In a vision of new West on the prairie, buffalo herds roam alongside tourists

Email|Print| Text size + By Blaine Harden
Washington Post / August 7, 2006

MALTA, Mont. -- What are the Northern Plains good for?

The soil is bad, the weather worse, and the landscape achingly dull. Collapsing barns punctuate a scraggly sea of brown grass and bleached boulders. The population peaked a century ago, and remaining ranchers cannot stop their children from running off to a less lonesome life.

But a new vision is taking shape for this depopulated prairie patch. It includes wild herds of buffalo and boomtowns of prairie dogs, as well as restaurants and hotels for high-end tourists who would descend on small towns such as Malta.

If all goes according to plan, land south of here would be resurrected as the Serengeti of North America, joining Yellowstone and Glacier national parks as must-see destinations in the West. As local acceptance allowed, wolves and grizzly bears would join buffalo, elk, moose, mule deer, and bighorn sheep on a restored grassland ecosystem.

The American Prairie Foundation, which is closely allied with the World Wildlife Fund, expects to have about 60,000 acres of ranchland under its control by fall.

Over the next several decades, it intends to buy hundreds of thousands more acres and link them up with federal land -- much of which is now grazed by cattle -- to create a reserve of about 3.5 million acres. Buffalo would run free on much of this land, while fences, cows, and cattle ranches would go away.

``This thing is huge, it will affect a tremendous number of people, and it will last a long time," said Sean Gerrity, president of the foundation, which he helped create six years ago.

There are, however, major hiccups in this scheme to re-create the prairie that wowed Lewis and Clark. Some local cattle ranchers say the plan will annihilate their livelihoods, and they vehemently object to the return of wolves to the plains. And another major conservation group, the Nature Conservancy, is pursing its own ambitious vision to conserve the prairie and most of its wildlife -- while keeping cattle and ranchers on the land.

The origin of the money behind the American Prairie Foundation is adding to ranchers' resentment. Donations are coming mostly from wealthy individuals, many of them in the Silicon Valley or on Wall Street. As in such places as Jackson Hole, Wyo., and Aspen, Colo., the rich are demonstrating a striking capacity to change land use .

For the wealthy, the Northern Plains and their once-great herds of buffalo are a seductive and iconic cause.

``This is an easy sell," said Diana Beattie, a Manhattan interior designer who summers in Montana and is a well-connected fund-raiser among Fifth Avenue's philanthropic elite. ``Since the Al Gore movie, I think caring about nature and preserving its purity is on everybody's plate."

Larry Linden, who lives in Manhattan and is a retired general partner at Goldman Sachs, has pledged about $500,000. He compares the restoration of the Northern Plains to the refurbishment of the Statue of Liberty.

``There are lot of folks in New York who spend a lot of time in the West, and this appeals to them," he said. ``This is not the heavy hand of the government. Over time, ranch families will find it in their interest to sell." Donations -- $11 million so far, with fund-raising goals of at least $100 million -- have bought out five ranches.

Genetically pure wild buffalo have been trucked in. In March, for the first time in more than a century, buffalo calves were born here in Phillips County.

Some people here don't welcome the changes. About 30 local families, many with huge holdings, do not want to sell land that their grandfathers homesteaded. They resent the power of outsiders to erase their family footprint on the prairie.

``For the Prairie Foundation to realize its vision, all of the ranch families have to fail," said Dale Veseth, a rancher in south Phillips County. He refuses to sell his land and is leading a group of local ranchers in opposing the prairie reserve.

The foundation disputes this argument, pointing to studies showing a decades-long decline in the region's agriculture economy and noting that no rancher is being forced to sell out.

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