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Know the West

Thanks, Frank and Deborah Popper, for pointing the way

  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.

Funny thing, though: Parts of the Great Plains are evolving into a mid-19th century wilderness dominated by grasslands and bison.

The 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 terrain.

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 Manitoba.

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.

The USDA’s 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."

Pete Letheby is a newspaper editor and columnist in Grand Island, Neb. He wrote this essay for Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org).