The semi-arid region of the High Plains was once referred to as the “Great American Desert.” At the time, “desert” referred to a treeless, uninhabited region rather than the modern meaning of the word that evokes images of sand dunes. In fact, this desert was covered by short- and mixed-grass prairie that supported abundant wildlife, especially vast herds of buffalo (Bison bison). Most people then considered the High Plains uninhabitable for an agrarian people because of the lack of available water, not that the soil couldn’t grow crops.

This seeming lack of water added to the sense of “desert.” But in fact, the Ogallala Aquifer, a vast underground water table, underlies the area, at times very near the surface, especially in Nebraska, where the dense root system of the prairie grasses can reach it. Once modern irrigation methods were developed, agriculture and settlement followed, to the extent that water from the aquifer is now being withdrawn faster than the recharge from rainfall and snowmelt, which does not bode well for continued farming and ranching the Great Plains.

Living on the Great Plains has always been difficult, especially the more arid Southern Plains, with its extreme swings in temperature and persistent drought, now exacerbated by the potential loss of the underlying Ogallala Aquifer in the not-to-distant future. This has given rise to the vision of a “Buffalo Commons.” 

Buffalo (Bison Bison)

Proposed in a 1987 Planning article by Deborah Epstein Popper and Frank J. Popper, “The Great Plains: From Dust to Dust,” the concept of a Buffalo Commons centers on a deprivatization of the more arid region of the Great Plains, such as the High Plains, and a return to the commons as the American Indians and the early Europeans saw the plains, not owned by individuals or corporations. The federal government once gave away the Great Plains through various homesteading acts and subsidies. The government can now buy the land back, when available, and reassemble the commons, returning some lands to the Indians and bringing back the buffalo. “The Buffalo Commons,” the Poppers say, “will become the world’s largest historic preservation project, the ultimate national park.” 

As the Poppers report in another article, “The Buffalo Commons: Its Antecedents and Their Implication,” others before them had suggested a large park to preserve the Great Plains. One of the earliest was George Catlin, who traveled among the Native Americans in the years 1832 thru 1839. In his Letters and Notes on the Manners, Customs, and Condition of the North American Indians, published in 1841, Catlin extolled the beauties of the prairies and Indian culture and was perhaps the first to call for a national park to preserve them.

It is a melancholy contemplation too, when one (who has travelled these realms, and can duly appreciate them) imagines them as they might in future be seen, (by some great protecting policy of government) preserved in their pristine beauty and wildness, in a magnificent park, where the world could see for ages to come, the native Indian in his classic attire, galloping his wild horse, with sinewy bow, and shield and lance, amid the fleeting herds of elks and buffaloes. What a beautiful and thrilling specimen for America to preserve and hold up to the view of her refined citizens and the world, in future ages! A nation’s Park, containing man and beast, in all the wild and freshness of their nature’s beauty!

Because the vision of assembling such a large public commons faces the reality of conservative politics on both state and federal levels as well as the resistance of those wanting to preserve the traditional ranching lifestyle of the west, and its culture of cattle, the idea of a Buffalo Commons has morphed into an inspiration for preservation rather than a comprehensive re-creation of the Great Plains. As the Great Plains Restoration Council puts it, “The Buffalo Commons is a cultural and social movement for positive, restorative social and ecological change on the Great Plains.” The Poppers themselves recognized that the literal creation of a vast national park would not likely happen anytime soon. The vision is now more of preserving land where possible and connecting those preserves to provide wildlife corridors on the Great Plains. In yet another paper, “The Buffalo Commons: Metaphor as Method,” the Poppers state, 

We conceived the Buffalo Commons in part as a literary device, a metaphor that would resolve the narrative conflicts —past, present and most important, future— of the Great Plains. … The Buffalo Commons would not mean buffalo on every acre; yet where Plains land uses were not working well either environmentally or economically, replacement uses that treated the land more lightly would become inevitable. … we relied on metaphor to give shape and words to the intrinsically unknowable and unpredictable, the Great Plains’ future.

While the term “Buffalo Commons” has become more an allegory for preserving the Great Plains and its wildlife, the buffalo are in reality returning to the prairies, as the Poppers document in their article, “The Onset of the Buffalo Commons.” The success in bringing back the buffalo is happening not only on public land in efforts to preserve the species, but also on private land where some ranchers now raise and market buffalo instead of or in addition to cattle. The Poppers conclude,

The nineteenth century was terrible for buffalo, as was most of the twentieth. But early in the twenty-first, the buffalo are coming back, and a Buffalo Commons is forming. 

Banner photo at top of bison heard: ID 76701257 © Lawrence W Stolte | Dreamstime.com