Shifting Demographics Give New Face To Great Plains

<p>The population shift from rural to urban areas is making big changes in the Great Plains. While many rural small towns are disappearing, the shift is opening new doors for business and preservation.</p>
August 27, 2007, 8am PDT | Nate Berg
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"The Great Plains, which makes up more than 15% of the USA's land area through 10 states but holds barely 3% of the nation's population, is going through another transformation. The more rural parts of the region gradually are adapting to a century of decline in farming and the steady exodus of young people. Scattered corners of the Plains that have suffered economic setbacks are adjusting partly by reverting to nature: land preservation, eco-tourism, wildlife products, hunting grounds and recreational ranches."

"The Great Plains, long known as the nation's breadbasket, remains the primary source of wheat for the USA. It's also a prime producer of flax seed, sorghum, sunflower, barley, corn, cattle and cotton. Despite population declines in many areas, the total acres of corn, soybean and wheat in Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota and Montana are up 7.2 million acres since 1950 to 48.3 million acres, says Jim Stephens, president of Farmers National Commodities, a grain-marketing consultant."

"Few envisioned then what is happening on the Plains today. The private sector, state and local governments and non-profit groups are pouring money into preserving land and returning it to wildlife. Small towns are still dying, but economic enterprises are emerging from this environmental effort - from bison and dried-fruit snacks produced by Native Americans in South Dakota to Lewis and Clark Trail motorcoach tours in Nebraska."

"Almost two-thirds of the 376 counties in the Great Plains, as defined by Census Bureau researchers, lost people from 1950 to 2006. Four counties in North Dakota lost two-thirds or more of their population in that time."

"But the region's population almost doubled to 9.7 million during the same period, largely because of growth in metropolitan areas such as Denver, Wichita and Billings, Mont. Technology is fueling a push to retain and lure professionals who can work anywhere but choose the Great Plains because of its natural beauty and low cost of living."

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Published on Tuesday, August 14, 2007 in USA Today
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