Buffalo Commons Revisited | VideoCliff Naylor | 2/14/2013
Oil development because of hydrolytic fracturing, has prompted thousands of people to migrate to the northern plains for employment in the energy industry. Despite a dramatic spike in population in North Dakota and Montana, the Poppers are still standing by their Buffalo Commons theory.
The image of a wide open barren prairie with pockets of buffalo herds is what people imagined Frank and Deborah Popper were proposing when they published their essay "The Great Plains: From Dust to Dust." Midwesterners bristled at the idea that vast areas of the Great Plains would be returned to native prairie, because the depopulation rural areas of the plains states was inevitable.
Professor Deborah Popper says the Buffalo Commons theory has been misunderstood. "The essay was both evocative and provocative, it leaves lots of images that capture the imagination, but set the imagination off in different directions, so people hear different things."
The Poppers never proposed that the entire Great Plains be returned to an open range where buffalo would roam as they once did in the 1800s, but that`s what some people heard.
Professor Frank Popper says they have been criticized for their controversial land use proposal by many people in the Midwest. "We got used to the idea that some people were not going to like what we were saying."
Now, 25 years after the Buffalo Commons essay was published, the Poppers are standing by their theory despite positive population shifts in plains states due to energy development.
"It`s true we didn`t anticipate the oil and certainly nobody in North Dakota did either. But still, even now, in the middle of the boom, and the booms continuing, most rural North Dakota counties or a near majority of them certainly keep losing population."
The two geography and land use planners concede they did miscalculate how portions of the plains would be converted to native prairie. Back in 1987, they envisioned the Federal Government would play a greater role in the establishment of a Buffalo Commons on the driest and least productive areas of the Midwest.
Frank says areas outside of the Bakken Formation continue to see substantial depopulation trends. "Places like Nebraska, places like Kansas, places like Oklahoma. That pattern without the boom is the pattern we`ve been talking about all along where rural areas keep losing population."
Even though Frank and Deborah believe their Buffalo Commons theory continues to come true, Frank says they don`t envision anyone being forced to leave the Great Plains so bison can once again roam free.
"Nobody on the Great Plains should be worried about anybody taking their land for any version of the Buffalo Commons."
There once were over 400 million acres of wild prairie grasslands in the central part of North America with a peak population of bison estimated in the hundreds of millions. The Poppers` Buffalo Commons theory would convert no more than 30 percent of the driest and most unproductive land in the Great Plains back to native prairie.