The endless prairie -- undulating ocean waves of grass as far as the eye can see -- is the legendary heartland of America.  Twenty years ago, two New Jersey professors proposed a Buffalo Common National Park including parts of ten midwestern states.  They were roundly ridiculed by midwesterners wanting to know why they hadn't suggested returning New York to its wild roots, but the idea has been recently resurrected.  This time around, the Kansas City Star calls for a national park.  And they've got just the spot for it.  

However, hidden under an intriguing idea is the dark side of why the land is now deemed suitable for parkland.  Call it the unwinding of Manifest Destiny.

1.  Benefits of a Buffalo Commons National Park
 title=Less than 1% of the American prairie, originally covering a vast area from North Dakota to Texas and Indiana to Wyoming, remains.  Pioneers beheld huge rippling seas of grass, golden to the horizon.  The story of the prairie has been told by Laura Ingalls Wilder and Garrison Keillor, painted by Andrew Wyeth, and filmed in countless Westerns.  Walt Whitman wrote:

While I know the standard claim is that Yosemite, Niagara Falls, the Upper Yellowstone and the like afford the greatest natural shows, I am not so sure but the prairies and plains, while less stunning at first sight, last longer, fill the esthetic sense fuller, precede all the rest, and make North America’s characteristic landscape.

Former Kansas Governor Mike Hayden, once offended by the hubris of the Buffalo Commons professors, now thinks the idea makes more sense every year.  The Kansas City Star cites benefits far beyond tourism:

Kansas is vastly under-represented in national parkland, and can accurately be considered parkland poor today.

The prairie is the greatest long-term carbon sequestration landscape available, as the grasses take carbon from the atmosphere and bury it deep in the ground, where it stays to nurture plant growth.

Grasslands are the world’s most endangered eco-system, and re-establishing a large patch is important to America’s natural and cultural heritage.

 title=Buffalo Commons isn't the only effort to save the vanishing American prairie.  The National Park Service manages, and the Nature Conservancy owns, the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in east-central Kansas' Flint Hills, with a herd of 13 bison.  The American Prairie Foundation, allied with the World Wildlife Fund, has acquired 86,000 acres in northeastern Montana.  The Great Plains Restoration Council, current home of the original Buffalo Commons professors, engages Prairie/Plains people to get invested in the healthful restoration of their communities and local environment wherever they live: "The backbone of the Buffalo Commons movement is the work — over a period of decades — to re-establish and re-connect prairie wildland reserves and ecological corridors large enough for bison and all other native prairie wildlife to survive and roam freely, over great, connected distances, while simultaneously restoring the health and sustainability of our communities wherever possible so that both land and people may prosper for a very long time."

An intriguing side note isn't mentioned in the Buffalo Commons literature.  The prairie was once home to tens of thousands of black-footed ferrets, but by 1986 they'd been reduced to 18 living ferrets.  The Fish & Wildlife Service recently reintroduced ferrets to Logan County, Kansas...which happens to be adjacent to Wallace County, a proposed starting place (more below).  A Buffalo Commons National Park would not only provide a home where the buffalo roam, but also where the black-footed ferrets play.

2.  "Manifest Destiny in Reverse"
A closer look at the the Kansas City Star's proposal reveals a reason beyond a simple desire to preserve the prairie.  Consider the professors' original 1987 essay (9 pg pdf), which predicted depopulation of the Great Plains in terms that were considered offensive, but ring more true today than when written:

Soil erosion is approaching Dust Bowl rates. Water shortages loom, especially atop the Ogallala Aquifer, a giant but essentially nonrenewable source of groundwater that nourishes more than 11 million acres of agriculture in Plains Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas. Important long-term climatic and technological trends do not look favorable.

High Country News revisited the Buffalo Commons notion in 2001 and found Manifest Destiny in reverse: "Deaths vastly exceed births, schools are closing, their contents auctioned, and families are selling the farm.... None of this grim news is really new. Rural Plains' counties peaked in 1920 and have lost over half a million people - a third of their population - since then."

Those important long term climatic trends, barely known in 1987, are bleak indeed: hotter summers, possibly shrinking Ogallala aquifer, perhaps the end of the ability to grow corn.  

The Kansas City newspaper proposes siting the park in high and dry Greeley and Wallace counties, bordering Colorado. Greeley, motto "Life as it should be," had 1,456 residents in 778 square miles in the 2000 census, decreased to an estimated 1,331 residents by 2006.  Wallace County had 1,749 people in 914 square miles at the 2000 census, and its main (if not only) claim to fame is the highest point in Kansas, Mount Sunflower.  Economically, whatever's being tried in western Kansas isn't working.

 title=Frontier historian Frederick Jackson Turner declared the American frontier closed in 1893 upon reaching an arbitrary 6 persons per square mile; these counties average 2 persons per square mile, and nearby counties such as Logan County (new home to blackfooted ferrets) have 3 persons per square mile.  Call it a new national park or, perhaps, reopening the frontier, but it's also abandoning the land.  

In short, the suggestion that presumably-productive farmland become a national park is a positive spin on a harsh reality.  This prairie can't support people.  Some land is better left as it was found.

Update: The beautiful, passionate, and lively comments in this diary are truly impressive.  I'll be looking for excuses to visit the Pawnee Buttes, Flint Hills, Sand Hills, Tallgrass National Preserve, and others.  In particular, I want to highlight comments by sillia

endless plains don't have the "WOW!" factor of Rocky Mountains and other typical tourist attractions but when you learn to understand them they have an absorbing aesthetic that is as breathtaking, wild and fearsome as any ocean scene. I like to compare the experience of prairie with oceans. Nobody ever thinks an ocean is "boring", though it stretches off into the distance forever and doesn't do much when looked at from a distance. The closer you get, and the more you are able to see "inside," though, the more exciting it gets.

and by chira2

You have to spend some time on the prairie and it "grows on you." Nothing so peaceful, with the wind waving the grass this way and that. Scissor-tail flycatchers balancing on the fences, bald eagles high in the trees, and a slow moving herd of buffalo over there on the side of a hill. The silence is awesome.

Originally posted to RLMiller on Tue Jan 05, 2010 at 04:56 PM PST.

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