November 13, 2019

The Back Page: Revisiting the Buffalo Commons

Jonathan P. Scoll

Grass no good upside down

—Pawnee chief, watching settlers plow up shortgrass prairie, northeastern Colorado, late nineteenth century

Over 30 years ago, Frank and Deborah Popper, husband and wife professors at Rutgers University, published a short essay from which the quote above is taken. They chronicled the post-settlement economic history of a sparsely populated region in 10 states of the Great Plains, one-sixth of the land mass of the lower 48 states. Reviewing its scarce water and extreme climate; its cycles of farming, ranching, and energy-extraction booms and busts; soil degradation; and subsequent abandonment, they wrote that “over the next generation the Plains will, as a result of the largest, longest-running agricultural and environmental miscalculation in American history, become almost totally depopulated.” The Great Plains: From Dust to Dust, Planning, Am. Planning Ass’n (Dec. 1987),

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