Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Buffalo Commons Reborn

I posted on this two years ago and filed it among many other options that will open up in the future for the progressive terraforming of the Earth. The future has come a little closer for the buffalo commons.

The failure of the Ogallala aquifer is happening during this generation. All lands dependent on the aquifer will fail. There is no way to way to naturally solve the problem of low precipitation on the scale necessary to supply irrigation. Of course the advent of the Eden machine will make same high value farming possible but then that begs the question of why here at all?

Yes, let us start with a couple of counties and get the ball rolling. We need to master short grass restoration and later, long grass restoration. A couple of counties here and another couple there and private initiatives will take it from there.

The economic argument is just too compelling. Restoration of the natural vegetation will supply ample winter fodder and normal fencing will allow optimal husbandry. Of course a few will also whine to see the unfenced open spaces as well as the natural wastefulness of untrammeled wild lands. We can save a spot or two as a park. However we can optimize both cattle and buffalo production through sound husbandry as was done with the cattle industry while enriching the natural prairie.

While we are at it, the operators need to operate the wetlands actively to retain the water as long as possible. This helps recharge the aquifer. It also allows the establishment of cattail culture as a source of winter fodder stored as silage. In short, once you get over the idea that you are not going to be planting fine clover it is a simple step to maximize the natural biomass for animal fodder.

What is clear is that that natural fodder is vastly more productive and resilient than imported plant stocks.

Note that I include normal cattle husbandry. We already know that they work well together in most operations, so why change success? Present buffalo stocks exceed 500,000 and herds are expanding. If a subsidy were supplied, the stocks would increase ten fold in a decade and the buffalo would once more dominate the west.

A new park to save the plains

CHRIS OCHSNER/The Kansas City Star


In 1987, two Rutgers’ University researchers ignited a prairie fire by suggesting much of the high plains, including a large swath of Kansas farmland, should be returned to its natural state — what they called a Buffalo Commons.

The idea, which envisioned parts of 10 prairie states being transformed into a massive short-grass prairie national park, was derided as impractical, impossible and un-American. It was called city-logic. Farmers questioned why the Easterners 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.

Rutgers professor Frank J. Popper, one of the Buffalo Commons architects, says it was never a plan, but a general idea of how to turn some horrible news about population losses into a positive for the region.

“The new data is quite frankly very scary,” Popper said. Beyond those who’ve left, those who remain are far less likely to be under age 18 and more likely to be over 65 (often twice the Kansas average).

Reversing those trends would take a major effort. 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.

Land acquisition would cost something less than $1 billion. There’s even a potential funding source. Last week, Democratic U.S. senators Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico and Max Baucus of Montana introduced a bill to fully and permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Since 1965, the fund has used offshore oil and gas royalties for land protection. In recent years, much of that money has been redirected, but the new bill would ensure the intended $900 million a year is available. Only $155 million was made available a year ago.

The two Kansas counties best-suited to become home to the new park are flush against the Colorado border, just south of Interstate 70. The terrain is typically stark. The aquifer is almost tapped out, though without use it could recharge, and some experts believe the stream beds that have run dry for decades would again boast water.

Today, the total population for the two counties is below 2,700. The average population is at or below two people per square mile. One of every five residents is past retirement age, and the average age for a farmer is 56.

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 underrepresented 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 ecosystem, and re-establishing a large patch is important to America’s natural and cultural heritage.

Buffalo Commons is an idea whose time has come.

As Walt Whitman explained more than 100 years ago: “While I know the standard claim is that Yosemite, Niagara Falls, the Upper Yellowstone and the like afford the greatest natural shows, I am not so sure but the prairies and plains, while less stunning at first sight, last longer, fill the esthetic sense fuller, precede all the rest, and make North America’s characteristic landscape.”

1 comment:

Frank Popper said...

Anyone wanting more information on the Buffalo Commons should go to my Rutgers website, policy.rutgers.edu/faculty/popper. I and my wife Deborah Popper, a geographer at the College of Staten Island/City University of New York, originated the Buffalo Commons idea in 1987. The only national group explicitly devoted to creating the Buffalo Commons is the Texas-based Great Plains Restoration Council, gprc.org. Its chair is Jarid Manos, greatplains@gprc.org. (Full disclosure: I chair its board.) Another groups that does research and advocacy for depopulating isolated places, not just in the Plains but throughout th country, is the New Mexico-based National Center for Frontier Communities, frontierus.org. Its executive director is Carol Miller, carol@frontierus.org. (More disclosure: Deborah and I are both on its board.) Best wishes,
Frank Popper
Rutgers and Princeton Universities
fpopper@rci.rutgers.edu, fpopper@princeton.edu
732-932-4009, X689