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Study confirms Great Plains decline

By MIKE CORN

mcorn@dailynews.net

It is a land of seemingly endless skies and its mirror image of fertile soils, yet the vast majority of Great Plains is a land of sharply declining populations.

Save for a few notable exceptions, the Great Plains once again is becoming the new Great American Frontier -- settled so many years ago, only to be abandoned after wave after wave of adversity.

A new report by the Census Bureau, detailing the population of the Great Plains from 1950 through 2007, told a tale of woe for much of the region. Those woes hold true for virtually all of that portion of Kansas that lies in the Great Plains, effectively the western two-thirds of the state.

According to the report, the first of its kind for a region, 46 of the 58 Kansas counties in the Great Plains lost population between 1950 and 2007.

"In 1950, nearly a quarter of the Great Plains population lived in the Kansas and Nebraska portions of the region," the report by author Steven G. Wilson states. "By 2007, the two states' share of the Great Plains population dropped by more than half to 11 percent."

To be sure, the overall population of the Great Plains grew from 1950 to 2007, but virtually all of it came in a few Colorado and Texas counties.

"In truth, I'm seeing it as a really good confirmation of what Deborah and I have been talking about for years," said Frank Popper, the Rutgers University professor who, along with his wife, suggested that as the Great Plains emptied out, it should instead be populated with buffalo. The Poppers' theory was assailed as heresy -- empty words of East Coast radical professors.

Popper, however, notes that while the American frontier was declared "gone" in 1893, the population density in counties outside metropolitan areas of the Great Plains by 2007 had fallen to 1.5 people per square mile -- well short of the 2 persons per mile measure used to gauge frontier status.

The Poppers first suggested the idea of a Buffalo Commons in 1987. While they did not recommend that the federal government take action to empty the plains, they did suggest that planning was necessary as the inevitable occurred.

"As far as I can see, Kansas is not spared," Popper noted. "It doesn't jump up and down on it, because that's not census style, but it's a very bold but sad confirmation of what Deb and I have been saying."

"It's the same thing they've been going through the last 50 years," observed Joe Aistrup, a Kansas State University political scientist and former Fort Hays State University professor. "Really, it's been longer than that."

Indeed, many of the Great Plains counties, the study pointed out, long ago peaked in population. The dates vary, but population numbers for most northwest Kansas counties reached a high in 1930 or before, in some cases remaining as mere shadows of themselves today.

In northwest Kansas alone, nine townships -- living, breathing government entities with the ability to levy taxes -- have fewer than 15 people. Twenty-seven townships have fewer than 25 people.

Aistrup suspects that most counties will continue to decline, at least until some sort of equilibrium -- the population necessary to offer adequate support for a farming and ranching economy -- is reached.

He points to Greeley County as an example.

There, the population stands at about 1,800 people, a size that Aistrup thinks is about right to support the agriculture-based economy of the county.

At the western end of the state, he said, counties will balance out at about that level, somewhere around 1,800 people. Counties further east will strike a balance of about 3,000 residents, primarily because farms are slightly smaller.

Oil and natural gas development, Aistrup said, will likely result in higher populations.

As many as 30 counties will have fewer than 2,500 people, he thinks, and another 50 or 60 will have as many 5,000 people.

"This is a long process," he said.

The numbers really don't matter, argues Terry Woodbury, founder of what is now known as Public Square Communities, a Leoti-based group that helps counties look inward at what they have. He has been working with Wallace, Sheridan and Decatur counties in northwest Kansas.

Focusing solely on the loss of population, Woodbury said, can lead to trouble.

"The first thing to do is get an attitude adjustment and get a can-do attitude going on," he said. "If there's not a positive attitude then that is a bigger problem than the numbers. We are being pushed out of our old way of doing things because the numbers tell us we can't do what we've been doing and change our situation."

As an example, Woodbury points to Greensburg to show the power of taking a positive approach.

When a tornado all but destroyed the community, its residents could have simply collected the insurance and moved elsewhere. Instead, they decided to stay put, and Greensburg has become something of a model community.

"That was an opportunity to become entrepreneurs," he said.

Since then, Greensburg leaders have said they've been "having a tornado for 40 years, but we just didn't see it," Woodbury said.

"I would say most communities in northwest Kansas have been having a tornado for years," Woodbury noted.

In the counties where he's working, Woodbury's task is to help the town change its conversation.

"If you spend an hour beating up on yourself, you will not get out of this pattern," he said. "You have to shift from a whining, negative, survival conversation to a possibility thinking, hopeful and engaging conversation -- and you've got to engage people other than yourself."

While Aistrup sees a balance in counties, he also wonders if the numbers will be enough to support the current number of county governments.

"Is 3,000 people enough to justify the expense of a county government?" he asked. "That's the question. If the answer is yes, then that's the way we'll go."