The Buffalo Commons: Redefining how we think about place, politics, and policy

June 21, 2012

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

One of my working hypotheses has been that commons discourse has great power because it is able to function as an open platform.  It is both general and specific.  I frequently compare the commons to DNA because both are under-specified design structures that evolve and adapt in relationship to local circumstances.  A certain ambiguity and incompleteness in the language of the commons is precisely what enables people to infuse it with their own specific values, needs and aspirations.  And this is what makes the commons both universally appealing and particular in its manifestations.Image Removed

Now I have found a wonderful confirmation of my hypothesis in the history of the Buffalo Commons.  In 1987, Frank J. Popper and Deborah Popper, husband-and-wife geographers, wrote an essay that argued that some 139,000 square miles of the Great Plains — the drier parts extending across ten Western and Midwest states – should become a vast nature preserve.  They dubbed their idea the Buffalo Commons, believing that reintroducing the American bison, popularly known as buffalo, could symbolize their vision for the region’s restoration and conservation in ways compatible with human needs.

The Poppers noted that the Great Plains had gone through several major boom and bust periods in American history, in which economic growth resulted in overgrazing, overplowing and excessive water use, which then resulted in busts as people migrated elsewhere, as they did during the Dust Bowl crises of the 1930s. The Poppers proposed that some 10 to 20 million acres of land should be allowed to return to its native vegetation, especially native prairie grasses, and that farming and ranching should be gradually phased out.  Writing in 1987, during yet the third major “bust” phase in the Great Plains, the Poppers realized that neither large-scale government intervention (dams, irrigation projects, etc.) nor conventional economic development (farming, ranching, mining) were sustainable.  Hence the idea of the commons — a collaborative plan that might emerge from people themselves.

In an essay to be published in Geographical Review (but posted on the website of the Great Plains Restoration Council), the Poppers review the history of the Buffalo Commons idea over the past 15 years and conclude that the very term has been valuable as a “regional metaphor and geographic method.”  They write:

We conceived the Buffalo Commons in part as a literary device, a metaphor that would resolve the narrative conflicts – past, present and most important, future – of the Plains.  In land-use terms, the Buffalo Commons was an umbrella phrase for a large-scale, long-term restoration project to counter the effects of the three cycles [of boom and bust]….The Buffalo Commons would not mean buffalo on every acre; but where Plains land uses were not working well either environmentally or economically, replacement land uses that treated the land more lightly would become inevitable.  The federal government would oversee the replacement, and the new land uses would fall between intensive cultivation/extraction and pure wilderness.  The Buffalo Commons used metaphor as a way to give form and words to the unknowable future.

The term “Buffalo Commons” was quickly picked up by the news media, and soon the idea of a Buffalo Commons on the Great Plains was provoking all sorts of debate.  The Poppers spoke at countless conferences, schools, civic centers, TV stations, and received mountains of mail.  With the perspective of hindsight, the Poppers now realize that the metaphor they coined had taken on a life of its own:   

For some the Buffalo Commons was only about bison, for others about wildlife in general, for others about raising cattle to more closely mimic bison behavior.  The metaphor might mean getting the people out of the region, encouraging their coexistence with wildlife, or promoting economic development based on wildlife.  People variously interpreted the metaphor as a general assault on their way of life, an evocation of a fabled past, a vision of a feasible future, or a distillation of what they were already doing.  Many Plains people intensely disliked the commons portion of the metaphor, associating it with collectivism and lack of choice, but even so the strength of their reaction helped achieve some community-building.  

The intense discussion revealed that the very ambiguity of the Buffalo Commons metaphor “helped foster accord between groups or individuals who were otherwise deeply divided.  For example, Native Americans and white ranchers and farmers could agree that people should not be uprooted involuntarily from their homes and way of life….. Sometimes the one point a group could agree on was that they did not like the Buffalo Commons, but at least that gave them a starting point.  From there, they took up the metaphor and pushed it into the future by elaborating on the values and choices they wishes to attain and avoid.”

The deployment of the term “Buffalo Commons,” in short, provoked a highly valuable social conversation about the shared future of people, the land and other forms of life.  While governments and policy wonks would want to propose clear, legalistic rules, the Poppers found that the commons helped instigate an open, iterative social engagement:  “Story and metaphor work as process, engendering new layers of understanding as they get diffused.  They loop back as discussion grows and meaning gets amplified and modified.  In this process, the Buffalo Commons has grown to have concreteness and specificity.  The question is no longer why or whether the Buffalo Commons will occur, but how.”

