August 2017

Reimagining the Buffalo Commons


Stephen Wall


To look upon that landscape in the early morning, with the sun at your back, is to lose the sense of proportion. Your imagination comes to life, and this, you think, is where Creation was begun.   

­— N. Scott Momaday


When I was a young man, I used to go to work on my uncle’s ranch for a couple of weeks each summer. I marked lambs, branded calves and helped with the myriad of tasks that needed to be done on that 70-square-mile ranch about 80 miles north of Roswell, New Mexico. On those high plains, I learned to appreciate the land as an undulating ocean of grass, hills and valleys. I enjoyed the exhilaration of space. There was a high point overlooking the valley that held the ranch headquarters, and from that hill I could look west and see the tops of the highest peaks in the Sacramento Mountains, a place I consider my spiritual home. If I looked east, I saw the land descending towards the Pecos River under a great sky that stretched from horizon to horizon.


I was caught in the rapture of space and imagination. I bathed in the spiritual power of that place. As I have ventured into the Plains many times in the last few decades, that spiritual connection has been renewed.


The Buffalo Commons

In December 1987, Deborah and Frank Popper co-authored an essay that appeared in Planning Magazine. In “The Great Plains: From Dust to Dust,” the Poppers coined the phrase “Buffalo Commons.” The concept was that the challenges of economic development on the Great Plains presented an opportunity to create a new paradigm for resource management, one in which the “Commons” would provide the foundation for the economy. The Buffalo Commons was seen as that great open space in the middle of the continent; short-grass prairie bounded by the 98th parallel to the east and the Rocky Mountains to the west, south as far as San Antonio and north to where the Canadian plains gave way to northern forests.


The Poppers had an exclusively economic argument for the creation of the Buffalo Commons. In each state that contains a portion the Commons, the counties within the Commons had extremely low populations, averaging fewer than s persons per square mile. The largest city within the Commons was Lubbock, Texas, with Denver sitting at the western edge, relying more on the resources of the mountains than the plains. In a later article, “The Buffalo Commons: Its Antecedents and Their Implications” (2006), the Poppers pointed out that all of the development that took place on the Commons occurred in an environment of massive federal subsidy and continual crisis-based economic insecurity. The Homestead Act brought people to the Plains with the promise of free land, land that became federal land through land cessions by Indian tribes, some by consent, most by force. Weather and a national financial panic depopulated the Commons in the 1890s and again in the Dust Bowl era of the 1930s. Agricultural subsidies have allowed the rancher and farmer to remain where natural laws of supply and demand would have left them with no basis for support.


Another point brought out by the Poppers was that the short-grass prairie was a delicate ecosystem with little precipitation and weather extremes. Thus the “sodbusters” who thought that breaking the soil for cultivation would bring prosperity only found that the power of nature overwhelmed their dreams. It has only been through federal subsidies and the development of technology that the marginal agricultural capacity on the Commons has continued.


What the Poppers saw in the 1980s and reflected upon in 2006 has been magnified in the past decade. A worldwide economic crisis has increased economic insecurity for millions or maybe billions of people. Economic growth is at a standstill in the U.S. and other industrial countries, while daily survival is problematic for millions in Africa and even in the industrial countries. Similarly, climate change on the Great Plains has begun to impact weather patterns, with extremes in weather increasing stress on plant and animal communities and increasing costs for agriculture, energy development and other human activities.


Farming in the Commons is dependent upon the Ogallala Aquifer. The aquifer water is millions of years old. It was created by water flowing from the Rocky Mountains during the Pleistocene Age. The Ogallala Aquifer covers parts of New Mexico, Texas, Colorado, Kansas, Nebraska, Wyoming and South Dakota. The average saturated thickness is about 200 feet; it exceeds 1,000 feet in west-central Nebraska and is only one-tenth that in much of western Texas, with a water table ranging from 50-300 feet from the surface, although there are some places where springs are charged from the aquifer.

