Correction to This Article
A photo of buffaloes with a July 30 article about land use on the Northern Plains was incompletely credited. The photo was by Valerie Bruchon for the American Prairie Foundation.
In the New West, Do They Want Buffalo to Roam?
Plans for Tourism-Friendly Reserve Concern Montana Ranchers

By Blaine Harden
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 30, 2006; A08

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 grand new vision is taking shape for this depopulated patch of the prairie. 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, similar to what 19th century explorer Meriwether Lewis described as a scene of "visionary inchantment."

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 and Aspen, the rich are demonstrating a striking capacity to change land use in the West.

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 fundraiser 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 fundraising goals of at least $100 million -- have already 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.

"Look, the land started going out of production long before we showed up," said Gerrity, who was raised in Montana and returned in the late 1990s after a career in Silicon Valley. "The only question is who is going to buy it."

Private groups of wealthy individuals -- seeking prime hunting for birds, elk and deer -- have bought large ranches in the Northern Plains, as well as across Montana, and often deny public access. The Prairie Foundation says it plans to allow access for tourism, bird-watching and hunting on nearly all its land.

Even if the foundation were to buy all the land it needs for the reserve, more than 85 percent of the privately owned prairie in northeast Montana would likely remain ranches or farms, Gerrity said.

The Nature Conservancy's alternative vision for Phillips County embraces cattle and ranchers, but does not include roaming herds of buffalo.

"Grazing cows is completely compatible with the wildlife restoration of the prairie," said Linda Poole, program director at the Nature Conservancy's Matador Ranch, a 60,000-acre holding.

The Matador Ranch leases its grazing land to local ranchers at reduced rates if they agree to conservation practices on their own land. Those practices include living with prairie dogs, controlling invasive weeds and never using a plow to bust up fragile prairie soil.

Poole said the Nature Conservancy, after analyzing the most cost-effective way to conserve grasslands, decided that the best strategy was to "work with people who already own the land."

"It is cheaper and faster," she said.

After six years and without spending tens of millions of dollars on land, Poole said, the Nature Conservancy has changed the conservation practices of 18 private ranchers on 350,000 acres.

Veseth and other ranchers have swallowed their distaste for mixing prairie dogs and cattle to become champions of the Nature Conservancy approach. "This is really the way to go," Veseth said. "Without creating conflicts, the Nature Conservancy is taking advantage of a low-cost workforce that loves it here."

Big schemes to restore the Great Plains -- called the "buffalo commons" and the "big open" -- were floated in the 1980s.

The proposals, which advocated the phasing out of ranching in favor of wildlife and tourism, stirred up intense local opposition and a strong political backlash.

But two decades later, with the local economy continuing to implode and the aging population of eastern Montana continuing to leave the land, the Prairie Foundation has yet to encounter strong headwinds from state political leaders.

Local ranchers say that is only because the foundation has so far placed just 19 buffalo on its land, and that those beasts have yet to break out from behind electric fences. "The grumbles will come when the bison escape and start showing up on other people's land," said Troy Blunt, a rancher and Phillips County commissioner.

Knowing that its no-cow goals rankle the ranching community, the Prairie Foundation is trying to mollify county businessmen by doing its banking in Malta and buying tractors, pickups and construction supplies from local merchants. To a degree, it is working.

"They are very good customers and very good people to visit with," said Ron Scott, longtime president of First State Bank in Malta. "They have been more than fair in their land deals."

But Scott doubts that the foundation, once it buys what it needs, can match the economic contribution of ranching. "When they take land out of production and run buffalo, it will hurt," he said.

The Prairie Foundation disagrees. It points to a number of economic studies showing that Western communities with well-managed access to wild lands have substantially higher incomes and job growth than those without.

Still, even ranchers who have sold their land to the foundation are doubtful about its goals.

"It won't work because this is the 21st century, not the 1800s," said Dan Weiderreck, who with his brother Ross sold the family ranch to the foundation for $2 million in 2003. "Tourists aren't going to come here."

The prospect that wolves and grizzly bears might return one day particularly enrages ranchers, whose grandparents had to fight such animals off. While it is a long-term goal of the Prairie Foundation to bring these predators back, the group insists they will not return until there is widespread public acceptance.

Weiderreck, who lives in Malta, said that acceptance will never come. As long as ranchers live in the county, he said, reintroduced wolves and grizzly bears would disappear.

"Shoot, shovel and shut up," he said. "That's what would happen."

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