Buffalo chips to microchips
by Phil Burgess, Unabridged from the Rocky Mountain News, November 11, 1997
Ten years ago, in the December 1987 issue of Planning, the journal of the American Planning Association, Rutgers University researchers, Frank and Deborah Popper published a widely cited paper calling for massive federal intervention in the Great Plains. Their words: “The federal government’s commanding task on the Plains for next century will be to recreate the 19th century, to reestablish what we would call the Buffalo Commons.”
The reason, according to the Poppers, is that large parts of the Great Plains were going down the tubes. Their words: “We believe that despite history’s warnings and environmentalists’ proposals, much of the Plains will inexorably suffer near-total desertion over the next generation. It will come slowly to most places, quickly to some; parts of Montana, New Mexico, South Dakota and Texas, especially those away from the interstates, strike us as likely candidates for rapid depopulation.”
The Poppers went on to say that “the only way to keep the Plains from turning into an utter wasteland…will be for the federal government to step in and buy the land — in short, to deprivatize it.”
This was an astounding thesis 10 years ago. Surely, the Great Plains region had experienced many ups and downs since Lewis and Clark opened up the West to the new Americans, but despite a sometimes harsh environment and unforgiving land Great Plains residents had always figured out a way to combine hard work with human ingenuity — including new technologies of grazing the land, plowing the fields or drawing the water and new technologies that would transform the economic base — to create communities that worked, an economy that would grow and people who could prosper in the face of adversity.
Buffalo Commons didn’t make any sense in 1987, and it doesn’t make any sense today. Indeed, unfolding events show nearly every forecast of the Poppers to be folly. The Great Plains are not depopulating. Instead, the Plains population is growing, and it is clustering into small towns as well as the larger cities. In fact, the state of Montana is likely to win a new congressional seat following the 2000 census, the first state in U.S. history to regain a lost congressional seat as population increases.
Similarly, the Poppers’ projection of an unsustainable economic base is typical of the static analysis that is so common today among economic analysts and social commentators. In fact, the economy of the Great Plains is always changing. It’s dynamic, growing and diversifying. It’s anything but static.
According to a June 26-27 gathering of Great Plains state economists in Minneapolis, the Great Plains region is “experiencing unprecedented economic diversification and — in many places — more rapid economic growth than at any time since they joined the Union.” Examples: The region has six of 10 states with the biggest gains in per capita income — topped by North and South Dakota. South Dakota leads the nation in the growth of manufacturing jobs — 74 percent since 1987 — followed by North Dakota (third) and Nebraska (seventh).
A recent study by the American Electronic Association shows the rapid growth of high-tech industries in the Great Plains, where high-tech also accounts for an increasingly large percentage of the region’s exports especially for South Dakota ( 61 percent) and North Dakota (47 percent), but also for Kansas (19 percent) and Nebraska (17 percent).
So, the Poppers were not just wrong in their forecasting methods. They were wrong because they underestimated the positive impacts of technology and the resilience of the people they were writing about. In the end, people, using ingenuity and technology, have the capacity to change everything, quickly, and for the better.