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Buffalo Chips or Computer Chips: The Battle over the Future of the Great Plains.

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Buffalo Chips or Computer Chips: The Battle over the Future of the Great Plains.
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  ING THE BIG Identity, and Play in theN.ew EDITED BY Liza Nicholas/Elaine M. Bapis, and Thomas J . Harvey FOREWORD BY Dan Flores  Amanda Rees BUFFALO CHIPS OR COMPUTER CHIPS? The Battle over the Future of the Great Plains In the last quarter of the twentieth century many parts of the Westbecame play areas of moneyed baby boomers and hip Gen-Xers. Buffalo andelk take pride of place on menus that once boasted only beef and chicken,and REI stockholders play in the fields of a new western aesthetic. However,not all areas in the West have been touched by this newfound wealth andhigh "cool" quotient. Lying to the east of the Rocky Mountains is an enor-mous subregion of the West, covering half of ten states, that has traditionallyreceived little attention since the dust-bowl days of the 193 Os. It is the Amer-ican Great Plains.The Great Plains has lost one-third of its population since its heyday inthe 1920S. Vast parts of this region, which encompasses a fifth of the lowerforty-eight states, have been left with fewer than six people per square mile.The Plains has suffered an economic cycle of boom and bust that emphasizesthe bust. Induced by federal homesteading policies, small farmers settled theregion after the Civil War. But the Plains' climatic extremes conjoined withfarm subsidies that disproportionately compensate large-scale agriculturemean that small farm enterprises often end in failure. Much of the region'spost-World War II agriculturally dominated economy has been establishedon the back of an aquifer whose water is not replenished. At current rates of use the aquifer may last only until the first quarter of the twenty-first century.But even this region was not immune to the dramatic re-envisioning of theNew West. Indeed, the sparser the environment, economy, and population,the more dramatic the visions for this region have become. The future of thePlains is and will continue to be shaped by those who write and speak aboutit. This is the story about the battle between two of the most visible and 183  competing visions of this region, proposed by Frank and Deborah Popperand by the Center for the New West.In 1987 Frank and Deborah Popper, two New Jersey academics,laid out a scenario of the Great Plains economic, environmental, and popu-lation decline. To address this decline they presented the Buffalo Commonsproposal, arguing that the 110 most distressed counties, located primarily inthe Northern Plains, be returned to the buffalo. The other major voice speak-ing about the Plains came from the Center for the New West. The Center ar-gued that the Poppers misinterpreted change as decline and believed that theregion's future would be ensured by new computerized communicationstechnology linking population centers.From its image as the Great American Desert in the early part of the nine-teenth century to the promotion of the region as the nation's breadbasket, theportrait of the Plains has changed over time. Since the 1970S the story of theWest as a whole has undergone a dramatic transformation. Gone is the cele-bratory tale of western conquest. Instead, historians have offered more nu-anced and inclusive regional stories that introduce class, race, ethnicity, andgender to complicate the tale of the rugged frontier. Led by New West His-torians such as William Cronon, Richard White, Patricia Limerick, andDonald Worster, yet another category of analysis was added to understandthe New West: the environment. Similarly, the environment became a centralplayer in the public policy battles of the New West. Environmental preserva-tion has ofren been placed in dramatic opposition to economic progress,especially on the stage of large, western federal landholdings. This conflict isexemplified in the battle between the preservationist requirement to reservefederally owned, old-growth forest as habitat for the endangered spotted owlversus the economic benefits to the logging industry of cutting down thatsame forest.Two issues distinguish the Plains buffalo chip-computer chip debate fromissues in the rest of the West: the role of the federal government and the focuson the region's image. The Plains is a predominantly privately owned land-scape. For example, in Wyoming, a Rocky Mountain state, 54 percent of thestate is in private ownership, whereas next door in Kansas, a Plains state, 98.7 percent of the state is privately owned. In terms of resource manage-ment, unlike in the West the federal government has little role in the Plains.What gives the Plains debate a western feel was the Poppers' proposal to fed-eralize much of the privately held land in order to apply their Buffalo Com-mons idea.In addition, this tension over preservation versus economic progress fails 184 REES  no particular resource such as wood, water, or oil in contention. Instead, it isthe image of the Plains and how that image shapes public policy decisionsthat is at stake. Control of the Plains image defines the difference betweencontinued Plains decline versus continued economic progress. In striving toclaim control of the regional image, these two visions contrasted primarily intwo ways: their definitions of Plains boundaries (what areas are included andexcluded) and the measures used to indicate Plains economic health.Arguing that the Plains faced extreme economic, ecological, and popula-tion decline, the Poppers maintained that the answer to regional decline wasto deprivatize the most severely affected parts of the region, take them out of cultivation, and depopulate them with assistance from the federal govern-ment. 1 The aim was to allow the most depressed areas to become an enor-mous national park for buffalo. 2 The Poppers made use of an environmentally determined definition of theGreat Plains region, ending their data at the 98th meridian (see Figure 1). Indoing so they draw on the work of the Plains historian Walter Prescott Webb,who used a variety of environmental variables to conclude that the easternedge of the Plains was the 98th meridian (see Figure 2).The Poppers' proposal was given weight by the statistical analysis DeborahPopper prepared for her dissertation. Her analysis of census data revealed thatthe Plains population was shrinking and aging and that the region was ineconomic decline. In making the Buffalo Commons proposal, the Poppersaddressed the limitations of the contemporary agricultural economy and dis-cussed the possibilities of a new buffalo-based economic and environmentalstrategy.Funded by a modest departmental grant and speakers' fees, the Popperswrote jargonless essays on the future of the Plains and made numerousspeeches in the region. With occasional police protection the Poppers gavetalks to groups as varied as the Oklahoma Academy for State Goals, the Mo-bridge Industrial Development Committee, and the North and SouthDakota Farm and Ranch Realtors. Their vision of the region's future gainedthe attention of local, regional, national, and international print and televi-sion media and stimulated discussion of a multitude of political, social, envi-ronmental, and commercial concerns. 3 The Buffalo Commons concept converged with several independent envi-ronmental and political factors that drew large media coverage. During thewinter of 1988 there was a major drought in the Plains. Four senators, thesecretary of agriculture, and all the regional governors made statements criti-cizing the Poppers. North Dakota governor George Sinner, concerned that BUFFALO CHIPS OR COMPUTER CHIPS? 185   \  . . ( Figure 1. The poppers' Great Plains and the 110 counties in greatest land-use distress. Source: Deborah Epstein Popper, "Holding Steady on the Great Plains: An Exploration  of the Characteristics  of the Region's population-Stable Counties" (Ph.D. dissertation, Rutgers Un;- versity, 1992). the federal government would fail to support Plains farmers, referred to thework of an unnamed "eastern graduate student" (Deborah Popper) as an ex-ample of the incomprehension of nonagrarian easterners of the plight of Plains folk. 4 Thus, the Poppers' vision was swept up by the media as an ex-ample of eastern ignorance of western concerns.The Buffalo Commons challenged commonly shared ways of makingsense of Plains life, and some Plains people simply dismissed the Poppers ascrackpots. The Poppers argued that the region must go back to its "prewhite"condition. Agriculture dominates the regional economy, and to already strug-gling farmers and ranchers, the Poppers' idea was a threat to their livelihoods,their vision of the region's history, and its contemporary meaning. Indeed, topropose to Plains dwellers that their region should revert to its prewhite statesuggested more than an erasure of its economy and its non-Indian racial 186 REES
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