Frank Popper and his wife, Deborah, originated the idea of the “Buffalo Commons” — a way for the Great Plains to adapt to a likely future of long-term decline — lo, one score and six years ago.
The Eastern professors meant to draw attention to demographic, economic and ecological forces already at work. Decline could be guided in rather than allowed to crash land. They have tweaked the idea ever since, even as those forces have accelerated and some people and organizations have come to share their understanding.
The Great Plains has always been a precarious place for human beings and their endeavors. Although the new energy boom gives economic hope, the demise of the Ogallala Aquifer, the underground sea without which most Plains farming would be impossible, continues to be drawn down.
Populations are still in flux, despite increases in the usual population centers — such as Oklahoma City. Little towns keep drying up.
So a recent study, “The Rise of the Great Plains: Regional Opportunity in the 21st Century,” by Joel Kotkin and others sponsored by the Office of the President of Texas Tech University, seemed to be a breath of fresh prairie air. It was pretty glowing, actually.
In the executive summary, the study authors, unfortunately, went back to the 1980s and '90s — and the Poppers and the negativity surrounding their initial work — for a rhetorical springboard.
The study can be downloaded here: gis.ttu.edu/center/GreatPlains/index.php. Its high points were explored in this space on July 6; On July 20, I reported the snark directed toward the Poppers in the executive summary — including a repeat of their early but long-discarded vision of the Buffalo Commons as a “national park.”
Now, at my request, Frank Popper, who teaches land use planning at Rutgers and Princeton, responds, with a little snark of his own, to some of the study's particulars. Download the study to follow his references.
The report seriously overstates a plausible but not exactly slam-dunk case. The thumb on the scale is often quite obvious.
1. Some of the overstatement comes from calling all of the 10 (or sometimes 13) states Great Plains states when only parts of the 10 states, as the report's maps show, are actually in the Great Plains. So, for instance, the report argues that the overall population of the Plains states is growing, which it is. On the other hand, the map on p. 89 clearly shows that it isn't growing in most of the Plains parts of the states.