Identity and change: the American Prairie Reserve

Essay

A couple weekends ago my family went to a cabin at the American Prairie Reserve. For those who haven’t heard of the APR, it’s an interesting private initiative that started as a World Wildlife Fund partnership in the early 2000s with the aim of purchasing private land in eastern Montana that would connect federal wildlife refuges and other open space to eventually preserve three million acres of connected prairie, part privately owned, part public.

The initiative is described as a public-private partnership but I’m not sure it’s exactly that. It’s more open in its aims and methodology than I’m used to seeing from PPPs (granted, my knowledge of them tends to be in the highway or urban planning realm and are usually with for-profit companies rather than non-profit organizations, and the details of the deal are often kept from the public), but possibly more completely privately owned in its structure, at least for the non-public parcels.

I don’t know many public lands advocates who know exactly how they feel about the APR. The point of public lands is that they’re part of the public trust—held in trust for the people (not, as they’re often mischaracterized, owned by government, though plenty of policymakers act like they are). The APR’s lands are not publicly owned—and never will be, according to their website—though they are open to the public. On the other hand, the private lands that make up the APR were privately owned ranches for decades, and without APR purchase they most likely would have passed into other private ownership, ownership that probably wouldn’t have used them for conservation.

I’ve wanted to visit the APR for years because the project intrigued me, but also the idea of looking at and roaming in vast, intact prairie—with the chance of seeing a bison herd, though we didn’t—sounded wonderful.

And it was. I’ve never been anywhere so completely quiet. The dirt roads are tricky (in rain they’d be nearly impassable and I would not want to drive them in winter); barely any cars passed, and even flight paths seem to be mostly routed somewhere else. One lone cottonwood tree sometimes rustled in the wind, and toward evening a couple packs of coyotes howled and yipped in the near distance. No cell phone service, no internet. Just silence and stars and the gentle flow of the Missouri River. It really was wonderful.

Wonderful to me, and probably to anyone else interested in conservation and intact ecosystems. Not so wonderful to a small group of nearby property owners who have at least twice tried to make the APR for all intents and purposes illegal via bills forwarded in Montana’s state legislature.

I’ve tried to understand the objections to the APR over the years. The most vocal group mounting resistance to the APR insists that the organization harms families, communities, and the nation by taking the ranchland they purchase out of cattle production and turning it back into bison-supporting prairie. (The details of their arguments are on their website.) The most recent legislative effort involved a bill that would have banned nonprofits from buying agricultural land. The bill specified “certain nonprofits,” exempting schools and churches but limiting the purchases of land trusts and conservation organizations, and was widely understood to be aimed at the APR.

To say that the area where the APR is located is sparsely populated is an understatement—slightly under 7,000 people live in one county of just over 4,000 square miles (10,360 square kilometers). And as with Western communities who felt left behind and betrayed by the 1980s to early 1990s timber wars, the effects of watching ranching families sell up or drift away will leave significant psychological scars. When your community feels like it’s hollowing out—schools half-full, jobs sparse, volunteer firefighters hard to come by, the only hospital an hour or two or more away—people want an answer as to why, or at least reasons. And in communities where environmental concerns play a factor in constraining resource extraction or management, conservation makes an easy scapegoat. Even when the economics of farming and ranching have been well known to batter family farms (and the soil itself) into debt for decades now.

As we were driving to the APR, we began to see this sign posted on fencing that lined properties along the highway:

Save the cowboy. Like so many other things in the world, this argument isn’t truly about economics or even community: it’s about identity. It’s about how who we think we are entangles itself in how we think the world should be structured. It reminds me of Joe Wilkins’s novel Fall Back Down When I Die and how he so deftly characterized an anti-environmental resentment of nature itself, and how those attitudes were passed down from the characters’ homesteading ancestors, people who were gifted land in the first place from the U.S. government and at the expense of the people it was stolen from. 

It’s interesting to me that one of the members of the Save the Cowboy campaign said in an interview that because private donors fund the APR’s efforts, it’s “basically a takeover of this area by just a few individuals with vast financial resources.” This objection, while clear and perhaps even fair, ignores the fact that other ranches nearby have been purchased by wealthy out-of-state residents who spend very little time there and have closed off rather than opened public access as well as denied neighbors previously permitted grazing access. Nor is it unique to the area. Where I live, an enormously wealthy couple who live mostly in Texas recently bought 126,000 acres of former Weyerhauser timber land that had been publicly accessible (I have serious doubts that their expressed desire to continue welcoming hunters and walkers will last long; their other local property, 200 acres near my town where they’re building a house with umpteen chimneys, boasts the largest “No Trespassing” sign I’ve ever seen in my life). If that anti-APR rancher really wanted to get at the root of her complaint, it would be land access and control being solely at the whim of a wealthy landowner.

