As dawn was breaking on 19th century America, adventurers Meriwether Lewis and William Clark embarked on a perilous journey over the most untouched parts of its grassy wilderness. Their goal was to chart a new terrain and create a route across the western half of the continent before other superpowers tried to claim it.
Today, this land, which stretches across northeastern Montana with the Yellowstone Park to the south and Rocky Mountain Front to the west, is one of only four remaining native grassland conservation sites of this size left in the world.
Now a group of ultra-wealthy individuals and Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are creating a 3.5-million acre nature reserve — Continental America’s largest ever — in a bid to protect a rich natural heritage. The American Prairie Reserve (APR) project caught the attention of major donors, including the Mars family, Susan Packard Orr, Erivan and Helga Haub, Gib and Susan Myers, and George and Susan Matelich.
“Our goal is to acquire roughly 500,000 private acres and use them to connect much of the more than three million acres of public lands distributed across the project area,” says Sean Gerrity, president of APR and a former technopreneur. “This would enable us to assemble a 3.5-million-acre nature reserve, for the public’s enjoyment, on the Great Plains of northeastern Montana.”
Since its launch in 2001 APR has raised nearly US$95 million, but Gerrity reckons it will take another US$250 million to purchase the additional land, probably over the course of the next decade. It’s a huge goal but Gerrity believes that the nature of the project makes it compelling for goal-driven philanthropists.
“I think our promise to deliver — year-by-year — tangible and impressive progress is attractive and highly satisfying. What you get for your philanthropic investment is quite something,” he says. Current donors like the fact that this entire project, with all the land purchases, management costs, and a large endowment to fund operations in perpetuity, will cost US$500 to US$700 million.
“Our donors realise that the price to create this reserve is about half the cost of one new NFL football stadium, of which we build around one every year in this country,” explains Gerrity.
A project so meaningful is hard not to want to be a part of. One donor, who wished to remain anonymous, says: “Not a lot of chances float by to be part of creating something that benefits humanity, and nature, that will still exist 200 years from now.”
As well as a largescale environmental campaign, APR is about cultivating biodiversity. The bison herd, which was started in 2005 with just 16 animals, now numbers around 800. The goal is to have 10,000 bison which would be the largest conservation population in the world. Grassland birds are on the increase and cougars have returned after an 80-year absence. Grizzly bears are getting closer each year as they expand eastward along the northern leg of the Montana Triangle, says Gerrity. For the donors, staying overnight at the luxury Kestrel Camp on the reserve is a magical experience. Guests can enjoy evening drinks on the deck where you can see more than 100 miles without any light pollution, with coyotes howling nearby and huge, silent bison drifting by on their way to a watering hole.
Of course, for the ranchers and farmers living on the outskirts of the reserve, it’s a different story. Not all are quite as excited to see the return of bison, elk, wolves, cougars and bears in their historic numbers, admits Gerrity. But APR has come up with a solution, one that is perhaps a bit counterintuitive. “We started a for-profit beef company called Wild Sky, the only ‘wildlife-friendly’ beef label in the US,” he says. “We started it less than two years ago and are now shipping roughly 70,000 pounds of all-natural, grass-fed beef products per month.”
The Wild Sky concept involves the majority of the profits going to ranches surrounding the APR and those within the corridors of what is referred to as the Montana Triangle. Cattle ranchers who join Wild Sky are paid well above market rates for their cattle by operating their ranches according to strict wildlife-friendly protocols. “This diminishes the common psychological and philosophical ‘hard wall’ between pure conservation and the agriculture industry,” says Gerrity.
He acknowledges the distance left to run is huge, but is optimistic that more donors will want to partake. In part, this is due to the divisive political climate in the US. APR donors are, as a group, about half Republican and half Democrat. “It is a huge idea that transcends people’s political differences and implies no losers,” he explains. US television anchor Tom Brokaw, a supporter of the project, is quoted as saying "the US needs, now more than ever, to focus on the really big things that can unite us versus the small things that divide us." Gerrity adds: “It is simply very exciting, positive, absolutely achievable and something one will no doubt be proud to tell one’s grandchildren that you helped create it, way back when.”