Articles on the Great Plains
Published December 1, 1989 | December 1989 issue
Back to the buffalo: the economic future of the Great Plains
At the center of America, between the Rockies and the tall-grass prairies of the Midwest and South, lies the shortgrass expanse of the Great Plains. The Plains extend over large parts of 10 states, including much of the Ninth Federal Reserve District's states of the Dakotas and Montana. The Plains are endlessly windswept, nearly treeless and semiarid, and get less than 20 inches of rain a year.
The country is rolling-to-flat in the north, flat in the south and has occasional buttes. It is lightly populated: a dusty town with a gas station, store and home is sometimes 50 or more unpaved miles from its nearest neighbor, another three-building settlement amid the sagebrush.
During America's pioneer days and again during the Great Depression, the Plains were a national concern. But by 1952, in The Great Frontier, the Plains' finest historian, Walter Prescott Webb, described them as the least-known, most fateful part of the United States.
That description applies today. We believe that over the next generation, the most rural parts of the Plains will lose many, perhaps almost all of their people. Then a new use for the suddenly-empty Plains will emerge, one that is in fact so old that it predates the American presence.
Many Plains people feel cut off from and unappreciated by the rest of the country. They consider the Plains a colony, resent urban outsiders, and dislike the way surrounding Denver, Houston and Minneapolis appear to combine with distant corporations and the federal government to exploit it.
In many respects the Plains lack a coherent sense of self. No state is entirely in the Plains. No newspaper is the voice of the Plains in the way that, for example, the Atlanta Constitution has been the voice of the South. The Census does not recognize the Plains as a region.
Within Plains states, most political, economic and intellectual power lies outside the Plains. Only two Plains states have their largest city in the Plains: Billings, Mont., and Casper, Wyo. Only three Plains state capitals are in the Plains: Cheyenne, Wyo.; Bismarck, N.D.; and Pierre, S.D. No Plains state has its flagship state university in the Plains.
Most Plains farm, ranch, energy, and minerals economies are now in depression or near-depression. Nearly half the counties in Plains North Dakota, for example, have a per capita building-construction investment of under $50 a year; in effect, next to no building is going on there. The nearly Plainswide droughts and savings and loan collapses of 1988 and 1989 cannot but impede such places' recovery.
It is difficult to predict the future course of the Plains' ordeal. The most likely possibility is a continuation of trends that go back to the 1920s or in some places even the 1890s: a long-term, painful draining and depopulation. A few cities on the Plains—the Lubbocks and Cheyennes—will hold steady as self-contained enclaves that provide services. Towns near Interstates and other highway systems will also be able to weather the storm. So will those where traditional agriculture, mining, or energy development remain economically workable. None of these places will go into the Buffalo Commons.
Large parts of the Plains will continue, for example, as the nation's prime source of wheat. But many small towns that depend on extracting other low-priced natural resources will empty, wither, die. The global economy has turned against them. They cannot hold their young people. They cannot attract manufacturing because they are too far from major markets, offer too small or unskilled a labor force. Nor can they lure those seeking to move to an Arcadian setting. The frequent harshness of landscape, climate and economy has always meant that the region chooses its own; now there will be no one left to choose. Much of the rural Plains will be virtually deserted.
Little stands in the way of this outcome. New, now unknowable minerals or energy sources may be discovered. New crops may be developed. But most conceivable replacement crops for the Plains do not exist yet or are more economically produced elsewhere. For some of the Plains, tourism and recreation could be plausible options. Yet tourism and recreation cannot offer much. Farmers cannot tap the market, and most ranchers are unwilling to pamper demanding city customers.
The Buffalo Commons
Our plan for the Plains—apparently notorious, but also misunderstood—is to restore large chunks of Plains land to their pre-white condition; to recover the commons the settlers found in the 19th century. In short, the plan calls for deprivatizing much of the Plains: fences would come down, domestic animals would be removed and game animals stocked. We call our idea the Buffalo Commons.
Similar proposals have surfaced recently. One calls for 15,000 square miles of eastern Montana to be converted to an East African-style game preserve named the Big Open. In 1987, in response to that proposal, the mayor of Jordan, Mont., located in the middle of the Big Open, told an Institute of the Rockies conference in Missoula that if the idea became serious, "You may have a revolution on your hands."
But we believe that despite history's warnings, environmentalists' proposals, and local and state economic development efforts, much of the rural Plains will suffer near-total desertion over the next generation. It will come slowly to most places, quickly to some; parts of the Dakotas, Montana and Texas strike us as likely candidates for rapid depopulation.
Only after the desertion has run its course will the federal government step in to buy back the Plains, to deprivatize. The Big Open and similar proposals, acknowledging that the nation is losing the environmental war on the Plains, hope for a planned, orderly, relatively small-scale retreat; we foresee a rout the government will not stem.
Deprivatization, when it occurs 20-30 years from now, will have two thrusts, one for people, the other for land. On the people side, the government will negotiate buy-backs from the few remaining landowners and assume responsibility for easing the transition of people forced off the Plains.
