This West Is OUR West

Local Montana Community Preservation Alliance Fights to Preserve Local Ranching Culture

By Jon Arneson

How do you compete with money? “It’s a damn hard one!” local Phillips County rancher said when asked about the American Prairie Reserve. “They are getting a lot of help from the Government, too.” He say’s without hesitation, “It seems they are using our own public land against us. I don’t know how you fight Billions of dollars and our federal government too, it’s a tough deal.”

The third generation rancher is talking about the American Prairie Reserve (APR) and their plan to assemble as much as 3.5 million acres of contiguous private and public land – about a million acres more than Yellowstone National Park.

In their own words, the American Prairie Reserve seeks to create an American Serengeti much like what Lewis and Clark saw along their journey to the Pacific coast in the 1800’s.  Their mission is “to create the largest nature reserve in the continental United States, a refuge for people and wildlife preserved forever as part of America’s heritage.”

The APR’s donor roll reads like a real who’s who of the ultra-rich: Billionaire candy heirs Forrest Mars Jr. and his brother, John with a combined net worth of $44 Billion dollars are a major Donor, and there’s many more. Billionaires that are happy to lend their fortunes to a project they are likely never to see.

Acre by Acre, the APR is buying up huge areas of land in Phillips County and mixing with existing public lands to create a grassland reserve where 10,000 bison are expected to someday roam without any inside fences. The privately financed venture started in 1999 but was officially formed in June 2001.

To the ranching community in Northern Montana, feels like it’s a land grab and a war against their culture and history. In efforts to preserve their way of life and stop the American Prairie Reserve from buying up their land, they have created an organization called The Montana Community Preservation Alliance.

“We have already saved this landscape,” says Leo Barthelmess, who has a 25,000-acre sheep and cattle ranch right in the middle of the American Prairie Reserve. Bathelmess and many other ranching and farming families throughout the county say they have already rebuilt and saved the prairie, season by season, since the destruction of the dust bowl years which were extremely hard on this part of the country. They work with conservation groups, rotate their herds to encourage a healthy mix of prairie grass, and set aside ample room for sage grouse, plovers, and herons. Bathelmess says he is even tilling much less to save the underground ecosystem.

One major criticism of the APR is that their skeptics believe there is no firm Range Management Plan. Peggy Bergsagel a resident of Philips County and a member of The Montana Community Preservation Alliance says, “If there is one [a range management plan], we haven’t seen it.”

Bergsagel asks, “Where is their contingency plan? If there is another drought or fire, are they going to rotate their grass lands for their 3000 Bison that they say is coming? If there is no plan then we are all in for a big disaster.” Bergsagel further states, “We have spent our lives working this land and keeping it profitable and producing, Are they? We don’t know. How are you going to handle 3000 Bison without inside fences? If you don’t have Range and Number plans you don’t have nothing.”

Meanwhile, the American Prairie Reserve is proud of what they have accomplished and points out that they are a freestanding Montana-based nonprofit organization that has created a vast mosaic of land that is managed thoughtfully and collaboratively with state and federal agencies for wildlife conservation and public access.

The APR says that this prairie is to be enjoyed forever by all walks of life and their work is just continuing the legacy of many talented people who are committed to this landscape. A once in a lifetime opportunity. A project for America.

According to Hilary Parker, communications and outreach manager with APR, she says they try hard to be good neighbors. They have spent $5 million in local communities over the last three years for management expenses such as utilities, supplies, repairs, vehicles, and equipment.

They also pay all property taxes. In 2015 they paid a total of $69, 583 in property taxes to Philips, Blaine and Valley counties. They are number 16 of the top 20 taxpayers in Phillips county since 2002 with a total of $373, 539 in property taxes.

Bison 2“We have done everything possible to get along”, one APR employee said. “We have never foisted our vision on anyone. We installed electric fences to ensure that the bison do not roam onto other people’s property. We allow hunting on the land, and we lease back some of the land to allow ranchers to graze their cows.”

Many of the Phillips county residents including Mike and Nancy Ereaux say they know the transformative power of real estate out west: Western Mining towns become ski havens, High mesas become ranch retreats for business moguls, and cultures inevitably change. The Montana Community Preservation Alliance feels the cash is almost too tempting to turn down for some. Many of the sellers in the area are land rich and cash poor, Rancher Vicki Olson says they pay as much as $2000 an acre, whereas the going rate is a quarter of that.

The APR does not disclose how much it pays for land, but Parker says they work on a willing seller/willing buyer basis. If people want to stay and ranch, then they stay and ranch. She says they buy land just like everyone else does.

As for visitors, logistics will be a problem for many except for the most die-hard of travelers. As people in Montana know but those from outside the west may not be able to comprehend how remote the area is. After the 3 hour drive from the Billings airport, then you deal with miles of dirt roads that turn to gumbo in any precipitation.

There is a tension between the two sides that seem to come from deep inside one’s soul. One side feeling their way of life is being disrespected and the other not quite understanding why everyone would not want to jump on board and be “all in” for this particular project. It’s the kind of tension that may never go away.