Rural planner: Frank Popper and the Buffalo Commons

To celebrate the Bloustein School’s approaching 30th anniversary in 2022, EJBTalks will feature some of our beloved faculty members who made the school what it is today. The first of those is Professor Emeritus Frank Popper, who spent over three decades teaching in our world-ranked urban planning program. Professor Popper shares his incredible “accidental academic” story, where he went from land use and environmental consultant to renowned researcher and the co-proposer of the concept of the Buffalo Commons. Frank talks in-depth with Stuart Shapiro about the Commons, its history, its significance, and the current economic and environmental signs that confirm the idea that the depopulated center of the country should capitalize on its heritage as the home of the buffalo.

Stuart Shapiro
Welcome to the fifth season of EJB Talks. I’m Stuart Shapiro, the Associate Dean of Faculty at the Bloustein School, and the purpose of this podcast, as always, is to highlight the work of my colleagues and our alumni in the fields of policy, planning, and health, and what they are doing to make the world, the country, and New Jersey a better place.

After last week’s commemoration of September 11 on the podcast, this week we’re going to start with the theme of the season. As the Bloustein School approaches its 30th anniversary next year, we’re going to be talking to some of the faculty members who made it what it is today. The first of those is Professor Emeritus, Frank Popper. He retired in 2020 after teaching in our world-ranked urban planning program for more than three decades. Frank, welcome to the podcast.

Frank Popper
Nice to be here. Thank you for asking.

Stuart Shapiro
Like me, you are somewhat of an accidental academic. Can you tell us a little bit about how you came to the Bloustein School?

Frank Popper
Yes. For most of the 1970s, and the beginning of the 80s, I was pretending to be a consultant, a land-use consultant, an environmental consultant, in Chicago, which is where I’m from, and then Washington where we moved later. Basically, because I had an offer from a very respectable research operation that I turned out not to fit in really well. And in truth, I had never been anything more than a middling consultant. The money side of it, in particular, sort of eluded me for the most part, and I wasn’t that great on the intellectual side of it also… ((laughing))

Stuart Shapiro
((Laughing))

Frank Popper
….at least, as far as an intellectual candidate in the consulting world. And it’s getting to be the early 1980s. And I’m getting a little bit older, and I have two children. And then there’s Ronald Reagan in Washington, whose enthusiasm for land use and environmental stuff and for consultants of my variety, generally…. ((laughing))

Stuart Shapiro
((laughing))… for policy in general…

Frank Popper
Right, right! And I, at one point, wrote a short piece which, mercifully, The Washington Post, turned down about how Reagan had sent this guy in a trench coat, named Sam, out to my backyard to look at my house from behind the tree. And Sam’s notion was to tell the people in the White House, what I was interested in, and they would make sure not to fund it. ((laughing))

Stuart Shapiro
((Laughing))

Frank Popper
There were some odd years through there, but eventually some common sense. Mainly, again, as you may have noticed, in setting up this podcast, it came from my wife. She suggested that I did, after all, have a Ph.D., I’d never actually used it… there was a reason I’d ever actually used it, maybe by 10 years later or so. The reason I hadn’t used it might have worn out its welcome. So I started applying to places in the planning world, and Rutgers bit. Which was, which was very nice of it. I spent 36 and a half years there. Sometimes I suspect, you would know more about this than I would, trying Rutgers patience.

Stuart Shapiro
(((Laughing))

Frank Popper
But on the whole, they were very, very nice to me and allowed me to do, you know, the true academic freedom thing of researching that which was interesting. And Bloustein really just insisted that it has something to do with public policy. And certainly, most of what I looked at while I was Bloustein certainly had public policy implications. But, you know, nobody was telling me you have to do something about New Jersey, or anything like that.

And, you know, when I looked into what my real interests were, yeah, there was a certain amount of urban stuff, big city stuff that I eventually ended up doing. But I started out basically looking in rural planning, in part because, well… you know, quite apart from my, my job difficulties and Gus, who I think was the name of the guy Reagan sent after me. But I really thought that the rural planning, and particularly the frontier planning side of American land use, and other country’s land use too, there was a lot to be done to even to remotely catch up with what was being done for big cities like New York or suburbs like Highland Park, where you and I both live. Where you still live…

Stuart Shapiro
Yeah, your path’s a lot like mine. With time in Washington after getting a Ph.D. Never really intending to become an academic. You can substitute George W. Bush for Ronald Reagan in my case, although I never had anyone in my backyard. So there’s that…

Frank Popper
“Gus in my backyard with the trench coat and a funny look…” He was entirely, as I was saying, in my imagination, and probably if the Washington Post published it I might have regretted it. And who knows….

Stuart Shapiro
(((Laughing))

Frank Popper
I might not have ended up here, or at Rutgers…

Stuart Shapiro
That’s right. Well, the ball bounces in funny ways.

