Rawlins County - Buffalo Commons

Rural Renewal is Found in People, not Just Buffalo - by Ron Wilson


   In 1987, Doctors Frank and Deborah Popper proposed the Buffalo Commons concept in response to depopulation in the Great Plains. In 2004, Kansans had the opportunity to hear the Poppers first-hand, as they and others reflected on this proposal and what it means today. The Kansas Center for Rural Initiatives at K-State convened a program titled "The Buffalo Commons Revisited: Conversations about the Future of the Great Plains." Drs. Frank and Deborah Popper were speakers.

   My compliments to the organizers, who created this special opportunity, which turned into a thought-provoking event. Former Governor Hayden and K-State faculty made excellent contributions with their presentations during the session. The Poppers are well-respected scholars in their academic fields. They deserve credit for caring about the conditions of the central U.S. They have accurately reported on the challenging trends of out- migration in many parts of the High Plains. They also deserve much credit for coming to Kansas and being open to a dialogue about their proposal. Having said all that, the proposal for a Buffalo Commons remains misguided.

   On the one hand, the Poppers point out that their proposal was intended as a metaphor for a type of

transition to more sustainable systems in the central plains. On the other hand, they contend that their proposal is becoming reality, and that the question is not if, but how. Is this metaphor, or not. It is true that the trends of selected out migration which they identified are continuing and, in some cases, intensifying. It is also true that more people are raising buffalo and trying other alternative agricultural enterprises, such as agritourism and ecotourism. Further, it is true that more producers are trying alternative crops and additional water conservation measures. These responses need to be encouraged. But the transitions, which are happening on the central plains, are the result of entrepreneurs and community leaders adjusting to reality, not to some proposal from New Jersey.

  The Buffalo Commons proposal misses three key components. One is the people factor. Rural people are remarkable entrepreneurs and survivors in their own way. Progressive leaders are organizing new generation farmer cooperatives, building ethanol plants, switching to crops such as cotton, and seeking to add value to Kansas crops in countless ways. K-State’s research and extension work in bioprocessing and value-added agriculture is making a valuable contribution. A second is the remarkable staying power of rural communities themselves. Jim Richardson, a photographer for National Geographic magazine, tells of coming back to Kansas to chronicle the death of a small town. The problem was, he said with tongue in cheek, "the people of that community didn’t have the decency to die." The community can and does sustain itself, despite the Poppers’ statistics. Rural residents are often the descendants of pioneer stock, and they have a remarkable resilience and capacity to overcome challenges. Not all rural communities will survive, but there are many who manage to succeed in spite of the odds. The Poppers have correctly described the demographic challenges facing those communities, but there are still small towns that succeed through community spirit, creativity, quality of life, and commitment. Let’s not write them off. A third factor is technology. Modern telecommunications make it possible for a person to live in a rural setting, far from traffic jams and congestion, and interact electronically with people and markets around the world. The Brush Art Company is using the Internet to serve corporate clients around the globe, but they choose to keep their business in their hometown of Downs, Kansas, where the cost of living is low and the quality of life is high.

  The Poppers propose an "ecological restoration" as a solution to what is a multi-dimensional problem. If taken literally, their proposal misses the social and economic implications of removing thousands of acres from the tax rolls and from productive use. The Buffalo Commons is a response to what is rightly perceived in many ways as an unsustainable situation in the High Plains. By that standard, if there were a bioterrorist attack on our nation’s food supply and the residents of New Jersey were denied access to food, they would quickly find that their own system is unsustainable. Let us pray that such a situation never happens, and that urban and rural people can continue to work together and benefit each other.

  I share the Poppers’ concern for the future of theHigh Plains, and I commend the leaders, entrepreneurs, and ordinary citizens of rural Kansas who are building a better future every day. Let’s keep our eyes not on the buffalo and not on the commons, but on the future.


Ron Wilson is director of the Huck Boyd National Institute for Rural Development at K-State

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