It’s also a description of essentially what happened with colonialism throughout the U.S., including Montana. Homesteading families notwithstanding, land speculation by wealthy individuals, corporations, and railways fueled much of the European settlement of the West, and the rest of America before that. George Washington himself was a land speculator. In addition to being the main beneficiary of lands granted to soldiers for helping to build a fort east of the Ohio River—he was gifted 20,000 acres and bought another 25,000 from fellow soldiers—he later scouted out lands west of the 1763 Proclamation Line (past which the British king declared that his subjects were not meant to settle), writing to his land agent in 1767 that:

“I can never look up on that proclamation in any other light . . . than as a temporary expedient to quiet the minds of the Indians. . . . Any person, therefore, who neglects the present opportunity of hunting out good lands, and in some measure marking and distinguishing them for his own, in order to keep others from settling them, will never regain it.”

I read an interview with a local white nationalist a few years ago in which he gave a non-answer to a journalist when asked about Native American people. After he said that non-white people should “go back” to wherever they came from (not that it matters because the whole argument is nonsensical, but wouldn’t it be more straightforward for us pale-skinned people to “go back”?), the journalist asked him something along the lines of “what about Native Americans?” and the white nationalist said, “We won the war.”

This might seem like a tangent but I think it’s at the heart of these tensions. Aside from the fact that Europeans won pretty much no significant battle with Native American nations,* “the war,” whatever people envision it to be, encompasses far more than believing that hard work, strategy, perseverance, and noble self-sacrifice somehow conquered a continent. It’s a way of life, an ethos, that we think “won.” Cattle, not bison; sheep, not wolves; cultivated wheat, not shortgrass prairie; fences and property and resources, not land and life. This vision of community and neighborliness, not that one.

*(In a 1985 lecture in his Montana history series, historian K. Ross Toole said that, “When I say that we never beat the Indians militarily, I mean it. We killed the buffalo, we wrecked them with smallpox and with booze, but we never beat them militarily.” Smallpox probably played the largest role in how those dynamics played out; less “winning” than benefiting from the numbers lost to disease and massacres, compounded by treaty betrayals, residential schools, and the Dawes Act of 1887.)

There is nothing about this perspective that doesn’t in some way trace back to the Doctrine of Discovery, the papal proclamation of 1493 that gave the Christian nation of Portugal, and later Spain, right of ownership over any non-Christian lands, resources, and people they came across. It was the Doctrine of Discovery that the U.S. Supreme Court referred to in its 1823 decision Johnson v. McIntosh that declared only white people could sell North American land because Native people were incapable of ownership: “their power to dispose of the soil at their own will, to whomsoever they pleased, was denied by the original fundamental principle, that discovery gave exclusive title to those who made it.” (Emphasis added.) Living here for tens of thousands of years—or even just living here first—wasn’t enough. By “discovering” this continent and then putting it to recognizable use, Europeans and European-descended people were imbued with the seemingly divine right of ownership.

Efforts like the APR’s to restore both prairie and bison directly question the stability of that so-called victory. Facing the reality that it was perhaps never absolute seems to terrify many people; being scared makes people angry. We heard similar kinds of virulent objections when the National Bison Range (now just Bison Range) was finally returned to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes.

Cherokee elder Stan Rushworth has talked about this relationship, not with bison specifically but with Western civilization and its fear of Native nations and non-commodification paradigms that often exist in tandem:

“A deep fear of Native people tilts over into anger, and I’ve seen it time and time again. . .  . What we have now with Covid, what we have with climate change, they’re the same thing—and they’re really outgrowths of a predatory dynamic that the United States and perhaps Western civilization and how that’s spread out into the world through what people call capitalism, which is one form, really, of the desire to exploit and the right to exploit people and Mother Earth. It’s a dynamic of exploitation. . . . Fear and hatred go hand in hand.”

This sensibility came up obliquely in one of the Threshold podcast’s first episodes on bison, when a cattle rancher near Yellowstone National Park was asked if she would feel differently about bison if it were proved to her that brucellosis—a disease that causes cows to abort their calves—almost always comes from elk, not bison. Her response was unequivocal: 

“I don’t think in Montana there is a place for free-roaming bison.”

“Even without brucellosis?”

“Even without.”

“Why not?”

“I don’t think there’s enough resources.”

She’s referring, the host and interviewer explains, to grass and grazing lands. The resources, the fodder and habitat for animals of all kinds, belong rightfully to the cattle she and other ranchers care for. No matter how the interviewer presents the idea—only tested brucellosis-free bison and elk, only on public lands—the rancher cannot see room for bison in her world because it’s a threat to her way of life and the cattle she loves: 

“You have all these people out there fighting for free-roaming bison, and it’s a concept, it’s a vision that they have of the Old West and bison just roaming and being happy. And we’re fighting for our ability to survive here, and make a living. . . . They don’t have anything to lose in their vision, and we have everything to lose.”

