Reprinted from the LA Times
Trying to Save a Town and a Neighborly Lifestyle


March 17, 2002

LOUP CITY, Neb. -- It came as no surprise to anyone here in Sherman County when the latest census showed that the population had plummeted 11% in the 1990s. Even the editor of the weekly paper said the news had been inevitable and that dwelling on it--in print or otherwise--didn't serve any useful purpose.

In Rockville, one town over, postmistress Marie Arthur saw the news as confirmation of what has been going on in the small rural towns of the Great Plains for years: "We don't have much left here." Indeed, out on Main Street, only two commercial buildings remain: her post office and, next to a shuttered bank, Jane's Tavern.

Sheriff James Kugler, whose office wall is adorned with a life-size poster of John Wayne, didn't pay much attention to the report either; he's been busy investigating the county's first murder since 1941. With 3,318 residents, or less than six people per square mile, Sherman County was one of nine in the United States to revert to "frontier status" in the 2000 Census. (The term was coined in 1890 to distinguish "civilization" from unsettled land.)

For some folks here, there is an acceptance of the inevitable: The rural counties of the Great Plains have lost one-third of their population since the peak of the 1920s. While the 1990s saw the nation's population expand by 13%, nearly 60% of the Plains' counties grew smaller as the old died and the young left to seek opportunity elsewhere in nonfarming careers.

But in places like Loup City (population 1,104), residents are marshaling resources to try to save their towns--and the neighborly lifestyles they offer.

Last year, deaths outnumbered births in Sherman County, 44 to 36. The population in Hazard has fallen to 78, the high school has closed and the primary school enrollment stands at 12. Ravenna's graduating high school class had 68 students in 1971, 32 in 2000.

"Every year we're losing 10 or 15 kids, and a school obviously can't go on like that forever," said Dwaine Uttechi, the superintendent in Ravenna, which is in adjoining Buffalo County. "When you get down to about 40 students in high school, you have to ask if you can still provide the social interaction and other necessities kids need. But people fight hard to keep their schools. They think, 'If we lose the school, we lose the town.' "

To try to stem the tide, more than 100 Nebraska communities have set up tax-deductible foundations to underwrite local projects. Loup City has used bonds to build a new high school and swimming pool, and one couple's $250,000 donation went toward a community center and two ball fields. The town of Ord instituted a 1% sales tax for development. Ravenna raised $2,000 for a child-care center by holding a bake sale and spaghetti dinner.

The proprietor of Jane's Tavern breathed some life into Rockville by importing Maine lobsters; she sold 36 to diners one recent Saturday. A summer lobster festival draws thousands of visitors to Rockville, which calls itself the "lobster capital of Nebraska."

"Some people in the small communities have a sense of hopelessness," said Tom Osborne, the district's Republican congressman and a former University of Nebraska Cornhuskers football coach. "But I tell them there is real potential here. All the land in Nebraska is good for something. We don't have wasteland. We don't have a lot of federal land. And with the Ogallala Aquifer, there's accessible and bountiful water under all this land."

In an attempt to create opportunities and incentives for young people to stay, Osborne is promoting increased computer literacy, expanded access to broadband technology and the idea of local scholarships that provide a college education for students who agree to return to their community for a set number of years. Partly as a result, almost every town now has its own Web site, including tiny Hazard, which currently is profiling Tom Croston, a lifelong resident who is 92.

In 1987, two Rutgers University teachers--land-use expert Frank Popper and his wife, Deborah, a geographer--offered a radical solution for the development of the Plains' troubled rural counties: Turn them into a "buffalo commons" on which bison could roam free again. Their plan called for the federal government to return the land to the way it was before white settlers arrived.

Farmers and ranchers were so outraged that the Poppers for a time needed police protection when giving speeches in the Great Plains. Their idea smacked of East Coast academia, and the gentlest message they received from townspeople was that they should go back home and take care of New Jersey. (Since then, with the depopulation of rural counties continuing at a steady clip, the hostility has faded.)

"Sherman County is a small-scale confirmation of what we're talking about--that the American frontier is returning," said Frank Popper, who notes that Ted Turner runs bison over Plains' acreage larger than Delaware. "Clearly Plan A, with huge federal subsidies underwriting aging populations, falling water tables and troubled economies, didn't work. It's time to try Plan B: ecotourism, prairie restoration, cultural and historical preservation and marketing bison products."

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