FRANK and Deborah Popper are quintessential intellectuals at home in the ivy-covered classrooms and libraries of the East. But their work has kicked up a dust storm of protest out where the deer and the antelope play, particularly across the Great Plains. Gathering together economic, environmental, political, and especially demographic trends, the Poppers predict that vast areas of the rural West will continue to lose population and economic viability. And rather than let it happen piecemeal and uncontrolled, they recommend that government agencies and private organizations buy up much of the landscape and let it revert to 139,000 square miles of ``Buffalo Commons'' covering much of 10 states.
``I can see why they don't like you in Nebraska,'' commented one fellow academic at a recent meeting of the Western History Association in Nevada. Indeed, when the Poppers (he chairs the urban studies department at Rutgers University and his wife is a geographer there) present their findings in Great Plains states, extra security officers sometimes are brought in to keep the debate with farmers and ranchers from getting too vigorous.
THE United States Census Bureau declared the American frontier closed 100 years ago when there was no longer a line on the US map beyond which there were fewer than two people per square mile (which is like Manhattan with only 46 people). There may no longer be such a line, but using that definition there is plenty of frontier left, say the Poppers.
The 1980 census shows 143 Western counties - over a quarter of the US - in that category. A less-stringent frontier of six people per square mile covers 45 percent of the US (see map), and the Popper's preliminary analysis of the 1990 census shows that figure growing. Soil erosion, water depletion, energy boomtowns gone bust, professionals and high school graduates leaving rural communities are among the reasons.
As this frontier continues to grow, the Poppers predict that ``preservation uses such as tourism, recreation, and retirement will become primary; extractive ones such as ranching, farming, logging, and mining - including for oil - will become secondary.'' Native shortgrasses and buffalo will be reintroduced to replace cattle and tilled crops. Small cities will be urban outposts.
There are plenty of scoffers. San Diego State University historian Harry McDean calls it a ``yuppie playground ... a vision of the Plains that removes from it the lower-class residents whose presence apparently prevents the Plains from becoming a playground for leisure-class Americans.''
Wait and see, say Deborah and Frank Popper: ``As it proceeds, the Western frontier will expand, reappear before American eyes, and once again fascinate them.''