Recent Census Data Validate Professor’s Contentious ‘Buffalo Commons’ Plan

Recent Census Data Validate Professor’s Contentious ‘Buffalo Commons’ Plan

Professor Frank Popper has completed research with his wife, Deborah Popper, a geographer at the City University of New York.

Few Rutgers professors have published research so controversial as to prompt death threats. Perhaps fewer still have seen so many former enemies become believers over time.  But for Professor Frank Popper, a land-use expert at the Edward J. Bloustein School of Planning and Public Policy, both have occurred, and validation could not come in a better form than a set of data issued this summer by the U.S. Census Bureau.

The census data confirmed what Popper and his coauthor and wife, Deborah Popper, had postulated more than 20 years ago – that vast stretches of the American Great Plains would become largely depopulated due to “the largest, longest-running agricultural and environmental miscalculation in American history.” In its place, they introduced, in a December 1987 article published in Planning magazine, the concept of transforming much of the Great Plains into a “Buffalo Commons.” Coined by the Poppers while stuck in traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike, the term “Buffalo Commons” soon touched off the ideological equivalent of a prairie fire.

“This has been the wildest ride and most gratifying experience in my professional life,” Popper said. “Every professor should be so lucky.”

The Poppers argued that much of the 10-state Great Plains region – which gained unwanted 1930s fame as the Dust Bowl – should be restored to the natural grassland that had existed before white settlement. They suggested new land uses, such as ecotourism, to create more sustainable economic uses. Buffalo and other native species, they said, would replace cattle.

“The Plains’ economic-development approach has failed the region and the nation since the late 19th century,” said Frank Popper. “It’s time for a more environmentally focused Plan B. That’s the Buffalo Commons.”


Many Great Plains residents, however, were angered by the Buffalo Commons debate, and their emotions often boiled over during the Poppers’ many speaking trips across the region, when the couple engaged in what Frank called “extreme land-use planning.” The tours led to opposition from influential politicians, such as former Kansas governor Mike Hayden, which culminated when the couple had to cancel a 1992 Montana trip after receiving death threats.

But the Poppers have since been vindicated as the land-use patterns they had predicted took hold. Former critics became supporters. New allies, like media mogul Ted Turner, appeared.

The most recent supporting evidence came this summer, in a U.S. Census Bureau study that found that between 1950 and 2007, the human population had declined in 244 of 376 Great Plains counties, and 69 had lost more than half their inhabitants. Nearly three out of every five counties had peaked in population before 1950, with most of those reaching their high point between 1900 and 1920.

More positive evidence of the Buffalo Commons’ emergence has shown up in the Plains. Nonprofit groups have bought up land to restore its natural habitat. The buffalo industry has grown, offering consumers a high-protein, low-cholesterol alternative to beef. Several Native-American tribes have made the Buffalo Commons the core of their land-use plans. Ted Turner has bought up nearly two million former cattle acres to raise buffalo.

"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."

Frank Popper, originally from Chicago, became interested in the Plains during college trips to California. Deborah Popper, from New York City, was considering becoming a Rutgers geography graduate student after the couple moved in 1983 from Washington, D.C. – where Frank had been an environmental consultant – to New Jersey, where he began teaching urban studies at Rutgers.

Deborah, who earned her Rutgers doctorate in 1992 and now teaches geography at the College of Staten Island/The City University of New York and Princeton University, spent much of the summer of 1985 car-camping in the northern Plains with Frank and their two children, and interviewing local people.

They returned to Rutgers and wrote a draft of a Plains article that Deborah presented to a Rutgers geography graduate-student conference in early 1987. The draft, the couple thought, needed a stronger ending.

A few days later, on a foggy February day, they were stuck in traffic on the New Jersey Turnpike. They talked about Plains history as a spectacular example of “The Tragedy of the Commons,” Garrett Hardin’s famous ecological fable of herders trying to maximize their individual profits but instead, through overgrazing, causing disaster for their entire group, as in the Dust Bowl.

“We started playing word games,” Frank remembers, “about how the Plains amounted to a huge case of ‘The Tragedy of the Commons,’ with buffalo.” The verbal play led to the phrase “Buffalo Commons” to describe both the region’s distant past and its likely future.

Deborah and Frank rewrote the draft based on that idea and sent it to Planning. “We were surprised,” says Frank, “that our 1987 piece caught the attention it did. With no Buffalo Commons, it probably would have had little effect.”

In 2003, Planning magazine returned the favor, naming their article among the 25 most influential it had ever published.