On the land side, the government will take the newly emptied Plains and tear down the fences, replant the shortgrass and restock the animals, including many buffalo. It will be at least 20 to 30 years before the vegetation and wildlife reassert themselves in semiarid Plains settings, where land changes so slowly that century-old wagon-trail ruts are still visible.
There may be competing uses for the land. In South Dakota, several Sioux tribes are bringing suit for 11,000 square miles, including much of the Black Hills. The government might settle these and other claims by giving the tribes chunks of the new commons or money to buy them.
These possible settlements suggest that the federal government's task on the Plains for the 21st century will be to recreate the 19th century: to reestablish the Buffalo Commons.
In many parts of the Commons, the distinctions between present national parks, grasslands, grazing lands, wildlife refuges, forests and Indian lands will largely dissolve. The small cities of the Plains will be urban outposts scattered across a frontier much bigger than today's, cement islands in the shortgrass sea of the Commons. It will be the world's largest historic preservation project, the ultimate national park. Much of the Great Plains will become what all of America once was.
On both the land and people sides, the creation of the Buffalo Commons will represent a substantial administrative undertaking. The federal government may have to create an agency with a Plainswide mandate. The nation will probably need a regional agency like the Tennessee Valley Authority or the Appalachian Regional Commission, but with much more sweeping powers.
In our vision, the government will deliberately make much of America's mid-section a vast land atavism, because the region will no longer be able to support land modernity. The government will, however belatedly, turn the social costs of space—the curse of the shortgrass immensity—to some social benefit.
Walter Prescott Webb published his masterwork "The Great Plains" in 1931, a few years before the Dust Bowl. He told how the 19th- and early 20th-century pioneers sought to adapt to a new region that was level, arid, treeless.
Elsewhere he wrote, their culture "stood on three legs—land, water and timber." In the Plains "not one but two of these legs were withdrawn—water and timber—and civilization was left on one leg—land. It is small wonder that it toppled over in temporary failure."
In our time, after two more defeats on the Plains, it may emerge that the failure is permanent. The Buffalo Commons will be the response.
Frank Popper is chair, Urban Studies Department, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, New Jersey. Deborah Epstein Popper is a graduate student in Rutgers' geography department. They are at work on a book about the Great Plains.
The vastness of the North Dakota prairie region can be deceptive to many. One can look over most of it and not detect the beauty of the region. It does not rise above you like the mountains do, or surround you like the forest, or break against you like the ocean. You must kneel to see the beauty of a prairie rose, watch closely to see the meadowlark singing its tune or walk among the grain fields to feel the ripening offspring of mother earth in your hand. In the evening the Aurora Borealis dance and the Milky Way makes you think a glowing city is just beyond. All these experiences are a part of the North Dakota prairie region.
The economy of the region is also somewhat misunderstood. The abundance and availability of a relatively inexpensive food source in our country has been taken for granted, and the importance of agriculture seems to have diminished. As long as the United States intends to remain self- sufficient in its food supply and use a portion of its production to help the trade balance, the need for the North Dakota prairie region will be recognized.
Increased agricultural production has been a major contributor to improving the standard of living in the United States. Agricultural exports are important to our national economy for reasons beyond the income and jobs they create. The narrowing of the trade deficit that results from exporting the surplus production helps strengthen the U.S. economy and lets us buy more imported goods at a lower price, again contributing to our standard of living.
The climatic conditions of the region (long days of sunshine and cool summer evenings) lend themselves to this abundance of production. It also takes a vast amount of land to sustain this production. These two factors, together with its people, are why the region is known as the "bread basket" of the world.
The North Dakota prairie region produces an abundance of crops: It ranks first in the nation in durum wheat, hard red spring wheat, flaxseed and sunflowers. Also, it is second in barley, pinto and navy bean production. In all, North Dakota produced about 230 million bushels of wheat in 1989, second only to Kansas.
As the world grows more closely related through technology, and as trade barriers are dismantled and we have more cooperation of governments, the importance of the North Dakota prairie region will become more relevant. These factors, as well as the sheer increase of world population, will put a greater demand on the region for food and energy production.
New gateways have been opened to North Dakota with the Canadian Free Trade Agreement. The state is no longer remote or on the northern boundary of the country, rather, it is now in the middle of a new continental economy. North Dakota is ready to reach out and take part in the change from a national to a worldwide economy, an adjustment that other regions of the nation have already accomplished.
The trend toward stability in the macroeconomic policies of the United States will benefit North Dakota. Unstable macroeconomic policy imposes substantial shock waves in the trading and pricing of raw products (agricultural and energy). The prices of these commodities tend to be more flexible in the short run than manufactured goods and services and will benefit from a stable U.S. economy.
The ultimate goal of this policy is to maintain long-run price stability and to take inflation and inflation expectations out of the economic decision-making process. This stability can have a substantial positive effect on the prospects for agriculture in the region because agriculture is highly capital-intensive and very dependent on exports for markets.
The North Dakota prairie region recognizes the changes in its economic environment and will use public policy, private initiative and the vastness of the region to blend the old competitiveness with new ideas to compete in the world economy.
Bruce Adams, a Minot, N.D., farmer, is on the Minneapolis Fed's board of directors and is chairman of the bank's Advisory Council on Small Business, Agriculture and Labor.