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As the Plains empty, minds change

By Jake Vail
Prairie Writers Circle

(Friday, March 19, 2004 -- CropChoice guest commentary) -- In hard times and with unlikely heroes, people of the Great Plains are warming to a home where the buffalo roam.

In the mid-1980s, studying cycles of boom and bust on the Great Plains, East Coast professors Frank and Deborah Popper were struck by the depopulation that started soon after settlement and continues to this day. In 1987 they boldly suggested filling large expanses with bison, creating a "Buffalo Commons." Public discussion, to put it politely, was heated.

The Poppers presented a Buffalo Commons update at a recent forum sponsored by the Kansas Center for Rural Initiatives. They were joined at Kansas State University by three Great Plains scholars and former Gov. Mike Hayden.

Results of the 2000 census, they said, showed that “decliner counties” on the Plains continue to decline. Stable counties remain stable. It seems the real changes now aren’t so much in the numbers as they are in what those who are staying are doing. Deborah Popper sees restoration-based development, where art, science and geography are coming together to “re-complexify the landscape” and redefine how we see the Great Plains.

Some of the changes in the last decade or so: An InterTribal Bison Cooperative of 51 Indian tribes operates in South Dakota , a state where there is also a proposed national grasslands wilderness area. Bison numbers are up to about 400,000, from about 150,000 in 1995. The once mostly bi-coastal Nature Conservancy is active on the Plains. Ted Turner’s bison ranches now comprise about 2 million acres, from Montana to New Mexico . Saskatchewan has created a 350-square-mile Grasslands National Park .

On the other hand, nearly a century and a half of agriculture on the arid Plains has degraded the land, and farm numbers have again dropped. Huge acreages are enrolled in the Conservation Reserve Program, which grows grass and saves soil, but disallows production. Agricultural subsidies only get bigger.

One hopeful development is a growing number of small, diverse, locally based farms, many owned by women. There is also a growing social diversity, as more Latinos settle on the Plains.

But the big surprise on the Buffalo Commons is how our interior landscapes are re-complexifying. Enter Mike Hayden.

When Hayden, now secretary of the Kansas Department of Wildlife and Parks, spoke, many couldn’t believe their ears. Frank Popper’s jaw dropped. The Republican from western Kansas admitted that when he was governor and the Poppers came west, “The Matt Dillon gunslinger in me came out blazing.” But, he continued, “I’m here to say 17 years later that I was wrong.”

Hayden noted that outmigration is greater than predicted. He worried openly about the limits of Kansas ’ Hugoton gas fields and the Ogallala aquifer. He stressed that community survival on the Great Plains is dependent on public infrastructure -- community colleges, for example. He criticized his home state for its few parks. Pointing out that Kansas has less public land than any other state, he said, with surety and sadness, “Lack of public land hurts us … We haven’t made enough of those investments.”

Hayden is a native of a small town in the Buffalo Commons , a graduate of Kansas State and Fort Hays State universities, and a longtime politician. He has seen western Kansas emptying out. He laments how, in his words, “We too often denigrate where we live.” The man who oversees our wildlife and parks has met the steely gaze of the bison, and seen something new in those eyes.

Described by Frank Popper as “an extreme exhibition of courage and poise,” Mike Hayden’s talk indicated, I think, a mythic shift occurring throughout the region. It verges on heroic.

It is exactly what the Great Plains require of us.


Jake Vail is an arborist, field biologist and member of the Prairie Writers Circle, a project of the Land Institute, where he once worked, in Salina, Kan. He lives near Lawrence, Kan.