Frank Popper
Yes, it certainly does. And any students listening to this should keep in mind, the ball does bounce in ways you cannot predict. You will never imagine. You cannot game or outwit or anything like that. You can only rebound, perhaps badly.

Stuart Shapiro
I always say I’ve never answered the question, “What are you going to be doing in five years” correctly.

Frank Popper
Yeah, yeah, I myself have…yeah… my brain fogs up when asked that. I’m sure I’ve blown some decent interviews over the years that I’d rather not think about by my inability to answer that question at all.

Stuart Shapiro
Well, that was Bloustein’s fortune. You talked about your interest in rural areas and indeed population. Can you explain the Buffalo Commons to our listeners?

Frank Popper
Sure. This is research that basically… I started in Washington at a very respectable institution, Resources for the Future, which was not the place I originally went to first in Washington from Chicago. But Resources for the Future is basically semi-academic. They offered me a one-year fellowship. And they were quite clear, it wasn’t going to continue beyond that. So I did spend a lot of that year looking around, eventually finding Rutgers. And most of what I ended up doing there was looking at the American West, in particular, the underpopulated areas of the American West. And that’s most of them, certainly the rural, but the rural ones by any kind of Eastern or Midwestern standard, are very lightly populated, never been populated.

And when I got to Rutgers, there was again, this will be familiar to many of the listeners here, the pressure to publish quickly. Something quick, fast, you know, doable. And I wanted to, instead of focusing on the American West, I wanted to focus on a particular region in the American West that I thought was interesting. And my interest there, by the way, goes back to driving across the country several times from Chicago to the west coast, where I would spend the summer. I would always be impressed by places like the Great Basin in Nevada, and especially the Great Plains, farther east. And eventually, I focused at Rutgers on the Great Plains. By that time, my wife was in graduate school in geography at Rutgers. And in the late 80s, we put together a short paper that basically looked at the Great Plains area of the United States, which is about a fifth, sixth, maybe of the lower 48. It starts in the middle of or the eastern part of states like Kansas, and Nebraska, and the Dakotas, goes all the way to the foothills of the Rockies.

So there’s a bunch of fair-sized cities at the edge of it. Places like Denver and San Antonio, and Oklahoma City. But the actual sixth of the United States… in those days, if I remember correctly, a sixth of the United States had about approximately the population of Georgia or Indiana, a middle-sized state, at best. And when you went up to the really rural areas, places that actually had names like Bison, South Dakota, and so forth. What you found is places that actually had their high population, like just before the dustbowl, say 1930 or 1920 or even after the first settlement there. Which would basically go back to about 1890 or so. And it’s been declining ever since.

The farm economy was always very weak, there was very rarely much, in addition to the farm economy, young people would go off to school or go off service or go off to work. And they could never find. for the most part, unless they happen to be lucky enough to be the children of the large ranchers in the area, that much to do in the area… the county or town, or whatever. And these were places that as I said, had been losing population (we were writing in the late 80s), so they’ve been losing population for at least half a century, probably more. There wasn’t much in the way of opportunities for young people. And these were places that already a generation or more ago, would have things like median age is like 57.

Stuart Shapiro
Wow.

Frank Popper
When right now, we are worried that the median age of the United States has risen to something like 38 or 39 or so.

Stuart Shapiro
Right.

Frank Popper
But you know, an entire county whose median age is 57. And we looked a lot into the history of the place. And we did interview a lot of people when we were out there car camping with our kids, in 1985, which was two years after I got to Rutgers. And we came back and we started to write, we wrote a very long paper… something like 52 pages. For academia, you know, it’s too long for an article way too short for a book. We were kind of stuck in between. And I started pedaling it around to some people, and we had done it, basically, I would have to say, to be merry. It was an intellectual exercise, my wife, the new graduate student.

Stuart Shapiro
Right.

Frank Popper
We would do stuff together. And that’s what this paper was about. And, of course, initially, naturally, we had trouble publishing, because, you know, it felt too good or was too long, or you know, or whatever. And eventually, I called up some people at the American Planning Association, which was my first real planning job. It’s always been located primarily in Chicago, it’s the main Organization of American city planners, has something like, these days has something like 40,000 members. It’s not a particularly academic organization. There’s a separate planning academic organization, called the American Collegiate Schools of Planning, much smaller. And I talked to the people who edited the American Planning Associations magazine, not its academic team, its magazine. And they sort of liked the idea, I think because they’ve hardly ever run anything rural to speak of.

They too had a sense, you know, American Planning is all urban, and especially these days, suburban. That was already happening in the late 1980s. And they did this absolutely terrific job with the piece, boiling it down from I forget, 52 pages I believe to something like 14. They found some fabulous graphics, 1930s photographs, and what did the same people look like today. There wasn’t a footnote in it. There was a very, very mild Bibliography that, you know, people down the hall from you, I think would snoot, but that’s okay. And basically, it ended up being a very nice piece of journalism about the future of the Great Plains.

