Transforming Agriculture, Perennially

Issue No. 096
Spring 2010
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Hope is a Thing With Roots

BY Jake Vail

In 1987, farmers of the High Plains boiled at Easterners Deborah and Frank Popper, who suggested that it made sense for the region to become a “buffalo commons” of perennial grassland more like before settlement. But people continue to leave the Plains, and the Poppers’ idea grows hair and gains purchase. A wild ripple spread out over the sea of grass recently, when the Kansas City Star ran an editorial proposing a million-acre Buffalo Commons National Park on the High Plains of western Kansas. According to Frank Popper, co-author of the original buffalo commons paper, it was the first newspaper endorsement of the idea. The editorial certainly caught me by surprise, for I had just driven a long loop across the Plains with that very notion in mind.

I returned home to find not only the Star’s hopeful editorial, but the tragic news that nearly three and a half million acres had been taken out of the US Agriculture Department’s Conservation Reserve Program the previous month for a grass-covered area of highly erodible land the size of Connecticut, uprooted and exposed for want of public support. At the same time, the US Fish and Wildlife Service was proposing a million-acre conservation area in the Flint Hills of eastern Kansas, and bison were (re)introduced at the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. At its annual Prairie Festival, The Land Institute offered a breathtaking display of perennial grass roots, the past and future power of the Great Plains, even as farmers rearranged the topography with mountains of corn and soybeans for a biofuel-besotted nation. The pendulum of history still swings between nature and economy above the country’s midsection.

Buffalo grazing on perennial grassland in the high plains.

photo: Scott Bontz

I hadn’t expected to see signs of the buffalo commons so early on my trip out of eastern Kansas to the higher and drier Plains, but there they were, grazing right next to the turnpike. Pronghorns. Two hundred and four years ago, explorer Zebulon Pike reported “buffalo, elk, deer, cabrie and panthers” on the prairies of the “very ruff flint hills” just a few miles from where I drove, but the sight of cabrie here and now nearly sent me into the ditch.

Pronghorns graze in the Flint Hills today because of decades of collaboration between ranchers and scientists, but also because they can. Remnants of the grasslands they evolved with still exist, despite vast changes in the land since Francisco Vasquez de Coronado’s 1541 entrada at the other end of the state. My twenty-first century vision of the fastest herbivores on the planet chewing their cud as the traffic sped past was the result of how we’ve managed, how we’ve made space into place and land into landscape, as writer William L. Fox likes to say. Prodded by the pronghorn, for the next 2,500 miles of my High Plains expedition I felt for the shifting layers of natural and cultural history, and pondered how we’ll manage in the future.

Beside Pike and Fox, my traveling companions-in-print included Frank and Deborah Popper, the progenitors of the buffalo commons. In 1987 they proposed the establishment of a commons on the immense dry prairie that stretches from Texas to Canada. They saw large-scale emigration from what historian Walter Prescott Webb called “the least-known, most fateful part of the United States,” a direct result of what they termed “the largest, longest-running agricultural and environmental miscalculation in American history.” They suggested the government “take the newly emptied Plains and tear down the fences, replant the shortgrass and restock the animals, including the buffalo.”

Farmers, ranchers and Chambers of Commerce from Montana to the Rio Grande were incensed, and for the next several years the Poppers toured the Great Plains to explain their proposal. Some talks had to be canceled because of death threats, but fairly quickly the tenor of the meetings changed. In the years since, many of the social and environmental trends that the Poppers brought to attention have continued, compounded by some unexpected changes – not the least of which being accelerating climate change and economic recession.

A couple years ago, before “sequestration” and “recession” were much heard on the High Plains, I interviewed the Poppers via e-mail. Frank got right to the point: “Nature and economy always rebel,” he said. Their thoughts came to mind as I drove through tornado-torn Greensburg, Kansas, and headed for the epicenter of our most obvious nature-economy rebellion, the Dust Bowl of the 1930’s. Timothy Egan’s “The Worst Hard Time” and Dan Flores’ “Horizontal Yellow” had convinced me that I needed to see this overworked land, and on south to the Llano Estacado of Texas.

I camped near Santa Fe Trail wagon ruts in the Oklahoma panhandle, and as coyotes yipped I thought back on the landscape I had just crossed. Nearly eighty years after the Dust Bowl it appeared heavily managed yet remarkably jumbled, handsome stands of replanted native grass growing next to fallow wheatfields, while right across the road center-pivot irrigated sorghum stood bright green beside scrappy overgrazed sandsage prairie. The land was punctuated by oil jacks, some motionless, some solar-powered. As nearly everywhere, plastic fluttered on barbed wire fences and roads were under repair. The Dust Bowl winds blew hard and long here, and it looked to me like the locals were still trying to figure it all out — though I didn’t see too many locals.

“The buffalo commons idea wasn’t numbers driven,” Deborah Popper had said, which surprised me. “You didn’t need the numbers [of regional population decline] to see the pressures — we were influenced by reading the history. The numbers came as a response to the uproar — the letters about whether the fence was going to enclose the whole of the ten states of the Great Plains. I spent a lot of time at the computer downloading census data as a way of providing a sense of scale for the buffalo commons.”

