Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Buffalo Commons

This is not where I live. It is on the eastern side of Glacier National Park, just off of the Going to the Sun Road. The beauty of this place makes it easy to see why Glacier is considered by some to be the crown jewel of America's national park system. However, since I tend to visit Glacier only when it has snowed and only when it is impossible to get around, I really can not speak much of it. I would rather speak of things I know, anyway.
This also is not where I live, but is quite a bit closer. This is my crown jewel of the American park system -- the north unit of Theodore Roosevelt National Park in the far western portion of North Dakota. Nobody visits here. Wildlife are readily visible. The colors -- oh, the colors! Sunset in the badlands is like a vast living painting. If you have an imagination and are willing to work for it, you will find an equal number of spectacular sights that would rival a visit to any of the great parks of the Rockies.
This is where I live. Located somewhere between Glacier and the North Dakota badlands, the short-grass prairie of eastern Montana stretches beyond a space that you would have trouble imagining. It is a land filled with rolling hills, badlands, sagebrush flats and a desolation unlike anything I have ever known. Even for all of its sparseness of population, we still have our issues. When Danish Cowboy and I were still dating, he told me how these people from the east coast had come up with this plan to remove all of the people from the small communities, take the private land back under federal control, tear out all the fences, revert all of the farmland back to native prairie and re-introduce native species such as bison, grizzlies, wolves and other megafauna. I didn't believe him until I took a land use planning class and needed a research idea. Again, another way in which he, a guy, has become useful.
In these people's minds (and many more who have jumped on the bandwagon), agriculture on the Great Plains had been one of the greatest miscalculations in our nation's history. Frank and Deborah Popper of New Jersey felt that the negative population growth that the region was experiencing laid the perfect foundation for recreating the prairie as it had existed before European settlement. One problem, though: people live here. And to relocate them to cities or turn them into tour guides would break their spirit. And create a huge rift in the farm economy. And cause America to completely lose its now almost mythical western ranching culture.
The Poppers are correct about the negative population growth, about the boom and bust cycle of the economy, about the seemingly impossible idea of agriculture in such an arid region. But you know what? They're wrong about a lot more things than they are right. To insinuate that a nature preserve of the scale they suggested could be implemented is foolishness. We, as a nation, have come too far to revert to the way life was 150 years ago, prior to European settlement. To begin with, nomadic Native American plains tribes played a huge role in the ecology that allowed the huge bison herds to roam. It is doubtful to think that this exact ecology could be restored. And to be honest -- for most Americans, the Great Plains is not Glacier National Park and it never will be. It takes a different breed to find a constant beauty out here -- and so the recreation dollar that the Buffalo Commons proponents say would fuel the nature preserve/tourism economy probably just does not exist. I mean we all hear excitement in people's voices when they talk about visiting Yosemite or the Rockies. But to go visit the prairie. Hmmm. Sounds fun. Not many hiking trails out there, eh?
I love living out here. I hate the fact that the biggest warehouse store is four hours away, but we can't have it all, now can we? Even six years after first hearing about the Buffalo Commons idea, I continue to find fascination with it. The decline of our population is a huge issue because it affects the tax base and it has a negative impact on our school systems. But agriculture continues to rule in this region and modern farming/ranching practices seem to be making it a viable way to make a living -- in most years, anyway. The Buffalo Commons proposal, 20 years after the idea was introduced, has not died but has morphed into many smaller ideas where groups such as the Nature Conservancy and the American Prairie Foundation are implementing the buffalo reintroduction on a small scale.
Buffalo are the iconic animals of the Great Plains and they have their place. They deserve protection and admiration for the great role that they have played in our people's history over the eons. But my culture has its place, too. And we'll do everything we can to preserve this land that we love and cherish.

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