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December 1991

Across the lonely plains

by Matt Bergstrom

In the middle of August, I was riding a Powder River Lines bus across Wyoming. As we gassed up in Moorcroft our bus driver, Duane Johnson, facetiously asked if we would like to get off here. None of the passengers replied. We might have been too intimidated by our driver’s insane whining mumblings. "I’m one of the Johnson boys–you may have heard about me," he had warned before we could leave Rapid City. But as we parked outside Donna’s Diner, waiting for Duane to see if there were any passengers to pick up, I could see why so few would want to arrive here. One dusty green tractor drove down the main street past half-deserted diesel co-ops and motels. A sad listlessness stirred the trash in the gutter. Except for the convenience store by the interstate, the town seemed to have lost most of the life it probably had ten years ago.

It was several months later that I heard on the radio something that may explain what had happened to this town and many others on the Plains. It was a speech by Frank Popper, an urban studies professor at Rutger University. He was explaining his proposal for a huge open game park he called ‘Buffalo Common’. The Buffalo Common would unite dozens of counties in Kansas, South Dakota and North Dakota into a large park which would be restored to prairie and stocked with bison and antelope for hunting.

The western Plains have always had a hard time keeping their population. After the boom of opening of these areas to homesteaders in the 1850’s to 1860’s, the financial panic of the 1870’s drove many of these settlers back East or farther west. Then the needs of World War I caused another boom for farming settlement, which became the Dust Bowl of the Great Depression. Once again, increased grain production after World War II caused another boom. Is today’s exodus of young people from Plains states the next swing of the cycle?

It seems impossible to sustain agriculture on the western plains without outside assistance. Popper found that in some of the most depressed counties in these areas, 60% of the income came from the federal government. These areas cannot seem to support themselves for more than a few years.

Of course, the farmers and ranchers in these counties may not want to sell their land back to the government, but Popper projected that from the decreasing population growth of these places, there will be so few people living there it will almost be a park. Unless a new industry is discovered, counties in two large areas away from interstates and big towns will in twenty to thirty years almost become a ‘Buffalo Common’.

Whether or not the park will ever be created, it is clear that exploitive economics cannot be sustained for long. As for Moorcroft, how long will the next oil boom last?


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Copyright 2012 Matt Bergstrom. Text Copyright Matt Bergstrom