Sunday, November 8, 2009

Buffalo Commons ...

As promised (or threatened) yesterday, here are a couple of key paragraphs from the infamous "Buffalo Commons" article by Frank and Deborah Popper. It's easy to see how inflammatory this was. Looking at it, though, it's pretty clear to me that the Poppers' predictions aren't likely to come true ... and that, on a broad scale, at least, they probably shouldn't.

Still, the article points out that there are issues that we as Montanans will certainly have to face. For me, the biggest one is the changing cultural landscape of the northern plains -- many of the towns are dying, and it's harder and harder to keep young people from leaving. At the same time, farms and ranches continue to consolidate, and more and more of them become corporate rather than family endeavors. Someone needs to figure out how to solve those problems, or the culture of the northern plains as we know it will cease to exist someday ... and that will be terribly sad.
We believe that despite history's warnings and environmentalists' proposals, much of the Plains will inexorably suffer near-total desertion over the next generation. It will come slowly to most places, quickly to some; parts of Montana, New Mexico, South Dakota, and Texas, especially those away from the interstates, strike us as likely candidates for rapid depopulation. The overall desertion will largely run its course. At that point, the only way to keep the Plains from turning into an utter wasteland, an American Empty Quarter, will be for the federal government to step in and buy the land -- in short, to deprivatize it.


The federal government's commanding task on the Plains for the next century will be to recreate the nineteenth century, to reestablish what we would call the Buffalo Commons. More and more previously private land will be acquired to form the commons. In many areas, the distinctions between the present national parks, grasslands, grazing lands, wildlife refuges, forests, Indian lands, and their state counterparts will largely dissolve. The small cities of the Plains will amount to urban islands in a shortgrass sea. The Buffalo Commons will become the world's largest historic preservation project, the ultimate national park. Most of the Great Plains will become what all of the United States once was -- a vast land mass, largely empty and unexploited.


  1. Sounds like THEY are exploiting it...
    Yes, it IS inflammatory, and for that reason I'm not going to jump in.

    Why do they never suggest a CockRoach Commons in New York City, or an Alligator Commons in Florida?

  2. Despite living in Bozeman ( a "city" by Montana Standards), I too am offended by this. Perhaps it is from the farmer grandmothers in me. And actually, I'd challenge the assumption that small towns are going to die. I'd rather raise my children in a small town, with small schools, than in Bozeman. It's a sticking point in my relationsihp- I don't want my kids to go to Bozeman High with it's 1800 students. Malta? Lewistown? Havre? Heck yes!

  3. Heh ... I like the "Cockroach Commons" idea! And you've given me one more reason to explain why I love living in Montana, and really can't stand New York City. :)

    Courtney, I have two words for you: Willow Creek! Seriously.

    And I don't necessarily think all the small towns are going to die ... the places that you listed -- the county seats -- will still be around in some form. It's the littler towns that I fear are doomed. Up in Phillips County, for example, I think Malta will still be there a generation or two from now ... but places like Dodson, Saco, and Whitewater might very well be gone. Makes me pretty sad.