we talked to more people," says Deborah Popper. "Our initial insights were more sweeping. Now there's more room for different solutions."

Indeed, some would say their initial papers were almost nihilistic, positing a worst-case scenario of total community loss with only the occasional safari emerging from the darkness to watch the buffalo.

"We wouldn't do that sort of thing anymore," says Frank Popper. "We've become more responsible, more mature or something."

The Poppers say the Buffalo Commons is still more a metaphor than a prescription. If their language has changed, so has the substance of their concept. "We've learned over the years to be more sensitive and to write more carefully, avoiding words like "empty" and trying to qualify it when we say, 'Your ancestors made mistakes.' Now we say they were responding to the incentives of their time and doing the best they could."

Moreover, their Buffalo Commons no longer resembles a government-run human relocation scheme, where buffalo totally replace people. "We now see the federal government as unreliable," says Frank Popper, not to mention a political liability in rural America. "Now," he says, "we see the effort as largely taken up by private groups, NGOs, states, provinces and tribal groups with room for all sorts of possibilities."

"We're not against keeping people on family farms," reasons Deborah Popper. "It's just that it's so difficult for the Plains to maintain a population base. What's attracting people to it? Where's the jobs? Young people can't afford to go into farming even if they wanted to, and most don't."

"It's a done deal"

While a few remaining detractors tire of what they see as the Popper's we-told-you-so smuggery, most everyone admits they are impressed by the concept's Velcro-like properties. Still, it's one thing to point out the now-obvious problems of the region and another to espouse a large-scale ecological solution. The Poppers have come a long way since the days when police patrolled their speaking engagements, but no, the Great Plains is not yet wholly ready to offer up its farms and ranches to a giant buffalo range.

Frank Popper, through sheer logic, humor and persuasion, keeps the heat on. He speaks with a casual matter-of-factness about a vague, inevitable future in bison.

Last April, he went to Lincoln, Neb., as a guest of the Center for Great Plains Studies, appearing amid the Wranglers and cowboy boots in a purple button-down shirt and chinos. Before addressing a Popper-friendly conference on bison, he spoke to a graduate-level range management course at the University of Nebraska. This is a challenging group, full of plaid shirts, farm-machinery baseball caps and work boots. A sign above the water fountain outside the third-floor classroom reads: "Please do not spit tobacco in the sink."

Frank Popper speaks fast and gets to the point quickly. "I'm delighted to still talk about the Buffalo Commons, because intellectually, it's a done deal. The idea has serious legs, and it's going to happen as far as we are concerned. The question is how."

Predictably, some postures shift, as people seem to ask, Who does this guy think he is? "The people here will find their own solutions," retorts one woman."

Popper: "Yes, the people are resilient and stalwart" - he doesn't say "blah blah blah" but you can tell he's heard this argument many times before - "but for many, the solution seems to be in buffalo. The Plains' resourcefulness actually fits this. They are going to buffalo. It's already happening."

Another student, so blond and thin she looks born of wheat: "If there aren't farmers and ranchers here, we'll have to import food."

Popper's response is typically to the point: "We already do. To say we're America and we produce food doesn't cut it anymore. I hate to say it, but it's true. It played in 1940, 1950, 1970, but it doesn't play anymore. I have complete sympathy that there's value in this way of life. The Buffalo Commons is an out-of-the-box attempt to preserve those values."

When someone argues that the Plains are a great place to live, that people are bound to come and start new businesses, Popper lays out more blunt news:

"Americans, on the whole, don't see the Great Plains as a very attractive place. They will go to places with trout streams and mountains. They don't go to western Kansas. I don't see it happening."

The students look glum. These are the ones who didn't go off to San Jose or choose a major in liberal arts, business or foreign affairs. They are putting years and dollars into being Nebraska's next food producers. Buffalo burgers are not what they have in mind.

Down the hall, Popper stops in at an ag sciences faculty lunch discussion. He starts out by speaking of the region's "permanent" instability.

"The Plains were settled less securely than governments or societies are willing to admit. There's been a slow population leak here for a hundred years," he says. The Great Plains have suffered repeated large economic and social collapses since European settlement, beginning in the 1880s with the heartbreaking inadequacies of the 160-acre homestead policy, followed by the 1930s drought and depression, and now the agricultural collapses of the 1980s and '90s. Such regional decline is not a historical singularity, notes Popper. It happened, for instance, in post-Erie Canal New England after 1830, which rebounded to become a conservation stronghold.

His listeners are as dismissive as their students, but more articulate.

"What you would call de-population I would call production-rate efficiency," says James Specht, a professor of agronomy.

Popper's not buying. "The contradictions in the land of increased efficiency stick out like a sore thumb. What about declining water tables, dying towns?"

Specht: "You can only have so many Westins and so many tourists looking at so many bison."

