Making Buffalo Common

by Sue Halpern
Kids' Winter 2002

My first view of the Great Plains came at 16, through the window of a Greyhound bus as it pulled out of Oklahoma City at daybreak. The city was like wind at our backs, pushing us toward something my Eastern eyes could not quite discern, as if the prairie were a darkened room: land stretching out endlessly, like the horizon itself. Through western Oklahoma, along the top of Texas, down into New Mexico, I waited for my eyes to adjust, to see what was really there, but as miles gathered behind us in dust, they never did.

For the past 15 years, seeing what is really there in those parts of Oklahoma, Texas, New Mexico and the seven other states that comprise the Great Plains, has been the work of professors Frank and Deborah Popper. In 1987, the two New Jersey academics, he a land-use planner, she a geographer, concerned with both the depopulation of the Plains states west of the 98th meridian and the ecological impacts of human activity upon the land, suggested an alternative reality. They called it the Buffalo Commons. In its simplest formulation it meant only this: letting the land, as it emptied of people, some 139,000 square miles of it, revert back to its former self – unfenced range to buffalo and mountain cat, the country¹s biggest open-space project.

But simple ideas are often the most threatening, and when the Poppers visited those places and presented their case for the Buffalo Commons, they were met with hostility and derision. Still, they pressed on, making trip after trip to Billings and Denver and McCook and Rapid City.

And then, at some point – Frank Popper pinpoints around 1994 – the hostility began to fade. Conversations shifted from "why" to "when," from "nothing doing," to "how?"

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Sue Halpern is the author of Four Wings and a Prayer: Caught in the Mystery of the Monarch Butterfly (Vintage Books). Her novel, The Book of Hard Things, will be published next year.