Revisting the Buffalo Commons

There was great excitement and optimism in North Dakota’s major newspapers as the reporters and editors commented on the most recently released numbers from the 2010 Census report. North Dakota as a state saw a population increase of 4.7 percent. This is big news since the population of the state has declined or remained steady since the 1940’s.  The state’s growth in population is a reason for celebration. It has also been pointed to as proof of the silliness of the much debated Buffalo Commons proposed in the 1980’s by Frank and Deborah Popper.

The Poppers pointed to the declining population of much of the Great Plains and proposed that large areas of land from Texas to North Dakota be depopulated and turned into a huge national grassland grazed by herds of buffalo. They based their proposal on the premise that the prairie soils are not suited to intensive cultivation and are susceptible to drought and erosion. They pointed to the declining population of much of the area as farms expand and small towns dry up. They proposed that the federal government buy up huge tracts of land not well-suited to growing commodities and to relocate the residents of the prairies who could no longer make a living on the land.

Their proposals didn’t sit well with those of us who have lived here all our lives and have our own roots dug deep into the prairie dirt. The Popper’s theories were ridiculed and they were vilified as eastern academic elitists who just didn’t get it. So when the newest census figures showed an increase in population statewide, these statistics were held widely help up in the media as proof positive that the Poppers got it all wrong.

If you look at the maps generated by the latest census, however, you will see that the increase in the population of the state of North Dakota as a whole is only part of the story. Dig a little deeper and look at the map which shows the changes in population county by county.

Of North Dakota’s 52 counties, eleven had increases in population. These growing counties include the cities of Fargo, Bismarck/Mandan, Grand Forks and Minot. Also showing increases in numbers are some of the counties impacted by oil development. The third group of counties with population increases are home to two of the state’s reservations.

The remaining 41 counties saw declining numbers of residents. Twenty three of these counties lost more than ten percent of their population in the last ten years.

Included in the counties which saw shrinking populations since the 2000 census is my home, Cavalier County. Since the last census, this county went from a population of 4831 people to 3993, a 17.3 percent decrease. The population of this county peaked in 1910 with 15,659 people and has seen a decline in every census since.

The 2000 census counted 2101 residents in the town of Langdon. The population as of 2010 is estimated to be only 1878.

The excitement about North Dakota’s growing population cannot be shared by most of the state’s counties and towns.

The Poppers predicted that as the countryside emptied out, land values would fall and the government would be prompted to buy up properties at fire sale prices. While the professors’ predictions about declining population densities have held true for the majority of counties in the state, their predictions about land values have not. In recent talks and publications they have attributed the increase in the price of land to agricultural subsidies. They point out that the depopulation of the Great Plains is happening even faster than they predicted.

I don’t think the Poppers’ proposal to turn the middle of the United States into a publicly owned grassland will ever happen. At least, I don’t think either they or I will live long enough to find out if such a scheme would be sustainable or practical. I think they have misjudged the tenacity and resourcefulness of the people who live here.

I find it had to argue that they were wrong about the exodus from the prairie. We have had years of valiant economic development efforts, periods of a robust farm economy, a surge in energy development, and vast amounts of federal dollars injected into our state. For the majority of our communities, these efforts have not been enough to change the flow of population from the countryside. I am happy that the state overall is seeing an increase in population and that the cities of Fargo, Grand Forks, Bismarck/Mandan and Minot and others are seeing some growth.

But I miss the 900 people who left Cavalier County in the last ten years, just as I miss the 1200 who left between 1990 and 2000.

Maybe the Poppers weren’t entirely wrong.

Copyright © 2011 Janet Jacobson and Sustaining the Northern Plains

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