BiodiversityGeneralLivestockSoil ConservationSoil Rehabilitation

The Buffalo Commons

Here’s an idea that should be embraced and championed by all earth repair advocates: The Buffalo Commons.

The Buffalo Commons is a conceptual proposal to create a vast nature preserve by returning 139,000 square miles (360,000 km2) of the drier portion of the Great Plains to native prairie, and by reintroducing the buffalo, or American Bison, that once grazed the short grass prairie.

The proposal originated with Frank J. Popper and Deborah Popper, who argued in a 1987 essay (PDF) that the current use of the drier parts of the plains for agriculture is not sustainable. The authors viewed the historic European-American settlement of the Plains States as hampered by lack of understanding of the ecology and an example of the "Tragedy of the Commons". Many people in potentially affected states resisted the concept during the 1990s:

There once were over 400 million acres of wild prairie grasslands in the central part of North America. The backbone of the Buffalo Commons movement is the work — over a period of decades — to re-establish and re-connect prairie wildland reserves and ecological corridors large enough for bison and all other native prairie wildlife to survive and roam freely, over great, connected distances, while simultaneously restoring the health and sustainability of our communities wherever possible so that both land and people may prosper for a very long time. Future generations may choose to expand these reserves and corridors, as the new culture of caring and belonging we have started today becomes an integral, ingrained part of life in the world of tomorrow, especially as extensive grasslands become needed to help absorb carbon from the atmosphere. (Highly biodiverse native prairies are excellent carbon sequesters.) – Buffalo Commons

It’s fascinating material and an idea worth entertaining, to say the least. The Poppers propose that a significant portion of the region be gradually shifted from farming and ranching use. They envision an area of native grassland, of perhaps 10 or 20 million acres (40,000 or 80,000 km²) in size.

Further Reading:

Rhamis Kent

Rhamis Kent is a consultant with formal training in mechanical engineering (University of Delaware, B.S.M.E. '95) and permaculture-based regenerative whole systems design. He has previously worked for the renowned American inventor and entrepreneur Dean Kamen at DEKA Research & Development, with subsequent engineering work ranging from medical device research and development to aerospace oriented mechanical design. After taking an interest in the design science of Permaculture, he sought extended training with permaculture expert and educator Geoff Lawton at the Permaculture Research Institute of Australia. This led to his involvement with design work connected to the development of Masdar City in UAE after Mr. Lawton and his consulting company (Permaculture Sustainable Consultancy Pty. Ltd.) were contracted by AECOM/EDAW to identify solutions which fit the challenging zero emissions/carbon neutral design constraint of the project.


  1. I see they’re engaging in much back patting and whitewashing of the past. The Buffalo Commons proposal was just one in a maize of human hating, earth worshiping efforts to rid the Great Plains of its human inhabitants. Its based more in faith than fact and has its own fair share of ecological misunderstandings. The resistance to their faulty ideas isn’t past tense.

    Great Plains agriculture is being affected by the same problems plaguing all of industrial agriculture, its just the fragile environment makes it more noticeable and has made it harder on the inhabitants. Agriculture can be sustainable there, especially with the application of permaculture; with or without buffalo.

    Not sure how you can claim a system of private land ownership is an example of the tragedy of the commons.

    Anyway, permaculture has a lot to offer the inhabitants of the Great Plains to improve their lives and the environment; but the BC isn’t one of them.

  2. I get the concept as I sit here and watch mobs of 100+ Kangaroos grazing on our 25 acres because we haven’t put any domesticated animals on our land. Just one of them would sustain our family with meat for a month but we are not allowed to touch them. Hence why so many property owners try to get rid of them as they are of no use in our current situation and eat the food that is reserved for our livestock.

  3. Pete,

    The BC has nothing to do with hating humans. You’re reading something into it that simply isn’t there. This an issue of land/resource use (land being the primary resource). Agriculture (the conventional/industrial variety)is just a horrible use of land – period.

    Ultimately, people can do whatever they want in an attempt to make a living. The BC sounds very similar to an arrangment like Holistic Management, or a way of adapting pasture cropping. It’s just a far more intelligent way to go.

    Unless people like hemorrhaging money, other methodologies of land & resource management need to be considered. The BC is as good an idea as has been proposed. It sure beats what’s happening on the Great Plains now…

  4. Who owns all this land? If this is a voluntary cooperation among landowners, then that’s awesome. Somehow though I think lots of eminent domain or other forms of theft are being envisioned.

  5. JBob,

    Again, this misses the point. The BC is a proposal suggesting best use for a specific portion of land which is currently under utilized or misused.

    This is all about optimizing the use of natural capital.

  6. Sorry Rhamis, your backyard here is currently being underutilized and we’ve deemed that converting it to a homeless shelter would really optimize the use of this natural capital. Hope you don’t mind, thanks!

  7. The BC would be a good way to restore the environment in the region in question and even improve its amenability to human habitation in the long run.

    Now, there has to be a way to preserve the bison living in the BC. Giving control of it to a private cooperative would be best; they would most likely control how many heads of bison are taken per annum and so strike a balance between preservation and profit; the US government might end up giving up control of the BC to private large corporations and allow it to go to waste, thus defeating the purpose for which it was set up in the first place.

    In any case keeping enough bison on the land to maintain the natural balance is imperative. IMHO a private co-op would be best. Of course they will want to profit from the BC and therefore will do so, but at the same time they will be inclined to care for the natural environment of the area as much as possible since they can make only as much money as (natural) circumstances permit. Commercially inspired rapine & greed will only lead to the destruction of the BC’s environment — and the profitability thereof.

    The word “profit” is mentioned here, but of course there is more to profit than just pocket money. Proceeds will have to go into regular observations of the BC to ensure that the environment is not damaged. This alone would cost a few million USD per year. Also, annual culls of bison must be managed so that not too many heads are taken; the bison must be able to maintain their numbers. Doing so costs additiona money. Thus, even if the actual profit margin from such a venture is not what most people would consider substantial, at least there will be enough to ensure the viability of the BC.

    Finally, would human habitation be possible on the BC? Perhaps, but settlement patterns must not interfere too much with the ecological processes of the place, including bison migration and reproduction. In short, life on the BC will be different from the city (-.-)

  8. The BC currently does not exist. There is no government plan to create one. This paper is a merely a suggestion, albeit a good one, by two professors of how the “Great American Desert” as John Wesley Powell called it, could be utilized in a way that required fewer capital inputs (and government susbsidies) and would be gentler on the land. Land necessary to form a BC in the vast Great Plains of North America would either come from a private cooperative agreement among many landowners or from a federal government buyout, like the one that happened in the 1930s to create the National Grasslands (largely fragmented, small parcels that blewout during the dust bowl days.)

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