Big Money, Big Park, Big Questions

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American Prairie Reserve’s Patchwork Of Properties
American Prairie Reserve’s purchased and leased land is shown in green with white borders adjacent to Upper Missouri Breaks National Monument and Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge. Together, these parcels complete a network of land larger than Yellowstone National Park, the second-largest national park in the Lower 48 states. Source: American Prairie Reserve, Montana State Library, U.S. Geological Survey 1 Arc-Second SRTM, Natural Earth, Montana Department of Transportation, U.S. Census Bureau, National Park Service
Credit: Daniel Wood/NPR

Hats off to Sean Gerrity, as well as to the farmers and ranchers who have kept the native prairie grasses intact in recent generation, and to the native communities who stewarded these lands long before all this became a story. Our thanks to National Public Radio (USA) for sharing the story:

Big Money Is Building A New Kind Of National Park In The Great Plains

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Bison walk on American Prairie Reserve land. The organization is slowly purchasing ranches from willing sellers, phasing out the cows and replacing them with wild bison. Claire Harbage/NPR

This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

A privately funded, nonprofit organization is creating a 3.2 million-acre wildlife sanctuary — American Prairie Reserve — in northeastern Montana, an area long known as cattle country.

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Sean Gerrity founded the American Prairie Reserve more than 18 years ago after he moved back home to Montana from Silicon Valley, where he ran a firm that consulted for companies such as AT&T and Apple.
Claire Harbage/NPR

But the reserve is facing fierce opposition from many locals because to build it, the organization is slowly purchasing ranches from willing sellers, phasing out the cows and replacing them with wild bison. Those private properties are then stitched together with vast tracts of neighboring public lands to create one giant, rewilded prairie. The organization has purchased close to 30 properties so far, but it needs at least 50 more.

“I see them coming in with big money, buying up ranches and walking over the top of the people who are already here,” says ranch owner Conni French. “For them to be successful in their goals, we can’t be here, and that’s not OK with us.”

She isn’t alone. Driving around, you see signs everywhere that say, “Save The Cowboy, Stop The American Prairie Reserve.”

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A “Save the Cowboy” sign is posted along a fence. The “Little Rockies” on the Fort Belknap Indian Reservation are seen in the distance. Claire Harbage/NPR

But the project’s efforts have garnered a lot of positive attention from those living outside northeastern Montana because, once it’s complete, it will be the largest wildlife sanctuary in the Lower 48 states — about 5,000 square miles, nearly the size of the Serengeti National Park in Tanzania.

A new kind of national park

Sean Gerrity, founder of American Prairie Reserve, is standing on one of the vast ranching properties his organization recently purchased. It looks like a miniature Grand Canyon — a panorama of deep, white canyons cut through by a wide, muddy river.

“What you’re seeing here is the incredible beauty of the Missouri River out in front of us,” he says. “Those beautiful cliffs and the raking light coming across in the afternoon.”

The project’s goal is to rewild this swath of the Great Plains and return all the animals that lived on this landscape more than a century ago, before white settlers arrived. Wolves, grizzly bears, thousands of genetically pure, wild bison.

Gerrity points down to the valley below. “Over here would be some elk,” he says. “Over here would be bison. On the riverbanks would be a mama grizzly bear with two or three little cubs walking along the mud there.”

These are animals one would see at Yellowstone National Park, but without so many tourists. The reserve is a new kind of national park, one that’s free to the public and privately funded through both small donors and some of the wealthiest people in the world.

American Prairie was founded more than 18 years ago after Gerrity moved back home to Montana from Silicon Valley, where he ran a firm that consulted for companies such as AT&T and Apple. For him, the project promised a different kind of long-term investment…

Read the whole story here.

 

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