“The Ogallala Aquifer, whose total water storage is about equal to that of Lake Huron in the Midwest, is the single most important source of water in the High Plains region, providing nearly all the water for residential, industrial and agricultural use. Because of widespread irrigation, farming accounts for 94 percent of the groundwater use. Irrigated agriculture forms the base of the regional economy. It supports nearly one-fifth of the wheat, corn, cotton and cattle produced in the United States. Crops provide grains and hay for confined feeding of cattle and hogs and for dairies. The cattle feedlots support a large meatpacking industry. Without irrigation from the Ogallala Aquifer, there would be a much smaller regional population and far less economic activity.”


The Ogallala Aquifer is being mined, meaning that more water is being taken out than what can be recharged through precipitation. This mining process has been taking place ever since the development of internal-combustion-engine-powered irrigation wells. The eventual depletion of the aquifer will mean that the Commons will no longer be a place where industrial-scale farming can take place, and most human activity will be threatened.


Today the Ogallala Aquifer produces water for 20 percent of the U.S. agricultural production. The industrial agricultural use of the Ogallala has reduced the saturated thickness by about 100 feet in Kansas, New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas. The rate of depletion is now about 2.5 feet per year. There has to be a level of saturation high enough to support water withdrawal. Apparently, there is only about 15 percent of the aquifer that has the saturation level sufficient for irrigation pumping. Increasingly, the economic basis for agricultural activity has been improvements in technology. Center- pivot irrigation systems, coupled with drop sprinklers, have increased efficiency, and there have been attempts to force the groundwater into specific areas to increase saturation using air injection. As valiant as these efforts are, they cannot stop the mining of the aquifer and its eventual depletion.


The Ogallala Aquifer represents further diminishment of the promise of the Great Plains as imagined by most Americans. The delicate balance of the short-grass prairie, empire and development through subsidy and technology are rapidly coming into contention with the reality of climate change, costs of production and diminishing populations. It is from this reality that a new paradigm for resource management must emerge.


The Buffalo

The American buffalo (bison) is accorded the status as the primary symbol of the Great Plains. Herds of thousands of bison ranged freely over the Great Plains from Canada to Texas. From an estimated 50 million buffalo in the mid-1800s, the population declined to fewer than a few hundred by the end of the 19th century, mostly because of sport hunting and the federal policy of reducing the herds to gain control over the Plains Indians who relied on the animal for just about all of their needs. The great buffalo migrations, so graphically depicted in the movie “Dances with Wolves,” is a symbol of the Buffalo Commons: the movement of thousands of animals, unimpeded by fences, rights-of-way or fears of infecting domestic cattle.


The buffalo is a national symbol, but it is even more. As the largest and most powerful herbivore on the Plains, the buffalo carries a legacy that cannot be compared. Almost every tribe west of the Mississippi River has a buffalo dance in some form or another. And although we know that many tribes have not been able to recover their specific buffalo dance tradition, reverence for the animal remains. We can see the power of that reverence in the Pueblo Buffalo dances today. That reverence translates to the buffalo as a metaphor for the spirit of the land, the power of Nature, the revitalization of traditional cultures.


The Commons

As a social and cultural concept, the commons encompass an area of land that is owned by all of the members of the community. The commons are set aside from private ownership to ensure that resources needed for the benefit of the whole community are not withheld from the community. Historically, for most Americans, the best-known commons is the Boston Common. The Boston Common was established, first, as a place to graze animals and later as a central park in which community activities took place including hangings, funerals, protests and celebrations.  


