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A herd of bison roams the grounds of the American Prairie Reserve, a sprawling wildlife preserve in northeastern Montana.
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The great northern plains are not very spectacular. It’s a boring stretch of interstate driving between Seattle and Chicago.
There’s no tree in sight without water, but American Prairie Reserve founder Sean Gritty has always seen more here.
On a recent summer afternoon, he climbs a steep, grassy hill in the plains of northeastern Montana to show me.
Once we reach the top, the flat, yellow plain opens up to a stunning view of deep, white valleys cut by a wide, muddy river.
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“What you see here is the incredible beauty of the Missouri River right in front of us,” he says. “Those beautiful cliffs and the murky light that comes through in the afternoons.”
This is the country Gerrity wants to protect. A wild and rugged place full of steep hills and unbroken plains. It’s called the “American Prairie,” and it’s a new kind of national park—one that’s free to the public and funded by small donors and some of the world’s richest people.
Its goal is to restore this part of the Great Plains and bring back all the animals that inhabited this landscape more than a century ago, before the arrival of white settlers. Wolves, grizzly bears, thousands of genetically pure wild bison.
Gritty points to the valley below. “There’s going to be some deer here,” he says. “This could be bison. On the banks of the river there was a mother grizzly bear with two or three little cubs walking along the mud.
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Making Gerrity’s vision a reality would require consolidating a national monument and wildlife refuge with private properties and their accompanying grazing leases to create a giant, rewilding grassland.
When complete, it will be the largest wildlife refuge in the Lower 48 — about 5,000 square miles, about the size of Serengeti National Park in Tanzania.
On the ground, the reserve is supported by neighboring tribes and those who see the economic potential in tourism. But the back pressure is longer. It comes from a close-knit community of ranching families who see the reserve as an existential threat, removing them from the land they’ve worked for generations. As one cowgirl told me, “For them to succeed, we can’t be here. It’s not good for us.”
But in a state known as the last best place, biologists believe the American prairie reserve may be the last best place to pursue wildly ambitious restoration of the Great Plains — and at a time when many are putting their trust in the state to protect the place. The wild ones have lost.
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As the reserve slowly grows larger and larger, a modern western drama about change, loss and renewal unfolds in this unforgiving landscape.
The idea of protecting the great wildlife of the Great Plains has been around for almost two centuries. In the 1830s, painter George Catlin argued that it should be protected as a national park. But Gritty, a former Silicon Valley entrepreneur, eventually scrapped the idea.
Gritty looks like she just stepped out of an REI catalog. Curly gray hair, muscular forearms, nice plaid shirt. He was always interested in wildlife. He grew up hiking and hunting with his parents in central Montana. But after college, he and his wife moved to the West Coast.
They eventually landed in Silicon Valley, where Gerrity consulted for big companies like Apple and AT&T. He earned a lucrative living and a comfortable home in the hills above Santa Cruz, California. But Montana pointed him out, where he realized he could build something that would last longer, that was more meaningful than a Silicon Valley company.
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To work on something – pour your heart into it – and arrange it like a giant piece of art and have the public at large appreciate it and realize it will outlast my lifetime? Gritty says it just seemed like a dream.
Sean Gritty founded American Prairie Reserve in 2001 after spending his career as a consultant to Silicon Valley companies. When completed, it will be the largest wildlife sanctuary in the Lower 48.
But for now, the American prairie is still mostly a dream. For the past 18 years, Gritty and his team have been building the park, slowly buying up the ranch and replacing the cattle with wild bison.
These private properties come with extensive grazing leases on hundreds of square miles of adjacent, state-owned land, allowing reserves to exercise more power over how those public spaces are managed.
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The organization has purchased nearly 30 properties so far, but needs at least 50 more. And these are not easy negotiations. As you drive, you see signs everywhere that say, “Save the Cowboy, Stop the American Plains Reserve.”
But the project’s efforts have attracted a lot of positive attention from international media and celebrities like Tom Brokaw and Ken Burns. That’s a good thing, Gritty says, because these farms are really expensive. We are talking about millions and millions of dollars. “That takes a lot of money. Where else are you going?”
Certainly not the federal government. Gritty argues that he lacks the political will and budget to build a truly large national park like this. So instead, he and his nonprofit have turned to some of the world’s richest people for help. He called on donors to create a new kind of national park, “one of the most amazing conservation projects going on anywhere in the world … without using government money or raising taxes to do it, and doing it for you and your friends.” open “Let your family come and enjoy it.”
The sales pitch has worked time and time again. American Prairie does not release its full list of donors due to privacy concerns, but it has received millions of dollars from some prominent philanthropists. They include a German billionaire, a handful of New York-based investment bankers and heirs to the Mars Candy company.
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But because the reserve brings in big money from big donors, some, including Rob Reich, director of the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society at Stanford University, see hypocrisy.
“The global capitalist structure, in which they have maintained their role, is partly responsible for the destruction of the environment,” says Reich.
He mentions a few of the reserve’s major donors. As top executives in the financial industry, they helped steer major investments in oil, gas or coal — industries that have contributed heavily to the climate crisis, which has exacerbated droughts, fires and floods in the northern Great Plains.
“The idea of taking that pile of wealth and then positioning yourself as a philanthropist and participating in a series of philanthropic projects and gaining social status as a donor is antithetical to the basic act of making money. Reich says.
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Keith Anderson, American Prairie’s board treasurer, served as chief investment officer of Soros Fund Management, whose portfolio included at least $244 million in oil industry stocks during his tenure.
George Matlich, Chairman, is a senior partner at Kelso & Company, a private equity firm with more than 100 companies under his belt. They include one looking for oil in the Gulf of Mexico, another drilling for natural gas in Pennsylvania, and a handful of others serving the extractive industries.
Matlich and the Mountain West News Bureau could not agree on the terms of the interview. Despite repeated attempts, we could not reach Keith Anderson. But investment bankers often argue that they act as fiduciaries. Basically, they don’t invest their own money – they invest other people’s money. So they can’t make a moral or political judgment about where that cash goes because it’s not theirs.
“The person who puts gas in their car or uses coal in their house for heating, or the person who takes an unnecessary jet trip to go on vacation or go to a wedding or something like that is the same person. Gritty tells me that he actually built the business and encouraged the oil companies to keep doing what they were doing.
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On the steep hillside and prairie above the Missouri River, the reserve can’t be picky about where it gets its cash, Gritty says.
“More than one million acres of native plains were plowed in this area that we are investigating last year. Just last year this wildlife habitat is disappearing and there is almost nothing left. “This is the last part of the Great Plains where we can do a project of this size.”
We’re talking about 3.2 million acres—about the size of Connecticut. It takes hours to drive around the reserve. Signs warn visitors
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