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 shortgrass prairie. The proposal would affect ten Western U.S. states.
The proposal originated with Frank J. Popper and Deborah Popper, who argued in a 1987 essay that the current use of the drier parts of the plains is not sustainable. Most seriously debated in the 1990s, the idea has been hugely unpopular in the affected states, and has little chance of implementation on a large scale.
The Poppers claim of unsustainability is indicated by, among other things, periodic disasters such as the Dust Bowl and continuing significant population loss over the last 80 years. They point out that the rural Plains has lost a third of its population since 1920. Several hundred thousand square miles of the Great Plains have fewer than 6 persons per square mile - the population density standard Frederick Jackson Turner used in his Frontier Thesis to declare the American Frontier "closed" in 1893. Large areas have fewer than 2 persons per square mile. They showed that the number of "frontier counties" increased by 14 between 1980 and 2000, and pointed out that there are more than 6,000 ghost towns in the State of Kansas alone (according to Kansas historian Daniel Fitzgerald). They claim that the decline is accelerating.
2000 U.S. population density in persons per sq. mile: yellow 1-4, light green, 5-9
The Poppers propose that a significant portion of the region be "deprivatized", and envision an area of native grassland perhaps 10 or 20 million acres (40,000 or 80,000 km²) in size. One way to achieve this would be through voluntary contracts between the Forest Service and Plains farmers and ranchers, paying them the value of what they would have cultivated over the next 15 years but requiring them instead to plant and reestablish native shortgrasses according to a Forest Service-approved program. At the end of the period, the Forest Service would purchase their holdings except for a 40-acre (160,000 m2) homestead.
The proposal has attracted some public attention, and has met with intense criticism from most Plains residents. Its proponents answer that the criticism is based on a misunderstanding that the plan would be coercive rather than voluntary, and believe that something like the proposal is likely to happen with or without government involvement, thanks to rural depopulation. The Poppers draw parallels with Northern New England's agricultural depopulation following the opening of transportation with the West in the 1830s, which led to the return of forests.
North Dakota's 2000 economic roadmap noted the idea was "vilified" but suggested the idea could translate into tourism dollars. This was just one among many economic development avenues suggested in the report.