How the West was won is truly a story of what was lost. In the span of less than a century, the Great Plains—wild grasslands stretching 2,000 miles from Texas to Montana—were transformed from an American Serengeti into the world’s richest farmland as homesteaders, ranchers, and countless cattle flooded the region. Today, this productive grassland still supplies grain and meat for millions around the world.
But it’s not entirely gone. Despite missing the golden era of park creation in the U.S. from the 1800s to the 1950s, the Great Plains is now home to an unprecedented effort that is piecing together one of the largest parks in U.S. history. Once completed, the American Prairie Reserve will contain 500,000 private acres alongside roughly three million acres of public land forming a nearly unbroken expanse of pristine grasslands from Montana to Canada.
If it comes to pass, the American Prairie Reserve will enter the records books as one of the world’s largest wildlife reserves, only slightly smaller than the state of Connecticut, and—even more remarkable—pieced together almost entirely with private money.
"This is on a scale beyond anything that had been done in the U.S., certainly for wildlife," says Sean Gerrity, president of the American Prairie Foundation. The former Silicon Valley executive and his team of about 25 people have their work cut out for them: raise about $500 million, acquire a patchwork of pristine private lands over a vast area, and shape an enduring management strategy that restores the ecological balance of Great Plain’s wildlife, with the people who live in (and visit) one of America’s great wildernesses.
It’s an unprecedented undertaking. The famous national parks in the lower 48 states—Yellowstone, Yosemite and others—were created by acts of Congress, and are a fraction the size proposed for the APR (several national parks in Alaska are bigger, but almost no one lives in these regions). This ambition has proven to be one of the APR’s greatest challenges, and advantages, when it comes to raising money. "It’s hard not to get excited about that," says Gerrity. "Most people feel preserving nature at ecological scale is a losing battle. So to contribute to some where it looks like nature is going to win is exciting."
The American Prairie Foundation has already raised about a quarter of the targeted $500 million, and assembled about one-third of the overall reserve. Private foundations have chipped in 10% of the funding so far, but the rest has come from individuals in 46 states and eight countries (nearly 20% of donors reside in Montana). Federal and state agencies are also pitching in by designating public lands for biodiversity management rather than grazing or extraction (the region is already home to half a million cattle).
Slowly, the original nature of the Plains is returning. Twenty-six miles of fence have come down this year. Dams are being dismantled. Fire is once again lighting up the grasslands, while bison have returned to make the home on their original range. When the work is finally done, decades from now, the APR will be something Gerrity hopes future generations will behold in awe and protect as a common heritage. And he looks to America’s greatest urban center as one of his inspirations.
"The American Prairie Reserve is going to be like Central Park in New York City," says Gerrity. "We create something so valued, and cherished, that it’s hard to mess with."