Imagine Congress agreeing to create national forests and wildlife refuges these days. Probably wouldn’t happen. So when a billionaire realized a large swath of the Great Plains needed special protections he decided to do it himself, without the government’s help. His dream is for a new kind of privately-owned national park–one as expansive as Yellowstone.
This story was supported by the Pulitzer Center On Crisis Reporting
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.
Photos by Claire Harbage/NPR
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