In 1987 Deborah and Frank Popper, New Jersey–based scholars, published an article on the history and environment of the Great Plains. They saw government homestead and railroad settlement policies as having promoted a settlement of the Plains that was far more dense than the resources of the area could support. Droughts of the 1890s and the Dust Bowl years of the 1930s had uprooted a high proportion of Plains residents, and subsequent farm consolidation and mechanization of agriculture led to reduced numbers of farmers and a decline in the small towns that relied on them. The Poppers noted that maintenance of the current population involved depletion of the waters and soils of the Plains and required subsidization of agriculture. They suggested a government-run environmental restoration project that would relocate inhabitants, replant the grasses, restock native animals, and make large sections of the Plains a "buffalo commons."
The buffalo commons proposal reinforced the image of the area between the Missouri River and the Front Range of the Rockies as an "Empty Quarter" marked by lack of population; vast, dry, and treeless distances; and marginal economic enterprises. With the removal of people and the reintroduction of native fauna and flora, the Plains would revert to a primeval prairie, a new Eden attractive to romantic environmentalists.
The Popper proposal has met with intense criticism from many quarters. Principal criticism has focused on deprivatization, an increased governmental role, and failure of the proponents to understand the natural economic adjustments that allow Plains resources to be more efficiently utilized by fewer people. The proposals also ignore the noneconomic factors that hold Plains communities together, including churches, coffee shops, reading groups, and service clubs, as well as the residents' attachment to the region. While the solution of the federalized buffalo commons has been largely rejected, the ideas have been attempted on a small scale. The Houche Ranch in South Dakota and Ted Turner at his Spanish Peaks Ranch near Bozeman, Montana, among others, have attempted to re-create a free buffalo range.
Theodore B. Pedeliski University of North Dakota
Popper, Deborah E., and Frank J. Popper. "Great Plains: From Dust to Dust." Planning 53 (1987): 12-18.
Popper, Deborah E., Frank J. Popper, Paul Roebuck, Karen J. Debres, and Bret Wallach. "The Buffalo Commons Debate." Focus 43 (1993): 16-27.