Frank explained that he has long been interested in the frontier. “When I got to Rutgers in 1983, I felt a lot of tenure-related pressure to publish a lot quickly, so I reduced the idea of the frontier to the Great Plains, just to simplify my task. In summer 1985 Deborah and I took a car trip with our kids to the Plains, decided to write about the region, and finally began publishing about it in late 1987. The 1987 Planning [magazine] piece, The Great Plains: From Dust to Dust, was a major hit, the most controversial article Planning had ever published at that time.”

Perched upon an ebbing aquifer, I was surrounded by top-down responses to the dust: Cimarron, Rita Blanca and Comanche National Grasslands, created to save soil. The economic winds of the 1980s farm crisis blew in the Conservation Reserve Program, created to save farmers. By establishing perennial grasslands, both programs also happen to save carbon. The Star editorial makes it clear: “The prairie is the greatest long-term carbon sequestration landscape available.” To cope with the latest winds of change, those of climate disruption, we would do well to establish more deep-rooted and resilient landscapes, from national parks and conservation areas to prairie-mimicking agro-ecosystems.

Deborah had some tough questions for Plains residents: “I think the energy questions and global warming scenarios are critical, particularly for their unintended consequences. How much will we decentralize energy? Will adaptations to climate change occur more at the local scale or at some larger one? Will we change our perceptions of inland areas as sea levels rise? What is the rate of change? We can anticipate short-term competition for corn, for example, but I can’t tell how the adjustments will play out. But they will affect the Plains.”

“None of this stuff dims the prospects for the buffalo commons, and some of it enhances them,” pointed out Frank. “Water is clearly an issue — the large-scale depletion of the Ogallala or other water sources tends to move in a buffalo commons direction.”

Hoping to dig deeper into the landscape around me, I made for the red rock strata of Palo Duro Canyon, recalling historian Dan Flores’ unearthing of Georgia O’Keeffe’s artistic roots there and Terry Tempest Williams’ O’Keeffe story, “In Cahoots with Coyote.” As I approached the north end of the Llano Estacado, where the great tableland falls dramatically into the Canadian River Valley, I passed a sprawling dairy, seeming very much out of place, and a massive wind ranch. Apparently Texas doesn’t grow wind farms. Cows and towers outnumbered people, and I remained virtually alone in the Lone Star State until Amarillo, “an urban island in a shortgrass sea,” as the Poppers would say.

Some of the layers I found at Palo Duro: blistering heat and flash floods, a sign informing me that famed cowboy Charles Goodnight slept here, and, most metaphorically, notice of an oil well that hit an air pocket and blew with a bang heard nine miles away. The well was abandoned. A family with his-and-hers SUVs set up camp nearby, and I heard Dad explain to his daughters, “Number one rule: Have fun. Number two: Be safe.”

Following rule number one, part of my plan was to follow Georgia O’Keeffe’s radiant light across the lands from Palo Duro west to the painted hills of Abiquiu, and what better way than to take part in a Land/Art symposium in New Mexico. William L. Fox was to discuss “The Art of the Anthropocene” in Santa Fe, exploring how we are reacting to the new era that we’ve created. Director of the Center for Art + Environment at the Nevada Museum of Art, Fox writes on how we perceive place, blending land and literature with art and our haptic sense — how we feel, bodily, in a given landscape. His description of recent changes in relationships among art, science and exploration reminded me of when the Poppers spoke at Kansas State University five years ago. Kansas Secretary of Wildlife and Parks and former Governor Mike Hayden shocked everyone at the conference by embracing the buffalo commons, and led Deborah to suggest that our inner geographies were changing. I asked her to elaborate.

“I expect I referred to our way of experiencing place — our expectations, what we notice, what we see as significant, necessary, important,” she explained. “These are largely unarticulated values, derived from past experience, that in turn affect ongoing experience. We have nostalgic landscapes in our heads, literary and film ones, and the ones we daily experience. They bump against each other. At its most obvious, this affects whether the Great Plains seems right with wheat, with buffalo; whether towns are supposed to have Main Streets or strip malls on the highway. This also includes who looks right — as though they belong — and certainly the Hispanic and Native American numbers are growing. They belong.”

The Plains continues to experience population loss in most counties, but one rural area that has grown is southwest Kansas and the Oklahoma-Texas panhandles, due to a continuing influx of Hispanic workers.

“The growth in numbers makes these groups more important to the economy, and their own entrepreneurial efforts are important,” Deborah said. “This applies especially to Hispanic populations. Native Americans have largely appreciated the buffalo commons, at the same time realizing it’s more their concept than ours.”

Frank expanded on this: “It is clear that Americans now think Indians and buffalo are a lot cooler — and less dangerous — than they were, say, 150 years ago. Now that the Plains Indians and their prime food source, the buffalo, no longer present the — even bogus — national security threat that they did at the time of Little Bighorn or the Pine Ridge Massacre, the nation can afford to indulge them. The nation can concern itself with Plains environmentalism, aesthetics, land preservation, and species protection. The populations of both Indians and buffalo are rising fast in the Plains, as the white population is aging and falling.

