At the end of the 19th century, historian Frederick Jackson Turner famously announced the closing of the American frontier. The Homestead Act had lured settlers with offers of free land and boosted population density in the West to more than two people per square mile, the metric used to gauge frontier status.
Turner regretted the impact that a closed frontier would have on the character of Americans. The wild edge of the country created freedom by "breaking the bonds of custom, offering new experiences, (and) calling out new institutions and activities," Turner said in 1893. He worried that the American propensity to forge new institutions in the face of new environments was gone.
Now, more than a hundred years later, the Great Plains—which covers parts of 10 states in the middle of the nation—is experiencing Manifest Destiny in reverse: People are leaving in droves. Rural counties have lost 20 percent of their population since 1980, continuing a steady downward trend that dates back to the 1930s. The young are leading the exodus as they seek better opportunities elsewhere. Nowadays, the median age in some rural counties pushes 60.
The agricultural base of the Plains provides only half as much employment and income to the region as it did in 1969. It is clearly undergoing change—and change is hard. But where some see the death of a traditional way of life, others see a landscape full of new opportunities. Land values have begun to rise, and newcomers are buying up property for investment or recreational purposes. Entrepreneurs are creating new enterprises by capitalizing on ecotourism and environmental amenities, transforming the region's traditional agriculture-rangeland focus into a new, nature-based economy.
Hidden in this process of change is an irony: As the population outside of metropolitan areas in the Great Plains has fallen to 1.5 people per square mile—below frontier density—the frontier that Turner saw as the engine for new institutions and innovations has returned. But what's emerging is a new type of frontier, one led by entrepreneurs discovering new methods of managing land.
Take, for example, Jim Collins, wagon-master of the Powder River Cattle Drive. Every July, ranchers in Montana's Powder River County hold the annual cattle drive, attracting about 60 paying guests at $2,200 per person. Guests are provided horses and wagon teams for a six-day trip that celebrates rural life and the cowboy heritage.
Or consider the privately funded American Prairie Reserve in eastern Montana. The 121,000-acre reserve is dedicated to wildlife preservation, including 14,000 acres maintained for bison, but the reserve leases the other 107,000 acres to nearby livestock owners, who make sure they preserve the integrity of the reserve's wildlife habitat.
Mixed use also occurs on many ranches in eastern Montana and the Dakotas, where hunters have bought ranches to secure access to deer and antelope hunting. Northwest Nebraska High Country, a group of more than 20 local farmers and ranchers, offers lodging, hunting and recreation; similarly, ranches in South Dakota provide exclusive pheasant hunting operations—an activity that has generated record numbers of out-of-state hunters.
Many journalists describing the Great Plains say hopelessness pervades the region, and they echo calls for massive government intervention. Outgoing Sen. Byron Dorgan of North Dakota, for example, has repeatedly pushed for a New Homestead Act to give subsidies to businesses and students that locate in rural counties. At the state level, Montana, North Dakota and South Dakota each have state-funded economic development agencies that focus on providing assistance to depopulated areas.
The problem with these top-down efforts to save the Plains is that they ignore a basic economic reality: It is the on-the-ground entrepreneurs who have the information needed to adjust to the changes that are taking place in the region. Guided by the incentives of private ownership, local landowners and nonprofit groups are better positioned to make the best use of their land and find the most cost-effective ways to adjust traditional agriculture operations.
What's happening in the Great Plains is not unique; many other parts of the West are also being forced to adjust their agricultural economies. But the important players in this process aren't distant bureaucrats; they are people with local knowledge who approach the Plains with the same enthusiasm and determination that their forebears showed. Economic success in the early frontier, as Turner said, depended on entrepreneurs bent on "breaking the bonds of custom, offering new experiences, (and) creating new institutions and activities."
P.J. Hill, a professor of economics at Wheaton College and a senior fellow at the Property & Environment Research Center in Bozeman, and Shawn Regan, a public affairs fellow at PERC, are contributors to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org).