Popper shrugs. These are details for others to work out. A planner by discipline, Popper is more interested in big-picture trends, projections and possibilities. "Plan A has not worked. It's time to look at Plan B."

Beyond bison

The Indians, ranchers, humanists and scientists at Lincoln's bison conference see a future for the region not in continued corporatization but in restoration, both of native ecosystems and of native cultures. The Poppers are icons in this crowd, but the two-day conference agenda also illustrates how far beyond the Poppers the restoration vision has traveled.

"In the '80s, the Poppers basically hit all these white people on the head with a two-by-four with this idea," says geographer and Rosebud Sioux member Edward Valandra. "Way back when, they were onto something really powerful that resonated really well with us. When I first heard them, I thought maybe the ghost dancers' prophecy of the returning buffalo might be coming true."

Several years ago, Valandra sought out the best place to run a large, inter-tribal bison herd. He looked at such county indicators as populations' average ages, degree of soil erosion, long-term population loss, and low agriculture income, and he ultimately proposed a 2.2 million-acre zone in the Bad River area of southwestern South Dakota.

Ironically, Ted Turner recently bought a 60,000-acre ranch in that exact spot. "I would love to think that Ted Turner read my study," says Valandra. "He zeroed right in."

Does Valandra's bison vision have room for Ted Turner? Here Valandra is circumspect. "I think bison restoration has room for a lot of people. Turner is a man of many contradictions. Remember, he owns the Atlanta Braves, the team with the tomahawk chop."

Although regional tribes have not acted on Valandra's proposal, their own herds are growing. The InterTribal Bison Cooperative supports 50 tribes and 10,000 bison, a six-fold increase since 1992. The Gros Ventre and Assiniboine tribes, for example, run a herd of about 600 bison on Montana's Fort Belknap reservation. The animals are used for meat, trophy hunts and ceremonial and educational purposes. The same tribes are reintroducing black-footed ferrets on the bison range in cooperation with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (HCN, 12/8/97).

The Nebraska bison-fest also yields the Poppers' most thoughtful critics, and shows how complicated the nitty-gritty of ecological restoration really is. Many bison advocates and scientists bemoan the rise of domesticated bison herds.

Treating bison as managed livestock, rather than as free-roaming and free-breeding herds, can jeopardize both genetic health and the condition of the range. Confined bison may overgraze a patch of grass just as hard as cattle (HCN, 6/8/98). Moreover, nearly all the counties the Poppers identified as distressed and, therefore, likely bison-range candidates, lie within the same short-grass ecosystem type. Setting those counties aside for restoration wouldn't accomplish much in terms of preserving diverse prairie ecosystems, according to Plains economist Licht.

In other words, bison may be sexy, but they're not necessarily a magic bullet for saving the Plains. Mark Guizlo, an environmental historian at Montana State University, for example, thinks that a better future on the Plains - bison or no bison - is impossible without first enacting fundamental changes in agriculture policies. He'd like to see a shift from corporate domination toward a more culturally and environmentally sustainable model.

And although The Nature Conservancy runs over 3,000 head of bison on 80,000 acres of grassland, working with cows can be just as effective a tool for conservation.

"As it is, we do way more prairie conservation with cattle people than with bison people," says Al Steuter, director of science and stewardship for The Nature Conservancy's Nebraska office. "Given land ownership patterns and conservation priorities, there are places where cattle is a more appropriate tool. Our best strategy is to give the people who own the land now - cattle people - tools and incentives they need to conserve public values. The Poppers' vision is culturally and aesthetically driven, but it's not necessarily scientifically driven, and it's not necessarily best for conservation, at least not in the near future."

The Poppers are clearly thrilled these discussions are on the table. As Frank Popper points out, planners are used to dealing with issues of growth, but not with issues of decline. They talk about smart growth, never about smart atrophy, or even smart stability. Which is why the Poppers are excited about their next project, working with the state extension agent in Kansas to help compile data on such variables as natural and human capital - the good stats rather than the grim ones.

In places like Nebraska, North Dakota and Kansas, people are wrestling with fundamental change. Borrowing from Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, Frank Popper calls it the bargaining phase of the multiple stages of grief, from denial on to acceptance.

"Assuming that people are paying attention at all, lots of Plains places and people are still in denial or anger," he says. "But I'd have to say that a good chunk of the Plains is in bargaining ... I do think widespread acceptance (of a Buffalo Commons) is just a matter of time, however long that turns out to be. Personally, I expect to live to see it. But I come from long-lived stock."

Florence Williams, a former HCN staffer, freelances from Helena, Mont.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- Making buffalo pay

- A Buffalo Commons bibliography

You can contact ...

  • Great Plains Restoration Council, Box 46216, Denver, CO 80201, 303/573-6569,
  • InterTribal Bison Cooperative, 124 E. St. Joseph, Rapid City, SD 57701 (605/394-9730);
  • Sam Hurst, Wild Idea Buffalo Company, 605-721-9250.

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