Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Nick Kristof on the Buffalo Commons:

This forlorn farm town — Rawson, population 6 — is a fine place to contemplate the boldest idea in America today: rescuing the rural Great Plains by returning much of it to a vast "Buffalo Commons."

The result would be the world's largest nature park, drawing tourists from all over the world to see parts of 10 states alive again with buffalo, elk, grizzlies and wolves. Restoring a large chunk of the plains — which cover nearly one-fifth of the lower 48 states — to their original state may also be the best way to revive local economies and keep hamlets like Rawson from becoming ghost towns.

...It sounds cruel to say so, but towns like Rawson are a reminder that the oversettlement of the Great Plains has turned out to be a 150-year-long mistake, one of the longest-running and most costly errors in American history. Families struggled for generations to survive droughts and blizzards, then finally gave up and moved on. You can buy a home out here for $3,000, and you can sometimes rent one for nothing at all if you promise to mow the lawn and keep up the house.

....[H]onesty and sweat aren't enough to make farming and ranching successful in marginal lands. The farms produce plenty of grain and beef, but they will never make much money, even with billions of dollars in agricultural subsidies. The economic model will be even less viable as underground aquifers run out in the next two or three decades. Much plains farming relies on the vast Ogallala aquifer, which is dropping at a rate of four feet per year.

So it's time to reach for something bold, like the Buffalo Commons idea, proposed in 1987 by Frank and Deborah Popper, two New Jersey social scientists. This would be the biggest step to redefine America since the Alaska purchase. Pushing it would give the environmental movement a chance to be known mainly by what it's for instead of for what it's against. But it would take close cooperation with the people with the most at stake: struggling farmers and ranchers, who for now are irritated by East Coast city slickers trying to turn their land into a buffalo playground.
Pardon my french, but this is one hell of an idea. In one fell swoop, it redefines not just America, but it's relationship with the world. The United States would be home to one of the biggest and most impressive natural preserves in the world; it would eliminate the need for the heavy blue-state financial support of red-state agriculture; it would allow the United States to drop subsidies, helping the third world get back on its feet even if Europe remains intransigent; and it could also become one of the biggest tourist draws in the world, because what is more closely associated with America than the wild, free, and untamed plains that gave rise to the romantic mythos surrounding both Native Americans and the American cowboy?

(For a change, the cowboy stereotype would actually help Americans).

Now, there are probably a metric tonne of reasons why this plan is improbable, but the central conceit remains solid: agriculture in the United States is on the decline, and all the empty space in its wake might as well be used for something. This, really, is as good a use as any I can think of.

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