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.
2. The report repeatedly talks about “growth” that is often off a low or unsatisfactory base. Examples are on pp. 66, 67 and 83. The Plains — or rather the 10 states — are growing faster than the national average in manufacturing or the overall economy. Yet both national averages are low enough to jeopardize an incumbent president. So what does the greater-than-average growth tell you? Not that much.
3. I enjoyed how the report uses Deborah, me and the Buffalo Commons as straws. We stopped talking about the BC as a “national park” in 1991 at the latest. Plenty of people have recognized the Buffalo Commons as an economic plan B for a region whose plan A has been failing for at least 130 years. That's why the region's population keeps falling, aging, etc., and is doing so even now as a boom is supposed to be going on there. That's why intensifying plan A, which is the main point of the report, seems peculiar. The report has other strawperson arguments ... but overall we're not the doomsters he says we are.
4. Some of the economic-growth material is odd. Much of the agricultural growth comes from producing corn for ethanol, whose true consumers are voters at the Iowa caucuses. If Kansas had a primary, its voters would be consumers too. Otherwise the production is often environmentally and economically harmful for the rest of us. A better economist than me could probably take apart the arguments for manufacturing growth, which smell fishy. The report doesn't exactly overdo attention on the enviroeffects of the Bakken oil boom either, especially the long-term ones.
5. On a personal note, around 1990 we got dissed/strawed a lot by the Center for the New West, a long-defunct corporate group based in Denver. The Texas Tech arguments are exactly the same, updated for the oil boom, ethanol and wind power. (BTW, we're for the latter because it fits the Buffalo Commons.) Somehow nearly all of the rural Plains keeps depopulating, aging, seeing its water table drop, etc.
OK, now I'm out. I thought the study's authors unfairly set the Poppers up to knock them down, and to give their work a kind of rhetorical hue it wouldn't have without them and 26 years of misunderstanding surrounding the Buffalo Commons idea. I thought they unnecessarily popped the Poppers. Now they've been popped back.