For people in New Mexico, which became a part of the United States in 1848 with the signing of the Treaty of Guadalupe-Hidalgo, the concept of the commons has a different level of meaning. During the time of Spanish colonization and for a period thereafter, land grants were given to the pueblos, municipalities and families by the Spanish Crown. Each land grant set aside land that was to be used as commons. That was land to be used and shared by the beneficiaries of the land grant for grazing, hunting, gathering of wood, medicinal plants and foods, and to protect the watershed. But we see that with the arrival of the Americans in 1848, the concept of the commons was not appreciated by the newcomers. Very quickly there were attempts to separate the land grant owners from their land. What the Santa Fe Ring was unable to commandeer in he 1870s, the United States took over through the Transfer Act of 1905. All of the land grant commons were folded into the National Forest system. Suddenly, control and management of the commons went from kivas, council houses and community centers to Washington, D.C. and its regional and local agencies.


Today the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Park Service maintain and manage the “American Commons,” public land owned by all Americans. But the management of U.S. public lands often does not reflect the concept of commons; it reflects current political and economic interests with the notion of private property underlying many management decisions. Ranchers holding federal grazing permits regularly prevent ingress by hunters, sport fishermen and hikers. Mining companies hold large swaths of lands for exploration and extraction while prohibiting access by the public for recreation and other land-based practices. Today’s political climate is one in which there is an attack on the American Commons. The lack of economic growth has led many to think that the privatization of the Commons is the key to economic growth. Attempts to privatize or eliminate the National Park system, counties claiming jurisdiction over the Forest Service lands, federal land takeovers and refusal of federal permit holders to pay their fees or follow regulations are examples of these attacks. The problem with the individuals, businesses and counties resisting federal control of the Commons is that their intentions are based in private property, exclusive use by the owner and sale to the highest bidder, leaving the community without access and without the ability to participate in traditional land-based practices.


The Spirit of the Commons

The Spirit of the Commons mitigates against the idea of private use of the commons. The commons is based in the idea that a community needs to have a place that is for the benefit of the community as a whole. Of course, this the antithesis of privatization. The Spirit of the Commons is recognition of the interconnectedness of our private lives and private needs and the life and needs of the community. The well-being of the individual is based on the well-being of the community as a whole. La vida buena y sana por todos. The Spirit of the Commons also recognizes that all beings of the commons have a right to exist and their existence is necessary for the well-being of the commons. The idea of separation of humans from nature is hard to overcome. But in order to recognize the power of interconnectedness, we need to recognize that it is our choices and technology that reinforce our disconnection. It is not our status as human. The Spirit of the Commons is calling out to us to give up our notions of separateness so that we can again share our common legacy with the animals, plants, mountains, plains, rivers and lakes.


The symbol of the Buffalo Commons is one of a return to a way of seeing the world in which resources are not for the benefit of a select few. Tribal peoples had no concept of private property beyond what people needed in their household and personal effects. The Spanish land grants recognized the need for individuals to have private property: a house, tools, fields, livestock and more. However, the power of unlimited private property accumulation was held in check. The presence of the commons ensured that everyone in the community had access to resources necessary for la vida buena y sana. A person could become rich through management of the property he or she had, not by monopolizing the resources of the community and demanding payment for access. At that time in the history of the Southwest, the family and community were the foundational institutions and supporting and strengthening those institutions was of utmost importance.


The polemics of private property versus government property has not served the needs of public resource management. The task before us is to redefine resource management in a way that acknowledges the right of people to have private property while recognizing the community and its needs and rights. Models for that resource management lie within our collective imagination and creativity. Historical precedents such as tribal land management concepts and Spanish land grants can give insight to the process. Human organization can take many forms. Political and economic organization can also take many forms. The human mind is capable of miraculous accomplishments, if we do not burden it with ideas and beliefs that created the situation in which we currently find ourselves.


Thus, the concept of the “Buffalo Commons” is more than an economic argument. It has spiritual overtones that reflect the primordial space of the Great Plains, the connection between humans and other beings, animate or inanimate, of the Plains and the awareness that we must, as a people, recognize the need for shared space and the vida buena y sana por todos.


Born in Roswell, New Mexico, Stephen Wall, J.D., is a member of the White Earth Nation (Chippewa). Wall serves as chair of the Indigenous Liberal Studies Department at the Institute of American Indian Arts. He is also an artist and writer.



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