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>>The Depopulation of the American Great Plains

The Great Plains region of the United States encompasses about 1/5 of the continental United States (of the combined land mass of the contiguous 48 states). It lies in the middle of the country, stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to the Canadian border, west of the Mississippi River to east of the Rocky Mountains.

People are moving out of this region of the US at an ever accelerating rate, such that many parts of it have become virtual ghost towns. The problem is so pronounced that today some 260 counties, an area larger than France and Germany combined, contain only 2.5 people per square kilometer. In the 19th century, such spasely populated areas were designated as "frontier."

The truth is that the region has been experiencing depopulation for most of the 20th century.

In the 18th century, the Great Plains was seen as too inhospitable to agriculture to be worthy of settlement. The area, at the time owned by France, was a vast and generally arid wilderness, one that was also full of Indians who resented the encroachment of settlers.

In the early 19th century, Napoleon Bonaparte sold this French territory to the the US government so that he could fund his conquest of Europe. This transaction is known as the Louisiana Purchase. Napoleon’s price : 15 million dollars, or about 8 cents per hectare.

As the US grew, people began to move into the Great Plains, and the US government encouraged them to do so with the Homestead Act of 1862. This law mandated that anyone who moved to the Great Plains could have 160 acres (40 hectares) of land for free, if they agreed to build on the land, plant crops, and live there for at least five years. Hundreds of thousands of people from the east and from Europe, moved into the Plains to take advantage of this offer.

The population decline started, albeit slowly, almost from the beginning of the 20th century. Life on the Plains was not easy, winters were harsh and droughts were not uncommon, and some people invariably gave up.

The exodus accelerated with the Depression-era Dust Bowl of the 1930s, when a protracted drought ravaged the region and caused a mass migration of people.

Depopulation has accelerated over the last twenty years as the manufacturing sector in the US has declined, and has technology has made farming more efficient. One could say that a new drought has hit the Great Plains - this time it’s the jobs that have dried up.

In a desperate effort to improve their economies, some towns have tried to attract whatever industry they can. Unfortunately, this has mainly resulted in the growth of two industries in the region : meat-packing (slaughter houses) and prisons. The jobs in both cases are very low-paying and can be dangerous, so they have done very little to stop the drain of young people from the region.

There are currently three options under consideration by the US government and concerned citizens. The first is to do nothing, and let the market dictate the ultimate fate of the region. This is the most likely option. The second is to subsidize the region, offering incentives to people who move there, and who invest in the region. This is the least likely option. The third is to let the Great Plains revert to its original prairie ecosystem. This will almost certainly happen to some extent.

Before the plains were settled and the Indians driven out or killed, they were home to tens of millions of Buffalo (scientific name Bison). These are cow-like creatures that were valued for their hides and meat. Their numbers were reduced to a mere 500 in the early 20th century from over-hunting, but today there are about 400,000.

Many people want to see the buffalo roam free once again across the Great Plains. Ted Turner, the media mogul and founder of CNN, has bought up 1.7 million acres (550,000 hectares) of the Plains, which he keeps as wilderness, and where he runs 25,000 head of Buffalo. It is likely that massive swaths of the Plains will be similarly put back to nature in this way over the next few decades.

To read more about the depopulation crisis in the American Great Plains, visit the following links :

Where the Buffalo Roam

The Center for Great Plains Studies

Great Plains at National Geographic

Great Plains Population Symposium

Each of these websites contain numerous links to other Plains-related resources.

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