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?"
"As the Plains continued to depopulate, it became clear that the Buffalo Commons was forming, not as we originally had in mind, with the federal government coming in as the buyer of last resort and creating a national park, but as a private activity, a local activity, a state activity and a nonprofit activity," Frank Popper says.
Private land owners began to graze buffalo, increasing their numbers in the commons area from 100,000 to over 300,000 today. The Nature Conservancy bought up failing cattle ranches in Nebraska, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma, Texas and the Dakotas, removed the cows, brought in buffalo, and took down as many fences as it could. It now runs more than 3,000 bison over 90,000 acres and expects those numbers to rise by 1,000 animals and 15,000 acres over the next five years. Buffalo tourism has picked up: It is now possible to go on a wildlife safari in, say, Wyoming to see buffalo ranging the land, or travel to Colorado for a bison hunt. The Buffalo Commons Storytelling Festival was organized in McCook, Nebraska. A Buffalo Commons novel was published.
There is more. The InterTribal Bison Cooperative was formed by 19 Plains Indian tribes in 1990 to revive buffalo culture, a number that has grown to 51. These tribes are responsible for adding nearly 10,000 wild buffalo to Indian lands in the Plains states in the last 12 years, and for advancing the dialogue, in Congress and in their own communities, about restoring the land, wildlife habitats and tribal health. Another regional group, the Great Plains Restoration Council, with Frank Popper on its board, is equally ambitious, declaring as one of its missions: to create a "million-acre safe zone" of contiguous land, from Mexico through the Plains to Canada, for bison to range.
Nature reasserts itself: This is as true in our own backyards as it is on the Plains. But for a single idea to flower, carried like a seed on wind over hundreds of thousands of square miles, that seems more like luck than propagation. Unless that idea is right, and good, and native at its root.