We're living in an age of shrinking national monuments, mass species extinction and climate change denial. That's got one ex-Silicon Valley entrepreneur on a mission. He's trying to build the next Yellowstone, using money from some of the wealthiest people in the world.
From our Mountain West News Bureau, Nate Hegyi reports in the first of our series on American Prairie Reserve.
This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting. Listen to the full documentary here.
PARTS: How Big Money Is Building A New Kind Of National Park | A Privately-Funded Park For The People | Save The Cowboy, Stop The American Prairie Reserve | A Hunter's Paradise | The Bison Is A Symbol Of God
The northern Great Plains aren't much to look at. It's the drab, boring part of a cross-country interstate drive between Seattle and Chicago.
No trees in sight. No water. But Sean Gerrity, founder of American Prairie Reserve, has always seen something more out here.
On a recent summer afternoon, he climbs a steep, grassy hill in the plains of northeastern Montana to show me.
Once we reach its top, the flat, yellow prairie opens up into a stunning panorama of deep, white canyons cut through by a wide, silty 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."
This is the country Gerrity wants to protect. A wild, rugged place full of steep coulees and unbroken plains. It's called American Prairie Reserve and it's a new kind of national park — one that's free to the public and privately funded by small donors and some of the world's wealthiest people.
Its 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 river banks would be a mama grizzly bear with two or three little cubs walking along the mud there."
Making Gerrity's vision a reality requires piecing together an existing national monument and wildlife refuge with private properties and their accompanying grazing leases to create a giant, rewilded grassland.
When it's complete, it will be the largest wildlife sanctuary in the Lower 48 — about 5,000 square miles, nearly the size of Serengeti National Park in Tanzania.
On the ground, the reserve finds support among nearby tribes and with those who see economic potential in tourism. But the pushback is louder. It comes from a close-knit community of ranching families who view the reserve as an existential threat, removing them from the land they've worked for generations. As one cattlewoman told me, "for them to be successful, we can't be here. That's not OK with us."
Others voice concern over the big-money donors allowing American Prairie to acquire multimillion-dollar ranches.
But in a state known as the Last Best Place, biologists believe American Prairie Reserve may represent the last best place to pursue a wildly ambitious restoration of the Great Plains — and at a time when many have lost faith in the government to protect wild places.
As the reserve slowly grows bigger and bigger, a modern Western drama about change, loss and renewal is unfolding on this unforgiving landscape.
The Promise And Peril Of Environmental Philanthropy
The idea of a massive wildlife preserve on the Great Plains has been around for almost two centuries. Back in the 1830s, the painter George Catlin argued it should be protected as a national park. But it took Gerrity, an ex-Silicon Valley entrepreneur, to finally get this idea off the ground.
Gerrity looks like he just walked out of an REI catalog. Grey, curly hair, muscled forearms, nice plaid shirt. He's always had an affinity for 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 name companies like Apple and AT&T. He earned a lucrative living and a comfortable house in the hills above Santa Cruz, Calif. But Montana beckoned him back, where he realized he could build something that lasts longer, that's more meaningful than a Silicon Valley company.
"To work on something — pour your heart into it — and arrange it like a giant work of art and the public would by and large appreciate and realize it would last far, far beyond my lifetime? That just seemed like a dream come true," Gerrity says.
But right now, the American Prairie is still mostly a dream. For the past 18 years, Gerrity and his team have been building this park, slowly buying ranches, and replacing cattle with wild bison.
Those private properties come with expansive grazing leases on hundreds of square miles of adjacent, government-owned lands, allowing the reserve to exert more power over how those public spaces are managed.
The organization has purchased close to 30 properties so far, but it needs at least another 50. And these aren't easy negotiations. Driving around, you see signs everywhere that say, "Save The Cowboy, Stop The American Prairie Reserve."
But the project's efforts have garnered a lot of positive attention from international media outlets and celebrities like Tom Brokaw and Ken Burns. Which is a good thing, Gerrity says, because these ranches are really expensive. We're talking millions and millions of dollars."It's gonna take a lot of money. Where else do you go?"
Certainly not the federal government. It doesn't have the political will nor budget to build a really big national park like this, Gerrity argues. So instead, he and his non-profit organization have turned to some of the world's richest people for help. He pitches donors on creating a new kind of national park, "one of the most amazing conservation projects going on anywhere in the world... without tapping government money or raising taxes to do it, and make it open to yourself and your friends and your family to come and enjoy it."
