New in PERC Reports: The Great Plains, Tragedy or Triumph?

by P.J. Hill and Shawn Regan

At the end of the 19th century, historians declared that the American frontier had closed. The Homestead Act had caused population density in the West to exceed two people per square mile—the metric the census used to gauge frontier status. Writing in 1893, historian Frederick Jackson Turner regretted the impact this would have on the character of the American individual. The frontier, he claimed, created freedom by “breaking the bonds of custom, offering new experiences, [and] calling out new institutions and activities.” According to Turner, with the closing of the frontier went the American propensity to forge new ideas, institutions, and solutions in the face of new environments.

Now, more than a hundred years later, the Great Plains are 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, seeking better opportunities elsewhere, and the median age in some rural counties is pushing 60. This situation in the Great Plains is widely portrayed as dire. The Atlantic described a “slow death in the Great Plains,” and the New York Times spoke of “dying towns” and futures “mired in poverty.”

Without a doubt, the plains are undergoing a period of economic and demographic change—agriculture provides only half as much employment and income to the region as it did in 1969—but where some see the death of a traditional way of life, others see a landscape full of new opportunities. Land values are rising and nonlocals are buying up property for investment or recreational purposes. Entrepreneurs are creating new enterprises by capitalizing on ecotourism and the preservation of environmental amenities, thus transforming the region’s traditional agriculture-rangeland paradigm into a new nature-based economy.

Hidden in this dynamic process of change is an irony: population density outside of metropolitan areas in the Great Plains has fallen to 1.5 people per square mile—well below frontier density. The frontier that Turner saw as the engine for new institutions and innovations has returned. What’s emerging is a new type of region—one that is led by entrepreneurs discovering innovative ways of combining traditional land management with new opportunities on the frontier.

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