Along the Tracks

Wednesday, October 29, 2003

Buffalo Nick

I’ve been a supporter of the “Buffalo Commons” idea, in some form at least, for many moons. Nick Kristof makes the case today in the NYT - not really getting into numbers or rights or even “environmental morals,” just pointing out that the Great Plains is once again becoming uninhabited across wide stretches, towns are dying, and now may be the time to consider an idea which might revive the region through ecotourism.

Here’s the gist of the “Buffalo Commons” concept: Wide stretches of public land, untilled private land and marginal private land would be lumped together in a “commons,” which would include some kind of financial incentive program for land owners (maybe similar to the Conservation Reserve Program). The key here would be to put together wide, uninterrupted stretches of land which would revert to its previous grassland state. Bison would be reintroduced as wild herds, followed by wolves, pronghorn, elk, prairie dogs, even grizzly bears.

Under the idea myself and others have kicked around over beers at the Town Tap, indigenous tribes of American Indians would be partners with the Interior Department in managing the commons, and those who wanted could be a part of the entire tourism picture by recreating the previous Plains Indian lifestyle - either as a directly paid position or, more likely, as an “stockholder” in tribe-owned tourism corporations (tour guides, hotels, amenities, etc.).

I believe this would, at least in some small way, make good on U.S. government promises which have been ignored across 200-plus years of dealings with Indian tribes. The small towns dying today might be able to survive as tourist-drawing outposts of the “Old West” (as Kristof points out).

Finally, this might force a debate on farm subsidies that is desperately needed. Non-conservation subsidies a) keep marginal land in production; b) provide huge advantages to larger farms; c) artificially increases land values, making small operators choose between minimal income and massive debt load; d) create a grain glut which lowers world market prices, increasing subsidy costs; e) create a grain glut which lowers world market prices, damaging the ag economies of struggling Third World nations. A government check to landowners for inclusion in the Buffalo Commons would, in my humble opinion, represent legitimate payment for land use - much like the CRP. Taking those thousands of acres off the production table would have an immediate, positive effect on grain prices (probably livestock too, depending on how the commons would deal with grazing). Higher prices would mean less need for subsidies for farmers still producing in high-yield states like Iowa, Missouri, Illinois, Indiana and Ohio. The money spent on the commons payments would certainly be paid back in lowered need for subsidies elsewhere - perhaps several times over. And we have not even considered the value of an influx of cash to struggling Great Plains towns, counties and states; Indian tribes and reservations; and farmers throughout the Third World.

Frankly, I’ve always found it difficult to identify any negatives to this "Buffalo Commons" idea. Higher food prices? The price of grain accounts for anywhere from 1 to 5 percent of most products - double, triple the grain price and you would barely notice the change at the supermarket. Livestock prices are more directly related, but even here, since we are talking almost exclusively beef and sheep, the effects would be limited by the laws of supply and demand, and farmers nationwide are quick to identify “growth markets” and buy an extra hundred head of feeder calves, etc., when it looks like prices will make that investment worthwhile. The market would handle it.

The “forced change of lifestyle” argument is the best one against the commons: What right do we have telling people how to live on their own land? I guess I’d say “Not much.” That’s why I think tailoring this to be a conservation program would encourage participation. And dropping subsidies would force the corporate farms to decide whether their marginal returns on Great Plains wheat fields are really better than signing up to a semi-permanent reserve program. People need to remember: Farmers are being forced to change their lifestyles every day - and this has been the case at least since the Great Depression. It’s a slow death right now everywhere, including in Northwest Ohio. But at least here, the land’s productiveness makes it worth the inevitable changes to larger size and greater efficiency. If you’re getting a solid 70 bushels to the acre with wheat, you can be a “farm family” and make a living on the land one family can farm. But if its more like 30 bushels, plus irrigation costs, you need about a bajillion acres to see a profit, and that means more equipment, more employees, special deals with seed companies and grain buyers - in other words, a corporate farm.

I don’t have anything against corporate farms, per se; I just don’t like to see my tax dollars used to force out family farmers, destroy small towns, create Third World dependency on cheap American grain, and, yes, line the pockets of a very few investors who often times have never even seen the “farm” they own. Business is business, and I don’t blame people for doing all they can to make a profit - but as a voter and taxpayer, I don’t want my government giving them breaks over the men and women who actually till the soil.

By letting the buffalo roam once again, perhaps we can reset the equilibrium in the ag industry, respond to long-forsaken needs in the American Indian community, provide a little hope for small towns in the West, and bring back to life an ecosystem which inspires Americans and the world to this day.

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