Buffalo Commons

Originating with two social scientists out of New Jersey, DE Popper & FJ Popper,  back in 1987, the concept for re-wilding the great plains to establish the ‘Buffalo Commons‘ [pdf] has been met with skepticism if not outright rejection by most of the region’s residents. As the population across much of the western range drops below the 6 people per square mile threshold of Frederick Jackson Turner’s frontier theory, it is worth reconsidering the status of The Far West to The Midlands as Colin Woodward calls them. Perhaps we can also restore the traditional territories of the Plains Indians as the buffalo return too.

2000 population map legend (no 2010 census maps are available yet):

  • 0-1 (white)
  • 1-4 (yellow)
  • 5-9 (yellow-green)
  • 10-24 (green)
  • 25-49 (teal)
  • 50-99 (dark teal)
  • 100-249 (blue)
  • 250-66,995 (dark blue)

If fences are one of the essential infrastructure of the late 19th century plains, removing them opens up the question of how they originally shaped the rural landscape that we now know. Of course, the original infrastructure was and Jefferson’s Public Land Survey System, followed by wagon trails (as I’m not sure if the game trails/indian trails can be seen as discreet systems separate from the landscape matrix), then the Transcontinental Railroad before the interstate freeways system and oil pipelines emerged.

Woodward’s American map

High, dry, and remote, the Far West was only colonized via the deployment of vast industrial resources: railroads, heavy mining equipment, ore smelters, dams, and irrigation systems. As a result, settlement was largely directed and controlled by large corporations headquartered in distant New York, Boston, Chicago, or San Francisco, or by the federal government itself, which controlled much of the land. Exploited as an internal colony for the benefit of the seaboard nations, Far Western political leaders have focused public resentment on the federal government (on whose infrastructure spending they depend) while avoiding challenges to the region’s corporate masters, who retain near Gilded Age influence. It encompasses much of California, Washington, Oregon, British Columbia, Alaska, Colorado and Canada’s Prairie Provinces, and all of Idaho, Montana, Utah, and Nevada. [Woodward]

Understanding the Far West as a colony of the industrialized coasts is a powerful concept that explains both the conception of the Buffalo Commons and the resistance to implementation too.

Moving beyond the buffalos, a more robust (and radical) proposal is the Wildlands Project of Dave Foreman (see the map below). A brief note about the conspiracy theories that have swirled around this project – yes it was first proposed by the founder of Earth First!, but there is some real science behind this effort, even if the realization all but requires an ‘earth without people’ scenario of total US population of less than 100 million.

before you give up hope for remnants of wilderness being obliterated – there are still a few roadless areas left in the US.







DE Popper & FJ Popper (2004), The Great Plains: From Dust to Dust

POPPER, D. E. and POPPER, F. J. (1999), THE BUFFALO COMMONS: METAPHOR AS METHOD. Geographical Review, 89: 491–510. doi: 10.1111/j.1931-0846.1999.tb00231.x

Dave Foreman (n.d.), Wildlands Project

___ (1995) Wilderness From Scenery to Nature

The Wildland Project and Rewilding North America

Reed Noss (2003), Checklist for Wildlands Network Design Conservation Biology 17 (5) 1270-1275

Michael Coffman (n.d.), Globalized Grizzlies [history of the Wildlands Project



4 thoughts on “Buffalo Commons

  1. Anyone wanting more information on the Buffalo Commons can go to my Rutgers website, policy.rutgers.edu/faculty/popper. The only national group explicitly dedicated to creating the Buffalo Commons is the Texas-based Great Plains Restoration Council, gprc.org. Also relevant is the New Mexico-based National Frontier for Frontier Communities, fronterus.org. Best wishes,
    Frank Popper
    Rutgers and Princeton Universities
    fpopper@rutgers.edu, fpopper@princeton.edu

  2. Also the Grassland Foundation in Nebraska. Should have mentioned, as a disclosure, that I am on the boards of the Great Plains Restoration Council and the National Center for Frontier Communities.

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