Other views: Greatest North Dakota asset is still the land

Since 1988 we have been meeting with North Dakotans to talk about the state's population decline. In December 1987 we had published an article in Planning, the magazine of the American Planning Association, about the Great Plains region's...

Since 1988 we have been meeting with North Dakotans to talk about the state's population decline. In December 1987 we had published an article in Planning, the magazine of the American Planning Association, about the Great Plains region's demographic, economic, and environmental booms and busts.

We had found three major cycles over the last 150 years. Government stimulated population growth and economic expansion with programs like the homestead acts and farm subsidies. Expansion would outrun the land's capacity and a bust would ensue -- in the 1890s, in the 1930s, and, more gradually, since the 1980s.

In our 1987 article we proposed as an alternative the Buffalo Commons -- a restoration-based style of development that would depend more on native species and less on conventional agriculture or natural resource extraction. The early reception in North Dakota was heated, often dismissive. Many residents believed that their stamina could overcome the problems associated with population loss.

In the last year North Dakota conversation about population loss and the future of the state has revived fruitfully, with more broad-based civic engagement. Several heavily attended symposia looked at strategies to address population loss. Perhaps the 2000 Census spurred the talk. After all, North Dakota had the smallest population gain of any state.

A 2002 state ballot initiative proposed forgiving college student loans for North Dakota graduates staying in the state. (It was defeated.) Sens. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., and Chuck Hagel, R-NE, introduced a bill for a new Homestead Act (S. 1860), the Homestead Economic Opportunity Act, featuring tax credits and investment incentives directed toward high out-migration counties. All the activity indicates a lot of energy and intellect devoted to the issue of population loss.


The state's population trends, as in the other Plains states, cut two ways. Gains concentrate in relatively large cities like Fargo, while most rural communities grow smaller. Any strategy for helping North Dakota must acknowledge this urban-rural difference rather than evade it.

People move for jobs. North Dakota's three MSAs -- Fargo, Bismarck and Grand Forks -- captured 87 percent of the net job growth between 1990 and 2000. New jobs will continue to concentrate in the state's metropolitan areas because they offer employers a reassuringly large workforce. In this respect, North Dakota differs from much of the rest of the country. On the East and West Coasts, for example, the largest urban areas have trouble keeping their jobs. They have the problem of too many people, too much traffic, and too much congestion. But North Dakota's urban centers have a long way to go before congestion constrains development.

The national preference for small-town environments applies to Fargo rather than the North Dakota's actual small towns. The New Urbanism, a major force in American planning and architectural circles, promotes building communities with small-town qualities -- neighborhood-style features like front porches and sidewalks, for example. Yet such concerns apply more to designing subdivisions than reviving small communities.

A better model for North Dakota's rural areas is the small-town Intermountain and Rocky Mountain West. Earlier growth in these regions depended on their natural resource economy -- most often environmentally destructive mining-based booms and busts. They eventually experienced major economic and population decline, but by the end of the twentieth century, they had recaptured the American aesthetic imagination and were growing, frequently rapidly. Their reforested mountains, trout streams, and deserts beckoned as development of communication technologies freed many people from geographic constraints.

Rural North Dakota's greatest asset, like the rest of the rural West, remains its land -- as it was in the previous boom rounds. Then North Dakota was imagined as an agricultural marvel, and the imagining was soon made real.

With the emptying out after the cycles of depopulation, the land has opened up for a new (or renewed) imagining and rediscovery of the state's wide-open spaces, now ready as centers of ecological restoration. North Dakota is no less technologically plausible than other parts of the West -- it has the same Internet capability as, say, Idaho. But it needs to close the gap in the nation's aesthetic and environmental imagination.

The first step is to ensure the health of the natural ecosystem, to have thriving prairie with native plant and animal species -- that is, to move toward the Buffalo Commons. The second step, perhaps as important, depends on using artists to change the way Americans see the state. This approach worked once before in North Dakota. Nineteenth-century figures like George Catlin and Frederick Remington planted the state and the entire Northern Plains region in the American mind, with their illustrations in the major media of the day.

Our suggestion: Make North Dakota the site of a major world-class landscape and conceptual artists' competition. Ask the artists for ideas and projects that will implant the state and the Plains more vividly and attractively in the nation's consciousness. Today the nation watches the World Trade Center architectural and memorial competitions generate widespread interest in Lower Manhattan. North Dakota deserves no less.


In North Dakota the new Homestead Act is more likely to work when most Americans can see the state's beauty and possibilities. Until they do, the landscape will remain flyover country rather than a destination.

Deborah E. Popper teaches geography at the College of Staten Island/City University of New York. Frank J. Popper teaches land-use planning at Rutgers University in New Brunswick, New Jersey. They originated the concept of the Buffalo Commons. They wrote this analysis for The Forum's "Saving North Dakota" project.

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