Frank and Deborah Popper are real failures as straw men, which is to say: People really should quit setting them up as straw men, you know, as easy targets for weak arguments.
They're not that easy.
The Poppers, originators of the still sometimes (to some) irritating term “Buffalo Commons” as a metaphor for considering the long-term potential of the Great Plains — and more importantly, instigators of a generation of deliberate thinking and (gasp) planning for the region — took another hit in another recent rise of thinly veiled ire and righteous indignation.
The swipe this time came in “The Rise of the Great Plains: Regional Opportunity in the 21st Century,” a late-2012 study by Joel Kotkin and others sponsored by the Office of the President of Texas Tech University. It can be downloaded here. I hit its high points in this space on July 6, ignoring, for the moment, the sass directed toward the Poppers in the executive summary.
Now, all's fair in love, war and public policy analysis, but the study's characterization of the Poppers' work struck me as faulty and unfair. It bears repeating:
“In a call for a reversal of national policy that had for two centuries promoted growth, two New Jersey academics, Frank J. Popper and Deborah Popper, proposed that Washington accelerate the depopulation of the Plains and create ‘the ultimate national park.' They suggested the government return the land and communities to a ‘buffalo commons,' claiming that development of the Plains constitutes ‘the largest, longest-running agricultural and environmental miscalculation in American history.' They predicted the region will ‘become almost totally depopulated.'”
Academics taking swipes at academics can be amusing. Less amusing is taking something the Poppers wrote in 1987, and that they moderated 22 years ago, and propping it up, again, to knock it down.
Yes, the Poppers suggested then that landowners could voluntarily contract with the U.S. Forest Service, seed their land in grass, reintroduce bison, and eventually sell it the federal government. They did not issue a call for wholesale federal and state action.
They long ago acknowledged that a plethora of players would have to be involved in what they regarded as the inevitable decline of the region, which the government — among the many others — could ease by fostering social and market forces already at work, and that have accelerated since.
Yet the Poppers remain convenient for use as a rhetorical device.
Disclosure: I encountered some blowback to the Poppers' work in the early 1990s as an agriculture writer-editor in Texas; I studied their work and its developing legacy while working on a master's degree in history in 2001-2004; I met Frank Popper, who teaches land use planning at Rutgers and Princeton, at a program in Norman in early 2008; and he and I have been Facebook friends since December 2008 — which means mostly just that it's easy for me to get in contact with him.
So I did. Next week: his response to being called out by Texas Tech, and his critique of some of the study's findings.