Plains Folk

Wind at Our Back


All sorts of things are happening on the Great Plains that I never expected to see in my lifetime, or at best, expected to see only dimly in my dotage. Prosperity is the big one, with the attendant phenomena of repopulation and redevelopment.


Now comes this new report from the Center for Geospatial Technology at Texas Tech University. The title is The Rise of the Great Plains, and the author is Joel Kotkin.


Kotkin is a provocative writer, and his new report is a significant work, to which I will give focused attention on another day. For now, let me just quote from the introduction.


For much of the past century, the vast expanse known as the Great Plains has been largely written off as a bit player on the American stage. . . . Much of the media portray the Great Plains as a desiccated, lost world of emptying towns, meth labs, and Native Americans about to reclaim a place best left to the forces of nature. . . . Our research shows that the Great Plains, far from dying, is in the midst of a historic recovery. . . . Once forlorn and seemingly soon-to-be abandoned, the Great Plains enters the 21st century with a prairie wind at its back.


With the wind at our back, as Kotkin puts it, it seems to me we have to learn some new habits of thought. For example, I just finished writing an op-ed piece for one of our major daily newspapers. It has to do with the situation at Killdeer Mountain, where petroleum development threatens to destroy irreplaceable treasures of history and archeology.


I argue that there is no need to destroy one resource, the heritage resource, in order to develop the other, the mineral resource. Granted, what I have just stated is a facile generality, and things are more complicated on the ground, but fundamentally I think my position is sound.


More to the point at the moment, it is a position to which I am unaccustomed. Sure, I am a historic preservationist. I come by this honestly, as the son of a farmer-conservationist whose creed was to leave your world better than you found it.


But for most of my life, rampant development has not been the problem. The great threat to our heritage resources has been not development, but decay. Think of a country church withering away on the prairie, or a prairie town business district boarded up and rotting from the inside.


As a historic preservationist, I am accustomed to making the argument that we need to hang on, keep up what we have, save what we can for the sake of an uncertain future. I have awaited the day when a new cohort of vigorous newcomers would come to the plains and help carry this burden. Now, we have to think about another problem: how to guide the regional redevelopment that is taking place.


Every day I feel at my back that prairie wind of which Kotkin writes. It is an exhilarating wind, a powerful wind that will carry us to a prosperous future. Our heritage resources, though, many of them at least, are not borne along with the wind, and they are too brittle to stand against it.


Those of us with voice, or with power, or just with willing hands: let us resolve to make up for lost time. This prairie wind at our back can be a force for incalculable good. It need not strip us of our heritage.


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