I was surprised to learn this, but the Poppers insist that the Buffalo Commons “is materializing more quickly and with less federal intervention that we had anticipated; the formation is particularly rapid in the northern Plains.”  In the Dakotas, for example, new economic development plans focused on the bison are now backed by ranchers, Plains Indians and even the North Dakota governor and the U.S. Forest Service, which allows roaming buffalo to graze on its National Grasslands.

The Poppers cite numerous works of fiction, histories and local activism that the Buffalo Commons idea has inspired.  Why such a cultural impact?  “Many fields find that metaphor provides a means to connect with and understand a messy world,” they write.  “As a literary device, it is at least as allusive as programmatic.  It interprets and enlarges meanings.  It creates – in a literary fashion – a place apart, space for reflection.  It works especially well in times of great change, disorder or disjunction.  Geographer Anne Buttimer writes, ‘A treasure of insight can be unlocked via metaphorical rather than literal or rational thinking….because metaphor performs a poetic as well as conservative function in ordinary language, preserving as well as creating knowledge about actual and potential connections between different realms of reality.’  She finds that choices of metaphors reveal values and show how one sees the world.  Metaphors are thus useful both to create and explain meaning.”

The Poppers essay is well worth reading for its confirmation that the language of the commons is a powerful framing device and tool for social deliberation.  They speculate how other regions of the US might constructively use their own metaphors.  The Pacific Northwest could use the salmon, for example, which “offers its region simultaneous commercial, wildlife and mythic possibilities.”  (Ecotrust in Portland has in fact launched a “Salmon Nation” project.) 

Detroit could preserve 12 crumbling blocks of its downtown as a monument to the 1920s vision of life, an idea proposed by New York City author and photographer Camilo Jose Vergara.  This “American Acropolis” would be a testament to the world of pre-Depression skyscrapers, department stores and hotels.  Fantastic idea! 

Another regional idea is to establish somehow a Great Lakes Commons, a visionary idea that could itself become a catalytic, transformative force. If people take seriously the idea of creating a commons, it forces them to engage with nature and each other in profoundly different ways than simply looking to politicians, lawsuits or regulatory agencies for answers.

In these and other cases, the idea is to take a “seemingly negative premise” – a situation of decline and trouble – and turn it into a vehicle for open, shared exploration and innovation.  For me, this brings to mind, also, the work of Nikos Salingaros in promoting “peer to peer urbanism” as a new way of designing urban spaces.  It’s an open-source model of participation by anyone that seeks to meet real human needs, and not cater to celebrity architects and corporate dreams. 

The Poppers believe that the Buffalo Commons has been so powerful precisely because the idea was not controlled by them, but open to mass participation:   “Our work has been most effective when least controlling.  We never planned to intervene in the life of the Great Plains….As our lack of power became clear [to the public], the resistance diminished, and the emergence of the Buffalo Commons became more likely.  The different interpretations have resulted in a more varied, flexible, diverse Buffalo Commons than we could have imagined ourselves.”

There is a lesson for geography, politics and public policy in the social history of the Buffalo Commons.  The Poppers cite a South Dakota rancher-writer, Linda Hasselstrom, who wrote:  “Broad generalities and general theories confuse and anger me.  Reality hinges on practicality, and knowledge that has daily use.”  The Poppers continue:  “Her stance challenges geography, for conceptualizing a region requires generalities and theories.  Regional metaphor offers a method to deepen them, bring them closer to a public that can make them practical.” 

And so we have a case study:  The Buffalo Commons proves the power of the language of the commons in helping to imagine and deliberate, openly and constructively, about a shared future. A commons is arising without any official announcements or celebrations.  I think there are some lessons here.

David Bollier

David Bollier is an activist, scholar, and blogger who is focused on the commons as a new/old paradigm for re-imagining economics, politics, and culture. He pursues his commons scholarship and activism as Director of the Reinventing the Commons Program at the Schumacher Center for a New Economics and as cofounder of the Commons Strategies Group, an international advocacy project. Author of Think Like a Commoner and other books, he blogs... Read more.

Tags: Building Community, Culture & Behavior, Media & Communications