And what we came up with was the notion…and this was going on in the late 80s… All kinds of things like American diets changing away from the beef that the plains produce to things like chicken and vegetables, which for the most part, the plains didn’t provide. Or things like the American military was basically closing a lot of the missile bases in the northern part of the United States that were aimed at Russia. Not because the Soviet Union had collapsed yet, although it was about to, but because they were just too expensive for the military to operate and so forth.

So again, what we saw was a continued decline in the plains population. And this actually would be the third; the dustbowl, the well-known one that was another one that occurred in the 1890s that have been particularly nasty too. And we needed an ending for the paper, which we struggled with for a long time. And then finally, we came up with the notion that eventually much of the plains, and we were very clear much of the plains, not all of it, we weren’t estimating amounts, anything like that might become might return to a giant National Park, maybe the biggest certainly in the lower 48. Whose theme would be the recovery of the Great Plains as it was before the Whites showed up and took it from the Native Americans/Indians. And we call this vision of ours, which is really just something we made up in the car, while stuck on the New Jersey Turnpike in bad weather…

Stuart Shapiro
Not in the middle of Kansas, or any place like that, but on the New Jersey Turnpike.

Frank Popper
Yeah… right! We were stuck in the car in front of, in fact, the Bayway Refinery. ((laughing)) Which at the time was supposedly the most polluting facility in the country. And then we started thinking, and this is a version of the tragedy of the commons. A continental version of the tragedy of the commons with buffalo. And suddenly, we came up with the term Buffalo Commons. And that’s what we used. And that was our notion of, you know, where we saw the plains going through a whole series of accidents that again, the way the ball bounces, had nothing to do with us.

Stuart Shapiro
And this exploded, right? I mean, this became a very big deal.

Frank Popper
This became a very big thing. The governor of North Dakota, in particular, I later met, is a very decent guy… he was very bothered. He thought this sort of did not appreciate the state of North Dakota’s historic role, at least in the white period. Post-Indian (Native American) period, as largely the granary of the United States. You know, this is where all the wheat, a lot of the cotton, a lot of cattle at the time, they were already shifting away to other parts of the country and abroad. I mean, particularly things like wheat, and so forth. But yeah, it exploded fast. We published this in December 87. And I think by the middle of 1990, The New York Times ran a long article in The Sunday Times about it. And we were told later, that we were barely beaten out for the cover by the leading North Vietnamese general who had actually won the war for what is now Vietnam. And ever since it proved that it had been going on, you know, all through 88-89 and continued basically until about 2005 or so.

This was not 15 minutes of fame, it was many years. Until about 2005 when we could count on being in the plains say five times a year, often talking to audiences that were not entirely happy with us. And were quite vocal about expressing their dislike of us and the buffalo commons. And we kept telling them… and it was actually true Deborah’s idea. She found tactful ways to put it more tactful than I would. That is what we were all engaged in, including the angry crowds, and….sometimes they actually work like David.

Stuart Shapiro
Yeah…

Frank Popper
You know I don’t want to go into the details of it and won’t go in here. But look, what we were doing with the plains was a giant planning exercise for a part of the country that didn’t really do much in the way of Bloustein-style zoning planning…

Stuart Shapiro
If any…

Frank Popper
Or.. much environmental planning because, and this was a well long-held local conviction that I really couldn’t argue with, that people like farmers and ranchers and large landowners there were actually doing perfectly good environmental conservation things as a result of the dustbowl. Had been doing them year after year quite well, except they had no explanation for why their kids kept leaving. The economy kept shrinking and why the main streets of the towns looked so sort of dusty and blown around, and why no new industries of any kind could be attracted at all. And basically what we had done, which probably could only be done by outsiders couldn’t have been done. For example, if we’d been teaching, let’s say, the University of Colorado, what we had done was, what’s the point out, Shall we say, well, what Al Gore later called it, he’s right in his time too, “an inconvenient truth” about climate change.

We’ve pointed out this inconvenient truth about what was happening, what had happened historically, to the Great Plains, and the Buffalo Commons offered a sort of plan B for the economy. Very different from the plan A. Very much using, you know, the native culture and the native economies and the Native American cultures of the area, as a way to at least revive the economy. And in truth in the 30 plus years since 1987, um, lots and lots of signs like this have shown up that actually, in their way, justify or confirm if you will, the hypothesis.

Stuart Shapiro
Yeah. Let’s touch on that. I mean, we just had census results come out. We’ve just gone through or continuing to go through a global pandemic. What are you seeing in these areas, that confirms what you thought 35 years ago?

