Return of the Buffalo?

As is the theme with anything related to reading or writing lately, I’m a little behind on my Planning Magazine subscriptions. Its the beginning of December and I’m just getting to the heart of the October issue. Nonetheless, when I came to the article titled “After the Dust Settles: Revisiting the Buffalo Commons 30 Year Later” it brought back memories of practice exams to prepare me for the AICP exam. I recalled reading a question asking what the Buffalo Commons was with a multiple choice response. With hundreds of other facts and theories to learn, I quickly moved on to memorizing the next statistic.

But now with years between me and the exam and time to delve into interesting topics I was happy to read on, hearing from the authors of the article which was originally published in Planning Magazine in 1987. While interesting, the article didn’t give much background on the actual article written 30 years ago so I clicked the link to read the “story that started it all.” As a girl that grew up of on the eastern edge of the Great Plains (Nebraska to be specific), I thought it would be an interesting read. I made it about four paragraphs in before I was already questioning the changing circumstances from 30 years ago to today.

Great Plains Map (unl.edu).gif

The article points out that the Great Plains have the “hottest summers and coldest winters, greatest temperature swings, worst hail and locus and range fires, fiercest droughts and blizzards.” I’m not so sure that is the case anymore. Check the news any day of the week and your likely to read or hear about the latest fire destroying entire communities in California or another catastrophic hurricane making landfall. They continue to say that this region is becoming “almost totally depopulated” and suggest we return the region to its “pre-white state” with just the prairie and buffalo.

I would argue that while that may have been true 30 years ago, our communities here in the Great Plains are seeing a revival. Residents are returning to the towns they grew up in and repopulating the Great Plains. Sure there are small towns peppered throughout that will probably never recover from the downfall of trains, but that doesn’t mean we are returning to the desolate prairie that once dotted the horizon.

The authors suggest two options for how to handle a potential depopulation of the Plains. One is for the federal government to pay farmers the same rate they would get planting crops, but instead they would plant native grasses. The end goal would be for the government to buy the land from the farmers, leaving them with a small homestead. The whole in this idea is what the farmer does after he no longer has fields to work. Without a town to buy goods from or a job to purchase the goods, he may as well leave. The authors note that a 1930’s era program of job assistance and retraining may be necessary.

As a preservationist I think giving up on all these small towns is a bad decision. So much infrastructure is in place, with decades of history imbued within their buildings. Small towns are bringing in new businesses, like Friend, Nebraska where the old opera house is being renovated, for a local winery, shops, and potentially housing. There are ways to keep these towns alive that do not depend on agriculture. New industries and technology make it easier to do business in almost any community.

Warren Opera House in Friend, Nebraska. A small farming community that is working to revive their city through projects like the opera house restoration.

Warren Opera House in Friend, Nebraska. A small farming community that is working to revive their city through projects like the opera house restoration.

So instead of returning the Plains to their pre-white condition, I think we should reinvest in the Plains communities to bring people back, a phenomenon that is already occurring. Small towns offer affordable housing options, connections to family and support networks, and the ability to be part of a community. We as planners need to help these cities plan for their future and grow in a sustainable way.