years ago, professors Frank and Deborah Popper touched off a firestorm
by suggesting the farm-driven economies of the Great Plains were
doomed and the region's prairies should be given back to the buffalo.
ridiculed the Poppers' ideas.
Mike Hayden, who grew up near Atwood in Rawlins County, led the
way. The Poppers' suggestions, he said, "made about as much
sense as suggesting we seal off our declining urban areas and preserve
them as a museum of 20th century architecture."
in the days since Hayden was governor, Rawlins County has lost population
-- falling from 3,404 in 1990 to 2,966 in 2000.
County is not unique. Fifty Kansas counties lost population between
1990 and 2000; the losses in 12 of those counties exceeded 10 percent.
and Comanche counties lost 17 percent and 15 percent, respectively.
of the 50 counties have been losing people for decades. Washington
County, for example, had almost 22,000 people in 1900. Today, it
has fewer than 6,500.
towns that once had bustling downtowns are lucky to still have a
bank, a grocery store and a grain elevator.
Hayden says, the Poppers deserve a second listen.
true, I was one of their sharpest critics," he said last week.
"But I was wrong. Not only was I wrong -- in many cases, the
out-migration rates have exceeded what the Poppers predicted."
Wednesday, Hayden and the Poppers will be in Manhattan for "The
Buffalo Commons Revisited: Conversations about the Future of the
Great Plains," a public forum sponsored by the Kansas Center
for Rural Initiatives at Kansas State University.
in 1987, the Poppers were considered radicals," said Carol
Gould, the forum's coordinator and director at the Center for Rural
Initiatives. "But a lot of their predictions, I'm afraid, have
turned out to be more accurate than what we wanted to believe."
Poppers -- he's an urban studies professor at Rutgers University,
she teaches geography at the College of Staten Island-City University
of New York -- say much of their initial message was lost in the
translation between New Jersey and the Midwest.
on, we were accused of being for some sort of forced, government-led
land grab -- that we were part of a big, federal land-grab camel
that was trying to get its nose under the tent," said Frank
Popper. "I have no idea where that came from."
Poppers insist they have nothing against the Great Plains. And most
of their adversaries' tempers, they said, have cooled.
tend to be calmer now," said Frank Popper. "We haven't
had a difficult meeting in, gosh, it's been years."
facts, he said, are sinking in.
agriculture needs fewer people, which means it's getting harder
and harder to keep people in the rural areas," Frank Popper
said. "There isn't a substitute economy to keep them there."
it's clear, said Deborah Popper, that agriculture is depleting the
region's once-bountiful supply of groundwater and farmers are using
ever-increasing amounts of pesticides and herbicides.
no surprise, she said, that Kansas' rivers are considered some of
the nation's most contaminated.
we're saying is that when the Plan A Economy -- that is, agriculture
-- fails, there needs to be a Plan B Economy," she said. "And
to get to Plan B, there needs to be an ecological re-evaluation.
Instead of the Great Plains being seen as a place that's tied to
an economy that no longer works, it should be restored to a place
that's both valuable and beautiful."
in 1987, the Poppers proposed restoring "large chunks"
of the region's tall- and short-grass prairies, creating a vast,
fenceless Buffalo Commons.
small cities of the Plains," they wrote, "will be urban
outposts scattered across a frontier that would be much bigger than
today's, cement islands in the shortgrass sea of the Commons. It
will be the world's largest historic preservation project, the ultimate
national park. Much of the Great Plains will become what America
the Poppers say a Buffalo Commons is only one of many possibilities.
lot of very smart, wonderful people are working on ways to make
this happen," said Frank Popper, referring to an economy that
would replace agriculture. "At this point, I don't know what
it is, but I suspect that a generation from now or in the next century,
looking back, it will be obvious."
County, officials hope to stem the tide of out-migration by giving
you'll build a house in Atwood, we'll give you the home site,"
said Arlene Bliss, Rawlins County's director of economic development.
"And it's not just in Atwood, it's in McDonald and Herndon,
said she's had several inquiries, but no takers.
think it's just a matter of time," she said. "If you live
in Denver and you're getting ready to retire, you can sell your
house there for $350,000, build a very nice home here for $125,000
and pocket the difference."
cities of Marquette, Minneapolis and Ellsworth, too, are offering
free home sites. Washington soon will.
getting ready to," said Washington's 33-year-old mayor, Travis
Kier. "We're not in a position not to -- we've got to do everything
we can do to entice business and bring people to town."
population 1,234, is hurting. It lost 57 residents between 1990
and 2000, and its population is one of the state's oldest.
to the 2000 census, 21 percent of Washington's population is younger
than 18; 27 percent is 65 or older. In Lawrence, by comparison,
21 percent of the population is under 18, but only 7.5 percent is
we're dealing with here is every time a farmer goes out -- retires
or whatever -- his land gets bought up by those around him,"
Kier said. "So instead of a new family moving in, we've got
fewer people farming more land.
then with fewer and fewer farms, and with the farm economy being
in a serious depression for a good 15 to 20 years, there's nothing
for the young people to come back for," he said. "And
without young people coming back, your population just gets older
the same time, Kier said, Washington's businesses find themselves
competing with Wal-Mart stores in nearby Marysville and Concordia
and in Beatrice, Neb. -- all less than an hour's drive away.
held on to our downtown, but nobody's getting rich," said Kier,
who owns grocery stores in Washington, Mankato and Clay Center.
"We're just trading dollars; there's no new money coming in."
next few weeks, Emery Hart, superintendent at Nes Tre La Go school
district in Utica, expects to drive to Topeka to testify before
the Legislature on behalf of the state's small schools.
bunch of us take turns going up there," Hart said. "If
we don't go, we won't be heard. And if we aren't heard, who knows
he goes, Hart knows someone will argue that while what's happening
in the state's small towns is regrettable, it's also tied to efficiency.
And efficiency always wins.
isn't so sure.
me explain to you this way," Hart said. "I happen to live
in Grinnell, and my wife and I belong to the Methodist Church there.
Last week, we had a meeting because the furnace is going out and
it's going to take about $20,000 to replace it.
since that meeting, I've had several Catholics come up to me and
say What can I do to help?'" Hart said. "That's
the way it is in a small town -- there's a sense of togetherness
you just don't get in a big city.
can't see how wiping all that out -- whether it's through (school)
consolidation or Wal-Mart or whatever -- is more efficient,"
he said. "There's got to be a point where we stop and say,
Hey, we've lost more than we gained.'"