Is Kansas deprived when it comes to national parks? Is part of the state's landscape "typically stark" and best suited to serve as a home where the buffalo can roam? The Kansas City Star thinks so.
On Saturday the newspaper's editorial board said the time is ripe to bring to life a vision of a vast prairie-based national park where bison could roam much as they did 150 and more years ago. That vision was chuckled over and derided in some camps back in the late 1980s when two Rutgers University professors spoke of a "Buffalo Commons" that would encompass 139,000 square miles in the Great Plains states.
In their essay, The Great Plains: From Dust to Dust (attached below), Frank and Deborah Popper described much of the Great Plains bleakly.
Today the pressures on the Plains and their people are as ominous as at any time in American history. The region's farm, ranch, energy, and mineral economies are in deep depression. Many small towns are emptying and aging at an all-time high rate, and some are dying. The 1986 outmigration from West and Panhandle Texas, for instance, helped make the state a net exporter of population for the first time ever. Soil erosion is approaching Dust Bowl rates. Water shortages loom, especially atop the Ogallala Aquifer, a giant but essentially nonrenewable source of groundwater that nourishes more than 11 million acres of agriculture in Plains Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas. Important long-term climatic and technological trends do not look favorable. Government seems unable to react constructively to these trends, much less to anticipate them. In fact, the agricultural crisis is more serious on the Plains than in its more publicized neighbor region to the east, the Midwest's Corn Belt. Plains farmers and ranchers have always operated under conditions that their counterparts elsewhere would have found intolerable, and now they are worse. Farm bankruptcy and foreclosure rates are higher in the Plains than in other rural areas, as are many of the indices of resulting psychological stress: family violence, suicide, mental illness.
The future looked equally bleak, they said, noting that "the greenhouse effect" (remember, this was 1987), would bake the region even more than summers typically did, and that drought would become more regular. As groundwater sources become more limited, water prices would rise, and the land would become less and less valuable.
Our national experience in the Plains represents a spectacular variant on the tragedy of the commons, Garrett Hardin's famous ecological fable of how individual short-term economic rationality can lead to collective long-term environmental disaster. To the Indians and the early cattlemen, all of the Plains was a commons. The Homestead Act and the succeeding federal land subsidies for settlers amounted to attempts to privatize the Plains, to take them out of the federal domain and put them permanently in individual or corporate hands. Today's subsidies for crops, water, and grazing land amount to attempts to buttress the privatization. But private interests have proved unable to last for long on the Plains. Responding to nationally based market imperatives, they have overgrazed and overplowed the land and overdrawn the water. Responding to the usually increasing federal subsidies, they have overused the natural resources the subsidies provided. They never created a truly stable agriculture or found reliable conservation devices. In some places, private owners supplemented agriculture with inherently unstable energy and mineral development. Now that both the market imperatives and federal subsidies seem inadequate to keep the private interests on the Plains, these interests are, as Hardin would have predicted, rapidly degrading the land and leaving it, in many places perhaps forever. As a nation, we have never understood that the federally subsidized privatization that worked so well to settle most of the land west of the Appalachians is ineffective on the Plains. It leads to overproduction that then cannot be sustained under the Plains' difficult economic and climatic conditions.
What the Poppers suggested two decades ago, and what the Kansas City Star is now endorsing whole hog, is "to restore large parts of the Plains to their pre-white condition, to make them again the commons the settlers found in the nineteenth century. This approach, which would for the first time in U.S. history treat the Plains as a distinct region and recognize its unsuitability for agriculture, is being proposed with increasing frequency. Bret Wallach, a University of Oklahoma geographer and MacArthur fellow, has suggested that the Forest Service enter into voluntary contracts with Plains farmers and ranchers, paying them the full value of what they would cultivate during each of the next 15 years but requiring them not to cultivate it. During this time, they would instead follow a Forest Service-approved program of planting to reestablish the native shortgrasses. Afterwards, the service would, as part of the original contract, buy out their holdings except for a 40-acre homestead."
Citing sources, the Poppers said the commons they envisioned "could support 75,000 bison, 150,000 deer, 40,000 elk, 40,000 antelope."
Just last month bison did in fact return to Kansas, over at Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. While just more than a dozen of the shaggy animals were imported from Wind Cave National Park, if all goes well more bison could be on the way. The Buffalo Commons proposal, though, would make this herd look quaint.
Back in 1987, in a statement that would cause Sagebrush Rebels to rise up in mass, the Poppers wrote "(W)e 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."
While the Poppers' vision never really took hold back then, today the Kansas City newspaper, while citing the opposition of the day, believes the timing is ripe for a sprawling Buffalo Commons National Park that would be roughly half the size of Yellowstone National Park.
Farmers questioned why the Easterners (the Poppers) hadn’t suggested returning New York City to its wild roots. “The idea offended me,” said former Kansas Governor Mike Hayden, once a harsh Buffalo Commons critic.
But in the decades since, the population decline that spurred the plan not only continued, but accelerated. The already-stressed Ogallala Aquifer, the sole source of water for much of the region, has dried up faster than anticipated. Irrigated farmland has become dry, low-production farmland. Local economies of the high plains have dwindled.
Today, Buffalo Commons — far from threatening an iconic American lifestyle — may instead be a savior to the region. “How do we bring a vital economy to life in northwest Kansas?” Hayden asked recently from his office as Kansas Secretary of Wildlife and Parks. “The model we’re now following has failed. Buffalo Commons makes more sense every year.”
In Kansas, the primary focus would be in 16 northwestern counties. Since 1980, 12 of the counties have lost more than a quarter of their population, while the state population has increased by almost a fifth.
Creating a Buffalo Commons National Park, the editorial says, would save a depressed area of Kansas by giving value to a land that has lost much of it.
After decades of failing to attract business in northwestern Kansas, it’s clear the model has to go in a different direction. Nobody wants to believe it, but agriculture is only 3 percent of the gross state product of Kansas, and that proportion is falling.
Especially in northwest Kansas, a big, new idea is needed.
The biggest asset of the region is its heritage, the prairie. The romance of an open space to the horizon — home to grazing bison, antelope, elk and deer — is the American story in a nutshell. Land as vast and open as an ocean.
So The Star is suggesting a new, million-acre park: Buffalo Commons National Park.
And, while this will be costly and upset some landowners, we’re suggesting that private, state and federal officials start planning and purchasing the least-populated pieces of the state: Greeley and Wallace counties.
Furthermore, the paper says:
This isn’t a call to grab the land tomorrow, but to begin making progress toward what could become one of the country’s 15 largest national parks, a place to honor the American Prairie. Over time, a park could grow up around the three small towns of the area, without eliminating them. Bolstered by tourism, nearby small towns would grow slightly in size. Schools already under intense pressure to further consolidate would get enrollment boosts.
There are numerous arguments in favor of this plan:
Kansas is vastly under-represented in national parkland, and can accurately be considered parkland poor today.
The prairie is the greatest long-term carbon sequestration landscape available, as the grasses take carbon from the atmosphere and bury it deep in the ground, where it stays to nurture plant growth.
A new national park would attract tourists. Europeans, in love with the romance of the American West, would be drawn to it, as would other international visitors and Americans. Parks of similar size and remoteness in Texas and North Dakota attract at least 300,000 visitors a year. With the central location of Kansas, it has the potential to attract more.
Tourism could grow into a lifeline for surrounding counties, all of which are struggling to find ways to keep native sons and daughters at home, but have largely failed to build enough industry or create enough jobs.
Grasslands are the world’s most endangered eco-system, and re-establishing a large patch is important to America’s natural and cultural heritage.
Buffalo Commons is an idea whose time has come.