Deborah Epstein Popper is a graduate student in geography at Rutgers University, and Frank J. Popper chairs the university’s urban studies department there: in New Brunswick, New Jersey, about as far away from the Great Plains, in every way, as you can get.

The Poppers published a long article in the December 1987 issue of Planning (American Planning Association). The article was titled “The Great Plains: From Dust to Dust” and subtitled “a daring proposal for dealing with an inevitable disaster.” Their thesis is that we are presently acting upon “the largest, longest-running agricultural and environmental miscalculation in American history.” The “miscalculation”? That the Great Plains can grow crops and sustain cattle.

“Over the next generation[!] the Plains will . . . become almost totally depopulated,” say the authors, at which point—or better yet, before which—the federal government should buy as much land as it can and return it to shortgrass. The Great Plains would be at its best, in fact, as a national grassland, and the sooner the better. The Poppers think that the national grasslands we have today, used mainly for low-intensity grazing and recreation, “rank among the most successful types of federal landholdings.”

So what’s the “Great Plains,” anyway? Just the Dakotas and a little bit of Nebraska and Montana, which, if they’re good enough for secret missile silos and radioactive garbage, are certainly good enough to revert to grass? Well, readers who live elsewhere should be advised that the Poppers define the Great Plains as a region whose “eastern border is the 98th meridian,” which runs straight up through the hearts of Texas, Oklahoma, and Kansas and the eastern thirds of Nebraska, South Dakota, and North Dakota. Denver, Colorado, on the 105th meridian, roughly marks the region’s western edge, which means that that state, Montana, Wyoming, and New Mexico are included too, for a total of 10 states in all. “Although the Plains occupy one fifth of the nation’s land area, the region’s overall population, approximately 5.5 million, is less than that of Georgia or Indiana,” write the Poppers meaningfully.

Although they never really come right out and say so, it’s obvious that by “overall” population the Poppers mean the Oshkosh, b’gosh kind: farmers and ranchers. They claim that the soil and the ecology in the Plains states are just too fragile to support the demands made on them nowadays by farming, ranching, and oil, coal, and mineral extraction. They talk about “sodbusters” (whom I’d grown up admiring as settlers who tamed the stubborn sod) as greedy or ignorant men who overgrazed and overplowed the soil, ruining it and leaving a legacy and habits of ruin for those who came later. (“Grass no good upside down,” they solemnly quote a 19th-century Pawnee chief saying as he watched homesteaders slice up virgin soil.)

It’s not that the Poppers have any of their facts wrong; it’s just that their conclusions don’t seem to spring naturally from the facts. They’re correct in saying that the Great Depression hit the Plains states years before the Wall Street event. They’re also right in pointing out that small towns and farmers in the Great Plains went berserk during the energy boom and the fat agricultural years of the 1970’s, overbuilding and overplanting, and that now those same towns and farmers are suffering for their shortsightedness. The gargantuan Ogallala Aquifer, providing water for agriculture in six of the Plains states, is drying up from overuse. Soil erosion is a serious problem in many places. Farm foreclosure and bankruptcy are higher in the Plains states than anywhere else. Near future droughts are predicted, and the “greenhouse effect” is expected to raise the temperatures everywhere by at least two or three degrees, which would make the Plains even more susceptible to drought.

But it’s never been a secret that it’s a lot harder to wrench a living from the land in Nebraska or the Dakotas than it is in Iowa or Missouri, where the rain chooses to dump itself and the topsoil seems a hundred miles thick. On the other hand, we’re not living in poverty here. Our best grain-growers and livestock ranchers have learned how to wrest a pretty good living from this thin-skinned place without doing any damage. And because of them, our “bigger” cities (over, say, 30,000) are holding their own, population-wise, and every month sees new businesses taking the place of those that have folded. Our small towns are dying gracefully, inevitably. The Great Plains is not the Fertile Orescent, and small towns here simply aren’t destined to last for more than 100, maybe 150, years.

Yet what the Poppers see as the dismal future here is based mainly on the predictable death of our small towns. And that’s where I take heart, because I think the Poppers think our small towns are dead already, or might as well be. Their article was accompanied by some rather transparently patronizing photographs captioned, for example, “Picking up the mail at six below in Morton County, North Dakota”; “Saturday night at the Alamo Bar in North Platte, Nebraska”; “Burton and Kurtlye Brewster at lunch with the local postman at the Quarter Circle U Brewster Ranch near Birney, Montana”; and Darrel Coble of Cimarron County, Oklahoma, saying, “I don’t really know why I like living here. I guess just ’cause this country’s home.” Makes me feel like I should ask for food stamps just for having to live in this hellhole.

The Poppers are not the first to come up with this idea, they remind us, citing several forerunners and promising that there will be plenty more. Bret Wallach, a University of Oklahoma geographer and MacArthur fellow, wants the Forest Service to pay willing Plains farmers and ranchers the full value of what they think they might cultivate in the next 15 years. The deal is, they wouldn’t cultivate it—this takes set-asides into the 21st century!—but would follow an approved native shortgrass-planting program, after which the Forest Service would buy them out except for a 40-acre homestead. That sounds just tempting enough to be dangerous, except that farmers are farmers because they like the personal freedom to do what they want. Robert Scott of the Institute of the Rockies in Missoula, Montana, wants to turn a tenth of his state into a game preserve he would call the “Big Open.” State and federal agencies, combining forces, would remove fences and domestic animals and replace them with game. According to the Poppers, Scott figures that a ranch of 10,000 acres—about four miles on a side, not at all unusual these days—could bring in $48,000 a year for the sale of hunting licenses, and the one-tenth slice of Montana would add a thousand new jobs to the area: there would apparently be a high demand for “outfitters, taxidermists, workers in gas stations, restaurants, motels.” Whoo-ee, Elmer, let’s dump great-grampaw’s homestead and the rest of the 28 sections and get us a job in a GAS STATION. You bet.