'Buffalo Commons' Celebrates 20th Anniversary


“At the center of the United States, between the Rockies and the tallgrass prairies of the Midwest and South, lies the shortgrass expanse of the Great Plains.” With those words, published 20 years ago in Planning magazine, Professor Frank Popper and his wife, Deborah, then a Rutgers graduate student, launched the movement that came to be known as the Buffalo Commons.


Deborah and Frank Popper
Deborah and Frank Popper

The Planning article, “The Great Plains: From Dust to Dust,” predicted that the Great Plans would become largely depopulated due to “the largest, longest-running agricultural and environmental miscalculation in American history.” The Poppers argued that much of the region should be restored to the natural grasslands that existed before white settlement. The Poppers suggested new uses for the land, such as eco-tourism, to supplement sustainable economic uses. Buffalo and other native species would replace cattle.


The article touched off a firestorm of debate across the Great Plains with the Poppers subjected to considerable criticism and ridicule. Public leaders, such as Kansas Governor Mike Hayden, joined in the criticism. A 1992 forum the Poppers scheduled in Montana had to be cancelled because of death threats.


But in the intervening years, the depopulation that the Poppers had predicted continued unabated and in some places accelerated. The federal government and non-profit groups bought up land to restore to its natural habitat. The buffalo-grazing industry took hold, offering consumers a high-protein, low-cholesterol alternative to beef. Several Indian tribes made the Buffalo Commons the core of their land use plans. Ted Turner bought up nearly two million acres to raise buffalo.


Within the last few years, the Frank and Deborah, now a geography professor at the College of Staten Island/City University of New York and Princeton University, have been welcomed back to the Great Plains by many who once were critics.


"I am here to say, 17 years later, that I was wrong," Hayden, the former Kansas governor, told a standing room-only crowd at Kansas State University in 2004. "Seventeen years ago we wondered what could a couple of interlopers from Rutgers know about the High Plains. Not only did what Frank and Deborah predict come true, but the truth is that the out-migration of the Great Plains has been even stronger than they predicted."


This past year, as the original Buffalo Commons article marked its 20th anniversary, the work of the Poppers was hailed through extensive media coverage. USA Today published a lengthy Page 1 retrospective, quoting Frank Popper that, “What we've got is a Plan B for a region whose Plan A has been failing it for well over a century."


podcast Watch An Interview with the Poppers about the Buffalo Commons


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