Saturday, November 7, 2009

Big Open ...

At an academic conference in Missoula back in 1987, a man named Robert Scott presented a paper that inaugurated a controversy that's still simmering. The paper, titled "Saving the Big Open: The Case for a Great Plains Wildlife Range," proposed intentionally depopulating much of eastern Montana and turning it into a wildlife preserve called the Big Open. The notion garnered more attention that fall when Frank and Deborah Popper published an article called "The Great Plains: From Dust to Dust," that expanded the idea to other states while announcing that the depopulation was inevitable. In the piece, the Poppers stated that the initial settlement of the area was the "largest, longest-running agricultural and environmental miscalculation in American history."

It was, of course, a difficult statement for many to hear. I had (and still have) mixed thoughts about it all, because I love exploring that country and its towns and its cultural landscape ... but at the same time, I know that I'm watching much of it fade away forever. If I were in charge of tackling the issue, I honestly have no idea what I'd do.

I'll post a more detailed quote from the Poppers' proposal tomorrow, but for today here's a paragraph from the beginning of the piece -- a description of the Plains as planners see it.
The Great Plains are America's steppes. They have the nation's hottest summers and coldest winters, greatest temperature swings, worst hail and locusts and range fires, fiercest droughts and blizzards, and therefore its shortest growing season. The Plains are the land of the Big Sky and the Dust Bowl, one-room schoolhouses and settler homesteads, straight-line interstates and custom combines, prairie dogs and antelope and buffalo. The oceans-of-grass vistas of the Plains offer enormous horizons, billowy clouds, and somber-serene beauty.


  1. Talk about stirring up some comments!

    I won't say all the things I wish I could, because a comment box isn't the place to do that, but there are a couple of things to consider.

    Much of this country's food is produced in this empty prairie. As I understand, they aren't just talking about Montana prairie, but extending it all the way south toward Oklahoma and eastward through Nebraska.

    Those of us who DO live in the prairie, are conservationalists by token of what we do for a living. If we didn't care for the land, it wouldn't sustain us...a symbiotic relationship.

    I'd be interested to see where Scott and the Poppers live. Most people who are supporters of taking the land back to nature are not living there, nor would they be interested in donating their property to such a conservatory cause.

  2. I almost pulled this weekend's posts from the queue, but I didn't want to offend ... but I know I shouldn't start avoiding topics, and I figured by now that you'd know how much I love eastern Montana and its history and people.

    And you definitely don't have to worry about me ... I agree with you on pretty much all counts. As I said in today's post, I think the real issue is to figure out how to preserve the region's small towns and family farms. I would really, really hate to see those things disappear -- but I worry that, at least in some respects, that's the way the world's heading.

    And your comment made me curious, so I looked up Scott and the Poppers on the web. Scott was in Missoula back in the 80s, but at least as far as I could tell he seems to have disappeared. As for the Poppers -- they're in New Jersey. I wonder how much time they've actually ever spent out here ...

  3. No! I didn't think you were supporting that train of thought....and it's a topic (and controversy) that is worth addressing, if for no other reason than to give rural towns and lifestyles a way to communicate to the rest of the world that we do indeed exist and intend to stay. (That's a really long get the idea.)

    Thank you for looking up the authors of those papers! That IS interesting, isn't it? I always think that if I went to, say, New Jersey and started suggesting that the people there leave their homes and return the land to the way it was before civilization hit, it would be greeted with complete unbelief and anger. Yet that's exactly what they propose for 5th and 6th generation families here.

    I think we've done our children a disservice by indicating to them that they should go to college and leave agriculture and small towns behind. We need them to go to college and come back, because it really is a lifestyle worth sustaining into the next 100 years!

    What a stimulating topic, for your blog. I'm curious to see if anyone else will comment. Now that I'm done with my diatribe....

  4. Once again, I agree with pretty much all of what you said! There are some really tough issues ahead, though, and you've hit on a couple of the biggest ones ... our country needs to figure out a way for family-sized farms to stay economically viable, and we need to figure out how to make rural America a more appealing place for young adults who are just starting out.

    That last one is terribly important, and terribly difficult. Maybe technology is the future hope there ... since it means that many folks can live where they choose and still use the internet to be connected to their jobs.

    And as for comments ... I think you have a lot more readers than I do, but I'm sure you've noticed this, too: the Blogger comment system is a little daunting for people who aren't online much. I've had several people tell me in recent weeks that they wanted to comment on my blog but couldn't figure out how! We still have a ways to go before becoming a country that's fully technologically literate.