Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Where the Buffalo Roam

The Buffalo Commons is a proposal to create a humongous buffalo range by returning 139,000 square miles of the drier portion of the Great Plains to prairie, and giving it over to the buffalo which once lived in large numbers there. The proposal would affect the following states, Montana, Colorado, Wyoming, Oklahoma, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska, and Kansas.

The proposal was the brainstorm of Frank and Deborah Popper, a pair of New Jersey urban planners.  They published an essay in 1987 which pronounced that the current use of the drier parts of the plains is not sustainable, being the consequence of the historical ignoring of the ecological realities of the eara.  Since it was an idea advocated by a pair of Easterners, this Buffalo Commons idea stirred up opposition to the Buffalo Commons during the 1990s.  The original proposal had this change in land use primarily to federal intervention, you see.

Now Westerners tend to be suspicious about Federal land use policies, given that in the Western states, there are larger percentages of total state area owned or controlled by the Federal government than is the case with Eastern states.  See map below; the red areas within each state represent the percentage of total state land that is federally owned:

The Poppers proposed that an area of native grassland, of perhaps 10 or 20 million acres in size, be reserved through voluntary contracts between the Forest Service and thefarmers and ranchers, in which owners would be paid the value of what they would have cultivated over the next 15 years. In the meantime, they would be required to plant and reestablish native prairie grasses, according to a Forest Service-approved program. At the end of the period, the Forest Service would purchase their holdings, while granting owners a 40-acre  homestead.  The original proposal saw the federal government as playing a major role in this transformation.

Why the controversy?  Well, the original proposal seemed to be less optional.  And it also flew in the face of the Frontier Ethos, which is: leave me alone, don't fence me in.

When Frederick Jackson Turner wrote about "the significance of the frontier" was that prior to about 1890 there was unlimited free land in this zone in the frontier zone available, and thus offered a psychological sense of unlimited  opportunity. This, in turn, had many consequences such as optimism, future orientation, shedding of restraints due to land scarcity, and wastefulness of natural resources.  Some, you see, were good, some bad.

But who tended to settle the frontier?  A large percentage were people who fitted in less well in the settled East.  The West became an evocative place; a region where there was a greater relaxation from the rules.  (The concept of HOAs is less a Western notion.)  And these Westerners felt threatened, rightly so, by a greater Federal role in their region.  After all, this is what their parents tried to get away from.

I can understand that.  TVA was and can be fairly intrusive in Tennessee; and some residents feel that TVA exercised a lot of muscle in getting their way.  Governmental agencies are like the elephant in the bedroom.  They can affect your sex life.

And the idea of planned development just did not set well with people who prefer to let things happen.  And there is a certain suspicion and anxiety regarding loss of autonomy from the East.  After all, who wants to be dictated to by New York?


  1. The problem is, some sections of the west are being poorly utilized. Can we afford the luxury of leting it go to seed? Maybe turning it over to nature is a good means of reclaiming it.

  2. Isn't the underpopulated West out of the usual territory for urban planners?

  3. I would have thought Missouri was more than what the map shows. We have a lot of national park area.

  4. A lot of the western states are subsumed as national forests, wilderness areas, and so forth. God knows about Nevada and the legendary Area 51.