Opinion Columns & Blogs

How to save Plains

In 1987, two Rutgers University researchers ignited a prairie fire by suggesting that much of the High Plains, including a large swath of Kansas farmland, should be returned to its natural state — what they called a Buffalo Commons.

The idea, which envisioned parts of 10 prairie states being transformed into a massive short-grass prairie national park, was derided as impractical, impossible and un-American. "The idea offended me," said former Kansas Gov. Mike Hayden, once a harsh Buffalo Commons critic.

But in the decades since, the population decline that spurred the plan not only continued, but accelerated. The already stressed Ogallala Aquifer, the sole source of water for much of the region, has dried up faster than anticipated. Irrigated farmland has become dry, low-production farmland. Local economies of the High Plains have dwindled.

Today, Buffalo Commons — far from threatening an iconic American lifestyle — may instead be a savior to the region.

"How do we bring a vital economy to life in northwest Kansas?" Hayden asked recently from his office as Kansas secretary of wildlife and parks. "The model we're now following has failed. Buffalo Commons makes more sense every year."

In Kansas, the primary focus would be in 16 northwestern counties. Since 1980, 12 of the counties have lost more than a quarter of their population, while the state population has increased by almost a fifth.

Rutgers professor Frank J. Popper, one of the Buffalo Commons architects, says it was never a plan, but a general idea of how to turn some horrible news about population losses into a positive for the region.

After decades of failing to attract business in northwestern Kansas, it's clear the model has to go in a different direction. Nobody wants to believe it, but agriculture is only 3 percent of the gross state product of Kansas, and that proportion is falling.

Especially in northwest Kansas, a big, new idea is needed.

The biggest asset of the region is its heritage, the prairie. The romance of an open space to the horizon — home to grazing bison, antelope, elk and deer — is the American story in a nutshell. Land as vast and open as an ocean.

So the Kansas City Star editorial board is suggesting a new million-acre park: Buffalo Commons National Park.

And, while this will be costly and upset some landowners, we're suggesting that private, state and federal officials start planning and purchasing the least-populated pieces of the state: Greeley and Wallace counties.

Land acquisition would cost something less than $1 billion. There's even a potential funding source. Democratic U.S. Sens. Jeff Bingaman of New Mexico and Max Baucus of Montana introduced a bill to fully and permanently fund the Land and Water Conservation Fund.

Since 1965, the fund has used offshore oil and gas royalties for land protection. In recent years, much of that money has been redirected, but the new bill would ensure the intended $900 million a year is available.

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.

* 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.