American Prairie Reserve: An Alternative Approach to Conservation

By: Jacob Caldwell

Our car smells like beef jerky and clementines. I struggle to stay awake as I read John Locke’s The Second Treatise of Government. After two days of traveling over 700 miles from Logan, Utah we arrived at American Prairie Reserve in Northeastern Montana. I had been researching the non-profit organization and was finally able to make the trip to Montana with some fellow students to see what the group had accomplished. American Prairie Reserve’s approach demonstrates that an organization can conserve land and wildlife without the government.

American Prairie Reserve was created in 2001 by Sean Gerrity, a Silicon Valley entrepreneur, and Curt Freese, a conservation biologist. Their goal was to protect the prairie ecosystem and improve its quality so that it could become home to more animal species. They are currently trying to piece together a 3.5 million acre parcel of land where animals can roam freely — roughly one and a half times the size of Yellowstone National Park. The group raises money from individual donors to purchase private property and obtain leases to public lands. To date, American Prairie Reserve has spent more than $34 million in land purchases, staff wages, and other management expenses.

According to Gib Myers, a donor to the American Prairie Reserve, the organization estimated that their project would cost about $400 million. This sounds like a lot of money, and it is. But can a non-profit organization really raise that much money? The answer is simple: yes. It might not be easy, but it is possible.

Let me put this amount of money into perspective. Giancarlo Stanton, a baseball player for the Miami Marlins, has a contract for $325 million. Disney spent over $300 million to produce Pirates of the Caribbean: On Stranger Tides — the fourth and arguably worst film in the installment.

So, if a business can spend more than $300 million dollars to contract one baseball player for their team or produce a mediocre film starring Johnny Depp, surely a non-profit organization can raise $400 million to complete a worthwhile project. Many other non-profit organizations have raised hundreds of millions of dollars.

As I visited the reserve itself and the organization’s main office in Bozeman, Montana the following day, I thought “this is real, this project can really succeed.” The organization has made 25 purchases since 2004 and now consists of 353,104 acres of both private and leased public lands — about 10% of their goal. The organization has also reintroduced bison to their lands and the herd now consists of nearly 700 animals. American Prairie Reserve personnel have accomplished all of this without the help of the government.

The future of the American Prairie Reserve depends on individuals continuing to donate to their cause. The organization’s innovation and ambition is an excellent example of what people who care about the environment can do. American Prairie Reserve demonstrates that government is not the only option when it comes to conservation.

Jacob Caldwell is a Student Research Associate at Strata Policy.