Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Great Plains National Park

This article at KansasCity.com has endorsed one of the best environmental ideas floating in the universe--creating a national preserve on the Great Plains that would have free-roaming bison and other native species. Coined "the buffalo commons" by Frank and Deborah Popper twenty years ago, this idea has great potential to revitalize the economy and environment of the western Plains. When the Poppers first floated the idea, the reaction against was fierce, but the economy of the Plains is even worse now than in 1980. Depopulation has continued. There are several large counties in western Nebraska for instance with less than 1000 people apiece. If this land is used for anything these days, it's usually dryland grazing, though there is some oil and natural gas exploration and some areas have become centers of meat processing plants.

Desperate for some kind of economic growth, Plains states are starting to revisit the buffalo commons idea. Talking about Kansas, here's what the site says:

There are numerous arguments in favor of this plan:

•Kansas is vastly underrepresented 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.

•A new national park would attract tourists. Europeans, in love with the romance of the American West, would be drawn to it, as would other international visitors and Americans. Parks of similar size and remoteness in Texas and North Dakota attract at least 300,000 visitors a year. With the central location of Kansas, it has the potential to attract more.

•Tourism could grow into a lifeline for surrounding counties, all of which are struggling to find ways to keep native sons and daughters at home, but have largely failed to build enough industry or create enough jobs.

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

Buffalo Commons is an idea whose time has come.

As Walt Whitman explained more than 100 years ago: “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.”

All of these arguments make a great deal of sense, both economically and aesthetically. Moreover, the intelligent commentators at Ralph Maugham's Wildlife News offer positive suggestions on how to best manage this land, including making it a National Wildlife Refuge rather than a National Park, which would create a different mission to manage it. Another person suggested allowing limited hunting out here--I'd bet a lot of people would be pretty excited to kill a bison, and allowing them to roam fairly free would create very large herds where this could happen.

Let's face it--the prairie and its wildlife is the only way these states are going to attract tourists. There are a few very small places where this already exists--Theodore Roosevelt National Park in North Dakota and Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve in eastern Kansas--and they are very cool places that have helped keep local economies going. The TR Park is far and away the top tourist attraction in North Dakota. It basically keeps entire towns alive. Some of this tourism is Roosevelt related and some of it is nature related; combined it is the long-term economic engine of southwestern North Dakota. Buying up available lands is the best way to start doing this--you don't want to use eminent domain, but there's a lot of people looking to sell voluntarily. Offer them a good price and you'll see these parks develop pretty quickly.