Rewilding the West

<p>Eco-tourism in North Dakota? It's more likely than you may think, as conservationists, travel agents, and big landowners turn the dwindling population of the Great Plains into an asset.</p>
June 10, 2008, 10am PDT | Tim Halbur
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"Over the past decade, as human populations on the Great Plains have thinned, many conservationists have seen an opportunity unparalleled since the frontier days of the 19th century brought towns to the region.

Outdoors people, big landowners, travel operators and conservationists are now returning much of the Great Plains to its wild state, to a kind of American steppe. Conservationists are reviving native fauna and flora, and wolf populations are returning to the Yellowstone area. In the future, many hope, one giant fenceless region might be created across the entire plains that cover much of central North America east of the Rockies south to West Texas and New Mexico.

The idea of rewilding the West takes its inspiration from two professors, Frank and Deborah Popper. In an essay written two decades ago in the journal Planning, they suggested restoring the Upper Midwest to its native state, which they called the Buffalo Commons, and largely replacing agriculture in the region with eco-tourism.

While many Western conservationists do not agree with elements of the Buffalo Commons, preservation efforts have taken off. The American Prairie Foundation, a group dedicated to creating prairie wildlife reserves, has been buying up land in Montana and reintroducing wild American bison, which had largely vanished in the region.

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Published on Sunday, June 8, 2008 in The New York Times
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