The sales pitch has worked, over and over. American Prairie won't release its full list of donors, citing privacy concerns, but it has received millions of dollars from some prominent philanthropists. They include a German billionaire, a handful of New York City-based investment bankers, and heirs to the Mars Candy company.
But as the reserve brings in big money from big donors, some see hypocrisy, including Rob Reich, director of the Center on Philanthropy and Civil Society at Stanford University.
"The structure of global capitalism, which they had a role upholding, is partly responsible for the degradation of the environment," Reich says.
He points to a couple of the reserve's major donors. As top executives in the finance industry, they helped steer major investments in oil, gas or coal — industries that contribute heavily to the climate crisis, which has fueled worsening droughts, fire and floods in the northern Great Plains.
"The idea of taking that pile of wealth and then setting oneself up as a philanthropist and engaging in a whole bunch of do-gooding projects and getting the social standing of being a donor is at some odds with the initial act of the money making," Reich says.
Keith Anderson, American Prairie's board treasurer, served as the chief investment officer of Soros Fund Management, whose portfolio included at least $244 million worth of stocks in the oil industry during his tenure.
George Matelich, the board's chairman, is a senior partner at Kelso & Company, a private equity firm, which has more than 100 companies in its portfolio. They include one that explores for oil in the Gulf of Mexico, another that drilled for natural gas in Pennsylvania, and a handful of others that service extractive industries.
Matelich and the Mountain West News Bureau were unable to agree on terms for an interview. We were unable to reach Keith Anderson despite repeated attempts. But investment bankers often argue they act as fiduciaries. Essentially, they aren't investing their own money — they're investing other people's money. So they can't make a moral or political judgement on where that cash goes because it isn't theirs.
For his part, Gerrity says everyone is driving the climate crisis.
"The person who puts the gas in their car, or uses the coal in their house to heat, or the person who gets on a non-essential jet trip to take a vacation or go to a wedding or something like that, is the person actually creating the business and encouraging the oil companies to keep on doing what they're doing," Gerrity tells me.
Back on the steep, grassy hill above the Missouri River, Gerrity says the reserve can't afford to be picky about where it gets its cash.
"Over a million acres of native prairie was plowed in this area that we're looking at last year. Just last year. This wildlife habitat is going away and there is almost none left," he says. "This is the last bit in the Great Plains, for the most part, where we can do a project of this size."
A Privately-Funded Park For The People
We’re talking 3.2 million acres — almost the size of Connecticut. It takes hours to drive across the reserve. Signs warn visitors to bring enough food and water for days.
When it rains here, the dirt roads turn into what locals call “gumbo.” It’s like driving on bacon grease. Even the UPS vans, equipped with four-wheel-drive, look like monster trucks.
It’s wild, desolate country — a landscape that people like Danny Kinka have fallen in love with. Kinka is American Prairie’s chief wildlife ecologist. When I meet him, he’s crashing through tall sagebrush and yellow-green grasses on a ranch near the reserve’s boundary.
“I like this landscape because it feels wild,” he says as we swat giant cicadas and black flies. “It feels far away from the hustle and bustle of civilization. It’s relaxing.”
It’s also about as different as you can get from the suburbs of central Florida, where Kinka grew up. He’s in his mid-30s with gray-flecked hair, a bushy beard, and he wears an earring. Kinka was the son of a country club manager in Florida, but he was always pulled towards wild places like this. First, it was just public parks near his house.
“And then it was national parks, and then it was national monuments, and then it was as far away as I could get down a dirt road just to see what was down there,” he says. “This is pretty far down a dirt road where we are right now.”
It’s a beautiful scene. Cottonwood trees shudder in the wind. Tall grasses swell and roll like waves in an ocean. But the prairie can also feel lonely and empty. That makes sense. There isn’t a lot of wildlife out here. Kinka says it wasn’t always like this.
“Lewis and Clark describe a scene of hardly being able to look in any direction without seeing vast, uncountable herds of wildlife,” he says. “So if the place feels empty, I think there’s a reason for that. There’s something missing. This is a blank canvas upon which there is something to be painted — some of the most interesting and incredible animals that have ever walked the continent.”
The reserve has already reintroduced a few hundred bison using a wrinkle in Montana law.
