The American Prairie Reserve: Big Money Builds A New Kind Of National Park In Montana, a former Silicon Valley entrepreneur wants to create a massive, privately funded public park. Some ranchers oppose the American Prairie Reserve and say they can better conserve the land.

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

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

National parks are called one of America's best ideas, but it's been a long time since there's been a new Yellowstone or Yosemite. And that got one Silicon Valley business veteran on a mission. He's trying to build a new kind of national park in Montana's Great Plains. He wants it to be free to the public and funded by some of the richest people on Earth. But as Nate Hegyi of member station KUER reports, there's some opposition to the American Prairie Reserve.

NATE HEGYI, BYLINE: The northern Great Plains are green from a recent thunderstorm. Dozens of big, black cows are lining up near an electric fence on the C Lazy J Ranch.

(SOUNDBITE OF COWS MOOING)

HEGYI: Rancher Conni French is trying to help her animals cross into a new pasture.

CONNI FRENCH: I might go pull that orange post...

HEGYI: French reminds me of someone's artsy, garden-loving grandmother - curly, gray hair, a big, broad sun hat and the deeply tanned face of a person who spends every day outdoors. As she's moving the cattle, something suddenly makes her stop.

FRENCH: Can you hear it? I just heard it over here.

HEGYI: A coiled rattlesnake.

(SOUNDBITE OF RATTLESNAKE RATTLING)

FRENCH: (Laughter) Gives you the creeps, doesn't it?

HEGYI: Yeah (laughter), it definitely gives you the creeps.

(SOUNDBITE OF RATTLESNAKE RATTLING)

HEGYI: Rattlesnakes, biting black flies, the hordes of mosquitoes that hatch every summer - the prairies of northeastern Montana can be downright nasty to live in. But French loves the challenge.

FRENCH: It's that self-sufficiency, maybe feeling like I can handle whatever gets thrown at me.

HEGYI: Everything, she says, except for a project that'll turn this corner of cattle country into a 3.2-million-acre wildlife sanctuary.

FRENCH: For them to be successful in their goals, we can't be here. And that's not OK with us.

HEGYI: It's called American Prairie Reserve. Its organizers are purchasing ranches, phasing out the cattle and replacing them with wild bison. Those private lands are then stitched together with vast tracts of neighboring federally owned lands. The goal is to create one giant, rewilded prairie.

Sean Gerrity is the ex-Silicon Valley entrepreneur who founded this project 18 years ago.

SEAN GERRITY: When it's complete, it will be roughly a million acres larger than Yellowstone, four times the size of Yosemite National Park, about 5,000 square miles, which equates to about Africa's Serengeti.

HEGYI: Gerrity is standing in some of these reserve-owned lands. He says all this will eventually be part of the largest wildlife sanctuary in the lower 48, a place where all the animals that used to live in the Great Plains before ranchers arrived could roam once again - wolves, grizzly bears and thousands of genetically pure bison. Gerrity points to an empty valley cut through by the wide, muddy Missouri River.

GERRITY: Over here would be some elk. Over here would be bison. On the river banks would be a mama grizzly bear with two or three little cubs walking along in the mud there.

HEGYI: So far, donors have helped purchase nearly 30 ranches. But they need at least another 50. Gerrity understands this idea isn't popular with locals.

GERRITY: Folks are not going to go to town and, with a megaphone, walk down Main Street and say how great we are. It's a good way to be drummed out of the village.

HEGYI: But as Gerrity sees it, this is one of the last intact grassland ecosystems in the world. And he wants to fully restore it before it disappears.

GERRITY: To work on something, pour your heart into it and arrange it like a giant work of art. And the public, by and large, would appreciate and realize it would last far, far beyond my lifetime. That just seemed like a dream come true.

HEGYI: But Gerrity's dream is an affront to many of the ranchers that live out here. Driving around, you see signs everywhere saying save the cowboy, stop the American Prairie Reserve. There are many arguments against the project, some bordering on the crazy - like, this is a cunning plot by the United Nations to clear everyone from the Great Plains. But the most common argument boils down to this - God gave people this land so it can be worked, so we can produce food or fuel from it.

Rancher Conni French is rooted in this Christian notion of stewarding the land, and she will never sell hers to the reserve.

FRENCH: We are the best hope to keep this land here. I really feel like ranchers - these land stewards - are the best option.

HEGYI: She notes local ranchers' efforts have even been recognized by national conservation groups. But as land prices get more expensive and ranchers struggle to find family members to take over their spreads when they die, their control over northeastern Montana is weakening. And that's a big reason why American Prairie is here. There's a lot of land for sale. And as the nation shifts away from its ranching and farming roots, wild places, like northeastern Montana, are becoming destination spots for hunters, hikers and campers. But French says there's a big difference.

FRENCH: So then you're a tourist. You're a visitor. You're an observer. When you actually live there, you are involved in the day-to-day life of not just you or your animals but the land around you.

HEGYI: Still, some locals like American Prairie's plans to build a massive wildlife reserve here. They say it'll help diversify the economy and give northeastern Montana a booster shot of tourism. And then there are the tribes - the Nakoda and Aaniiih. They are the people who lived on this land before the ranchers arrived.

(SOUNDBITE OF BEATING DRUM)

HEGYI: At a powwow in the nearby Fort Belknap Indian Reservation, Kenneth Tuffy Helgeson says the Reserve's goal of bringing back thousands of wild bison to the plains will help restore a crucial part of his tribe's culture. He's Nakoda and sums it up best with a saying his grandfather told him...

KENNETH TUFFY HELGESON: The buffalo to the Indian is a symbol of God.

HEGYI: And he says when white settlers and the U.S. government eradicated bison from the plains more than a century ago...

HELGESON: They knew if they took away our main food source, our main symbol of God - that we would be rendered to literally nothing.

HEGYI: But now that symbol of God is coming back to the plains in a big way. American Prairie's wild herd of bison will be the largest in North America. There are already more than 800 on the land. And unlike traditional national parks, in this reserve, people can hunt those animals, including the tribes. The land will still be owned by white people. However, Helgeson says that doesn't bother him because land is never really owned.

HELGESON: There's one song that our people sing. And it says, my friend, don't be foolish. The only thing that lives forever is the Earth.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing in non-English language).

HELGESON: We can fight over land. We can fight over dirt. We can fight over all these things. But really, all you ever have is what's on your shoes, and that'll fall off, too.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: (Singing in non-English language).

HEGYI: With that, Helgeson shakes my hand and walks back to the powwow. American Prairie's mission to save some the last grasslands in the world comes with casualties. Whether that's good or bad depends on your story and your relationship with this land.

For NPR News, I'm Nate Hegyi in Malta, Mont.

SIMON: That story was supported by the Pulitzer Center and comes to us from the Mountain West News Bureau, a public radio collaborative.

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