Frank Popper
These places that were always declining, have basically kept declining. I haven’t looked at the median ages of these areas, but again, they’re likely to go up. The racial problem of the Great Plains historically, and a lot of the rural west, has historically not been black, white, but Indian white. And Indians/Native Americans, have much lower median ages, they and the new LatinX populations that have been showing up in the Great Plains. Since we started writing. Those are the only two groups that are growing, in terms of reproduction, and so forth. Immigrants, for the most part, there are some exceptions, don’t seem to be attracted there at all for their own perfectly good reasons, there really isn’t that much. But especially if you have no particular background in farming.

And the ages keep going up. The Indian (Native American) population, in particular, keeps growing. They’re all for the Buffalo Commons. They’ve undertaken, they’ve really widened their particular buffalo herds, the buffalo culture. That marketing of Buffalo culture to whites, which has been very successful in lots of ways. There are a lot of white ranchers that have switched from cattle or from farming into Buffalo. The buffalo population of the United States is far larger than it was in 1987. Maybe as much as three times as large as it was all those years ago. This, by the way, is for an animal that takes often over a year to gestate. So, you know reproducing them is a major investment if you’re trying to do so.

The herds on the various public lands, places like the various national parks, in the area, they’ve grown in a big way. There are all kinds of ways in which parts of the economy that aren’t strictly speaking, tied to buffalo, but have this kind of look at the land live more likely in the land, you know, drop the human presence and so forth. Things like, you know, particular kinds of seeds from particular kinds of plants have also grown in a big way. Basically, for a piece of social science prophecy, you know, holding up over a generation or more, the Buffalo Commons has not done badly at all. In fact, it’s still growing in lots of ways. We, as I say, are not as present in the plains, as we used to be until maybe 15 years ago. But you know, there’s all kinds of stuff; film, academia, books, even music, that basically takes off from the Buffalo Commons and goes somewhere with it. And sometimes we get credited. And sometimes we don’t. And it’s the kind of thing where if we don’t it’s like our kid has grown up. They don’t need to acknowledge us anymore. You turn into Stuart’s father at some point.

Stuart Shapiro
So is there more attention now towards planning when we think about these communities? Or is it still sort of very ad hoc waiting for people like yourself?

Frank Popper
It’s very ad hoc. When we were going there, in a big way, the big radical candidate of the area was Ross Perot. And now, and it has been for the last nine years or so, is much more Trump. Neither of these people is people who would be especially enthused about sort of Bloustein School type planning or public policy analysis in general Trump more so. I, in fact, you know, maybe I’m older and more responsible, or Deborah and I are older, more responsible, if we got invited to talk in the plains, I’m sure we’d not accept quite so quickly unless we got more guarantees of safety. And we did, in fact, lots of people when we made appearances in the 1990s, early 2000s, when they told us afterward that the police all over the place, including police they borrowed from nearby counties because there’s not that big a police presence in that part of the state or in that part of the world because the area is more rural. It’s usually state police.

Stuart Shapiro
Looking back on your career, what are you most proud of your time as an academic at Bloustein?

Frank Popper
Well, the Buffalo Common certainly worked really well, and there’s lots of stuff still coming out. Ken Burns is supposedly….

Stuart Shapiro
Oh, wow!

Frank Popper
…wants to make a movie about buffalo. And, you know, I’m and his key assistant is somebody who has actually written a lot about our work already. So we’re expecting a phone call about that sometime, although, you know, he may decide to take a more purely historical approach. In which case, I’d understand that passing, you know, on our kind of future isn’t that they’ve, that’s the way it works. I’m very pleased about that. And another thing that, you know, we don’t usually talk about in academia is what our students have gone off and done. Not just the two or three favorite ones which we always talk about, but I mean, there are all kinds of people. I remember a lot outside the Bloustein School. And certainly people like Justin Hollander at Tufts. You know, particularly likes Tufts because he went to Tufts as an undergraduate, who’s doing really well in the academic planning world. There’s a woman, for example, Jane Rosenblatt, who is much younger than Justin. She’s, I believe, Chief of Staff at the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection.

Stuart Shapiro
Well, that’s great. And I think we probably could go on a lot longer. There are a lot of areas we haven’t touched, but I think we probably should wrap up here.

Frank Popper
Well, thank you for inviting me first…

Stuart Shapiro
(((laughing)))

Frank Popper
…I gathered, of all the retirees. And thank you also to thank Amy for bearing with Deborah and me. Well, you know, I tried to get up to maybe you know, 2005 computer competence.

Stuart Shapiro
Yeah, well, thank you for coming on. And as always, as Frank just did, I’m gonna thank Amy and Karyn for their help in putting the podcast together. We’ll be back next week with another guest, another retiring or retired faculty member, and until then, stay safe.