The Buffalo Commons: Its Antecedents and Their Implications


Deborah E. Popper, Frank Popper

Over the last 150 years, the North American Great Plains, once a region of native grasses and wildlife, has become largely agricultural. During the same time, however, many have responded to the changes' environmental, social and economic costs by proposing preservation. In the December 1987 issue of Planning, we contended that the future of the rural parts of the region lay in a vision we called the Buffalo Commons. To us the Buffalo Commons meant more bison and less cattle, more preservation and ecotourism and less conventional rural development and extraction--in short, a Great Plains that nurtured land uses that fell between intensive cultivation on the one side and wilderness on the other. The Buffalo Commons provoked much debate and led, directly or indirectly, to many public and private Plains initiatives that went in its direction. This article places our idea in historical context by examining it, its precedents, and the implications of both.

In the Native American period the Plains amounted to a sort of Buffalo Commons. In the Euroamerican period numerous observers have suggested variations on Buffalo Commons-style preservation, conservation, or set-asides. George Catlin offered the earliest suggestion for a Great Plains Park in 1842, and the photographer L.A. Huffman had a similar idea in the early 1880s. The environmentally and politically restorationist Plains advocacy of the Indian prophet Wovoka led to the Wounded Knee Massacre in 1890. In the twentieth century proposals for versions of the Buffalo Commons came from the Agriculture Department official Lewis Gray; Interior Department Secretary Harold Ickes; biologist V.H. Cahalane; economist Herbert Stein; geographers Daniel Luten and Bret Wallach; and novelists Sharon Butala, Tom Clancy, James Michener and (in the twenty-first century) Annie Proulx, among many others. The Buffalo Commons is effective in part because it echoes this broad and varied group of thinkers. We suggest that the long-term persistence of such a controversial idea means that portions of it will continue to find success as well as resistance.

(Posted Online on December 31, 2006)