travel

We meet a man dedicated to creating a nature reserve in Montana to rival Africa’s best.

Description: American Prairie Foundation lands map

 “The idea of creating a large-scale grassland reserve has been around for more than 50 years,” says Sean Gerrity. The 53-year-old former Silicon Valley businessman is now transforming this idea into reality. Since the late 1990s, when the American Nature Conservancy identified Montana as the best place on the continent to locate a wildlife park to rival the great game reserves of Africa, Gerrity has contributed significantly to the USA’s conservation effort, chiefly by founding the American Prairie Reserve (APR), a project that is unique in both aim and outlook.

Description: The APR was set up to facilitate the creation of a 3.5-million-arce national park

The APR was set up to facilitate the creation of a 3.5-million-arce national park to celebrate and protect the US prairie landscape, where Gerrity himself grew up. To put the scale of the project in perspective, the Serengeti is 3.6 million acres. Serengeti is 3.6 million acres. Gerrity draws comparison between his vision for the APR – of which he is president – and the creation and management of the great African park, which in the 1950s began reintroducing animals to a landscape that had remained unchanged for centuries. Similarly, the foundations for the US reserve were already in place. “All that had to be done was to create a difference in land use [mainly from farming]; very little restoration was needed, although thousands of miles of barbed-wire fence had to be removed.”

Description: animals(1)

A decade on, it seem Gerrity’s vision is gaining momentum. A herb of 16 bison, reintroduced in 2005 after a 120-year absence, is now more than 100-strong; 31 species of birds have returned; cougar, prairie dog and ferret populations all appear to be thriving; and the number of elk, big-horn sleep and mountain lions, though small, are increasing. Having created an environment in which native animals can exist once more, the main issue now is one of size: more land is available than the APR can afford to buy. So far, 123,000 acres of land – a tiny fraction of the park’s projected area – has been purchased, and Gerrity estimates that an extra $450 million is needed to buy the remaining 3.4 million acres. “The average American football stadium cost $1 billion,” Gerrity tells me. “For half the cost of a football stadium, we’ll build the largest wildlife complex ever assembled in the lower 48 states.

Description: animals(2)

Despite some high-profile private donors (all contributing to an endowment model to ensure the longevity of the project), including chocolate heir Forrest Mars Jr, the project seems to have been ticking along under the radar, with only 450 visitors last year. “In 2012 we except it to increase by 30 per cent and to continue at that rate year on year,” says Gerrity. The numbers are a far cry from the millions who pass annually through the big national parks – Yosemite, Yellowstone and the Everglades – which makes now a perfect time to visit.

Description: animals(3)

One campsite is already open; by the end of this year, it should be joined by a luxurious lodge designed by a San Francisco-based architectural firm, which Gerrity hopes will be “on a par with the best in Africa”. The plan is to build up to 12 more campsites, offering varying levels of luxury, over the next eight years. Overnight visitor numbers will be restricted “so you can have a very remote, romantic, exotic experience”. And Gerrity, who likes to draw attention to the project’s wider significance, hopes to attract international visitors and donors. “It’s not just about the USA. This is a globally important conservation effort. It’s about creating a reserve that no ones has ever seen before.”

Description: animals(4)

Visit to the American Prairie Reserve in north-east Montana are free if you have your own transport. Alternatively, book a camping stay, guided tour or voluntary experience. The airports at Billings, Bozeman and Great Falls are four or five hours’ drive away. For details see www.americanpririe.org

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