“Latinos have always been prevalent on the southern Plains and are now becoming more prevalent in the northern Plains. Their relative youth and high birth rates, just as with the Indians, mean that across the Plains they are sooner or later likely to challenge the long-time white dominance. The Latinos are still going through the usual exhausting (national) immigrant and (local) newcomer rites of passage, for instance as slaughterhouse workers in southwest Kansas, or in numerous national and local political-cultural struggles with whites. But they’re beginning to establish themselves in a lot of places in the Plains where they had not previously been.

“I’d guess in the end that the immigrants and newcomers will prove themselves brilliant new additions to American society. It’s startling how many small towns on the Plains — and the Mississippi Delta and the Corn Belt — already have a good, relatively cheap new gathering place elbowing its way into long-established local social and eating habits — a Mexican restaurant.”

From New Mexico’s intense Native American and Hispanic flavors and Georgia O’Keeffe’s beloved hills I made my way back across the grasslands of eastern Colorado and western Kansas to El Cuartelejo, a seventeenth century pueblo outlier — from Ghost Ranch to ghost towns, and not just the pueblo. The density of “For Sale” signs I saw in upscale Santa Fe was a surprise, and well into Kansas I passed abandoned feedlots, quiet towns, farms for sale, rusting well heads, and acre upon acre of very weedy fields.

I saw no buffalo on the buffalo commons. I did see wild turkeys and harriers. Lark buntings, nighthawks and Swainson’s hawks made their way south over prairie dog towns and pronghorns. Also on the move were endless pickup trucks, as well as several flatbed tractor trailers hauling wind turbine blades. “High Speed Internet and Hot Waffles” announced a sign in one town; in another a billboard announced an ethanol plant opening soon. Despite summer rains, both the Arkansas and the Smoky Hill Rivers were dry.

“The pressures on the Plains and their people remain more or less what they were twenty years ago,” Frank said. “We’d still stand by most of the points in the Planning piece. But the one thing we got wrong is that we expected that somewhere in the distant future the federal government would take more 1930’s-style action to help the Plains. It hasn’t — or at least hasn’t yet. Instead the action has come mainly — and relatively quickly — from Indian tribes, state governments, NGOs, big ranchers like Ted Turner, smaller farmers and ranchers, etc.”

It’s a region with lots of overt limits looming “water, most significantly,” said Deborah. “We tend to be caught between optimism and pessimism, seeing the need for change, but hoping to get by — in Plains terms, this has often meant no major change in agriculture — and at the same time seeing change and embracing it, and not worrying about the unintended consequences. Here we might wonder what ethanol might do to the region. What we know is the pressures haven’t gone away, and the solutions seem elusive.”

The road forward was indeed elusive, as a weird, thick, fog socked in the western half of Kansas. Eventually it lifted, and I found myself following the towers of another wind farm east, toward a Salina coffee shop — where I could clear some fog of my own. There I bumped into the authors of a Scientific American article on the sort of major change in agriculture that Deborah Popper lamented: perennial crops. Soil scientists Jerry Glover of The Land Institute and John Reganold of Washington State got me thinking about roots, and sustenance, and about Georgia O’Keeffe again. She loved it at Ghost Ranch because she couldn’t garden there, which gave her more time to paint.

But after a few years she felt compelled to move to where she could grow fresh food.

Wide open though it is, we seem to have a hard time reading the buffalo commons — translating the land into landscape. Buffalo in sight daily, Francisco Vazquez de Coronado, “Misfortune’s Explorer,” got lost on the Llano Estacado for weeks, marched hundreds of miles across the High Plains in search of gold, then turned around and went home. The Taos Apaches and Picuris who moved to the Plains to escape Spanish rule instead found themselves in a whirlwind of conflicts at El Cuartelejo, and after a few decades abandoned the pueblo. The subtle landscape of the prairie constantly disoriented Zebulon Pike, “the Lost Pathfinder,” who was charged to map it. Two generations later, huge numbers of farmers and ranchers swept onto the Great Plains with their own mental maps and disoriented the landscape, until the Dust Bowl blew many of them away again. The countryside has been emptying ever since.

Perhaps our confusion comes out of the place itself, which embodies — and thrives upon — the contradiction and challenge of overlapping patterns of movement and deep rootedness.

The Poppers concluded The Great Plains: From Dust to Dust by suggesting that the government “return the social costs of space to more social benefit than the unsuccessfully privatized Plains have ever offered.” But turning space into place on the prairie has always come from both the top down and the bottom up, from the migratory and the rooted. To find real sustenance where the buffalo roam, we explorers, natives, farmers, politicians, scientists, newcomers and artists must allow the Plains’ confounding outer geographies to better inform our inner geographies.

Nature and economy always rebel, says Frank Popper, yet on the most fateful part of the United States the nature of the economy increasingly is pointing us straight toward the economy of nature.

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