“Bison are considered livestock by the state of Montana,” Kinka explains. “Unlike other wildlife species, they can be owned. So we are able to buy bison.”
While you can’t buy wild grizzly bears or wolves, they’re thriving in the Northern Rockies and slowly migrating back to the Great Plains on their own.
In fact, that’s why we’re on this neighboring ranch right now — to see if any of those critters have crossed through here and onto the reserve.
Kinka and his wildlife technician, Katy Beattie, climb down an embankment, searching for a wildlife camera they attached to a tree near a creek bed. When they find it, it’d been knocked over by a cow that had evidently peed on it.
But the camera’s not ruined. They replace the batteries and remove the memory card so they can scan it later. Beattie hasn’t captured any photos of wolves or grizzly bears yet, but she has snapped elk, coyote, deer and — her favorite — mountain lions.
“It’s such an elusive animal that you don’t see that often,” Beattie says, “so being able to capture so many pictures of it… it’s just really cool to look at.”
All this work is funded by private money. And while the size and scope of American Prairie Reserve is novel, environmental philanthropy is not.
Billionaires like Ted Turner and Bill Gates have been doing it for years. Grand Teton National Park was created, in part, using land purchased by Standard Oil heir and philanthropist John D. Rockefeller Jr.
He quietly bought the land south of Yellowstone from ranchers and then donated it to the federal government. But like what’s happening today with the American Prairie Reserve, many locals at the time were furious.
Cattlemen threw a fit.
They staged protests, cursed out Rockefeller and compared the federal government to a bunch of Nazis. Still, Grand Teton was eventually completed, in 1950, and became one of the most popular parks in the country.
But unlike Rockefeller, American Prairie Reserve doesn’t plan on donating its private land to the federal government. It’s going to keep it.
“Why should we give it back?” Kinka asks.
The government hasn’t shown itself to be the best protector of public lands, he argues, especially under the current administration. Kinka points to President Trump shrinking two national monuments in Utah in late 2017.
“What we thought of as protected forever doesn’t look so protected forever,” he says.
But Kinka says the government can’t strip away protections on privately-owned land.
“So, in that light, a private park, so to speak, a private park that’s managed for the enjoyment of the public, seems a lot — a lot more permanent,” he says.
It’s important to note here that American Prairie won’t own all of its 3.2 million acre preserve.
About 80 percent of that huge acreage is actually owned by the federal government. But what the reserve will do is lease the grazing rights on many of those public lands, essentially combining public and private lands together into one giant, open prairie.
Jon Jarvis, director of the National Park Service during the Obama administration, has no problem with American Prairie knitting together public and private lands and maintaining control.
“They don’t have to give it to the government, I don’t think it’s necessary at all,” he says.
But he does worry about what all this means for the reserve in the long run.
“If it’s just a bunch of private lands and a bunch of people that get together and [say], ‘Yeah, we’re committed to this,’ in 50 years they’re all gonna be dead. And then the next generation says, ‘You know, I want to take that cruise. I want to buy that plane I’ve been thinking about, so I’m going to sell that property.’”
Kinka, the wildlife ecologist, doesn’t share that concern. When asked if private enterprise can be trusted to protect this land forever and not sell it or lock out the public, he says, “I wouldn’t work here if that wasn’t true. If it gets locked up tomorrow I’m leaving. I’m not working for this place. I don’t want anything to do with it.”
He continues: “Nobody here, none of my colleagues have any interest in creating a big park for super, super rich people. The idea is that 22-year-old Danny can come out here in his two-door Toyota Tercel and get lost in the middle of the prairie reserve and discover wildness for himself with, you know, only a few pennies to pinch together, that’s deeply important to me. That’s why I work here.”
And it seems concerns that the land could be sold off to the highest bidder are moot anyway. According to American Prairie’s bylaws, if the reserve fails and the land is put up for sale, it has to go to a similar-minded conservation organization.
That means this land will never again be owned by ranchers and that doesn’t sit well with many locals here. They argue the reserve is threatening a culture that’s dominated this landscape for more than 150 years.
This story was produced by the Mountain West News Bureau, a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media, Boise State Public Radio in Idaho, KUER in Salt Lake City, KUNR in Nevada, and KRCC and KUNC in Colorado, and the O'Connor Center For the Rocky Mountain West in Missoula, Montana. It was supported by the Pulitzer Center.