There are some fair points here about who stands to lose when land uses shift, though I’d hazard that the rancher is mischaracterizing pro-bison advocates just as much as she feels mischaracterized in return. In the case of the APR, which is in a different part of the state, there might be some very valid questions about forms of gentrification that affect rural areas (Montana journalist Kathleen McLaughlin had a wonderful interview on her Substack this week about rural gentrification), but it’s all very hard to reconcile with the whole colonial reason many cattle ranchers live in places like Montana in the first place.

Introducing free-roaming bison is a huge shift, one that it’s easy to see forces enormous change on people who already have a life characterized by hard work but also somewhat reliable expectations. I sympathize keenly with people who feel that their way of life is being taken or damaged by forces outside of their control. I’ve felt it myself many times, watching Montana grow and change throughout my life, and I don’t like it when wealthy people from elsewhere buy up and all the land, either. What I don’t understand (or maybe I do understand but am just tired to death of it) is why it doesn’t go the other direction, why it’s so hard for people to see their own pain mirrored in people they don’t identify with.

Valid arguments about loss become intertwined with identity and entitlement, leaving little room to see points of commonality, or even of other people’s equal claims to survival: We belong here. We won. Any narrative or act that feels like it threatens or questions that victory—like turning cattle pastures back into the bison-dominated prairie it was before ranching came in—is a threat not just to livelihood but to identity. You can see it in the most visible campaign against the APR: “Save the cowboy.” Not “save our ranches, our communities, our jobs.” Save a mythical creature that only truly existed for a few years when cattle drives from Texas to Montana over open, unfenced range were still common, a myth that has fed American imaginations and fantasies of rugged individualism for over a hundred years. Save an image, a dream, an identity.

It’s not about cowboys or even about agricultural production. It’s about protecting people’s sense of who they are, who they have a right to be and how they envision their communities surviving. None of us are immune to this. We all crave a sense of identity that feels unshakable; that’s very human. Do we, though, have a right to preserve our identities and ways of life no matter what the cost to others? Are we required to save people from the painful realization that maybe the victory over people, over land, over bison—whatever we or they perceive that victory to be—was never final? That the “war” never ended? What about the other way around—do we have a right to impose a vision of land use on communities that never asked for it?

There’s a real estate office in the next town over from mine that has one of those “Save the Cowboy” posters on its window. Inside, it has a “Cows Not Condos” bumper sticker stuck on a fish tank. The disconnect doesn’t seem to register with anyone. Nor do the anti-APR campaign’s statistics on jobs and economic benefit truly counter the fact that the APR also provides jobs in the area, contributes to the community, and works closely with at least one local Native American nation.

I’m a deep believer in community, and in the idea that true community is built in some ways through mutual self-determination and difficult compromise, but it’s telling that in any interview I’ve read with anti-APR advocates, residents lovingly describe the area’s sense of neighborliness and tight-knit community, while making it clear they don’t see the APR or its employees to be part of that community, no matter how they behave or what they contribute. The only thing that would make them acceptable is to stop trying to restore bison and the prairie. I’ve seen the same thing in my own community—consistently described as tight-knit and neighborly, which it is, while pervaded with complaints about “outsiders” who “don’t understand our ways.”

(This is all completely aside from the fact that, according to some of the ranchers themselves, their cattle operations are set up to raise calves for sending to feedlots—no matter how good their own ranch’s practices might be, when we talk about the climate change and environmental damage caused by beef consumption, it’s largely feedlot-raised cattle that’s under discussion. You can also eat bison, and the APR grants a certain number of bison hunting permits per year through a lottery.)

If you get the sense that I’m struggling with all of this, you’re not wrong. I’m clear on my feelings about conservation, but one of my life mantras (besides “be like water” and “life is too short to wear boring socks”) is to meet people where they are. I don’t think you can solve problems if you don’t know where other people are coming from—really know it, not just assume you know it because they vote or look or act a certain way or live in a particular place. But that doesn’t mean that all worldviews are reconcilable. Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast said something beautiful about this once when talking about deforestation, about how you must grant everyone’s right to exist and to have their own views and opinions, but that doesn’t negate your right to oppose their actions. In the case of the APR, both “sides” have claims to defending or restoring something precious.

I don’t know, again, how I feel about the APR model of conservation with its reliance on private property, though I do know the prairie itself was an incredible place to be, full of starlight and absolute silence broken only by coyotes and that one cottonwood tree. And that I’d rather have wealthy people restoring places like this for the benefit of the public than locking away land as “legacy property” (as the new owners of 126,000 acres near me described their purchase), or, say, going to space. In the ownership and domination paradigm we’re currently stuck in, it feels like one of the best tools available, and it’s being used to good effect in this case, at least from my perspective. (In saving a river from mining waste or an oil pipeline, it’s been pretty useless.) The anti-APR legislation hasn’t passed the state legislature because other conservative legislators were shocked at the assault on private property rights. But even with Montana’s supposed devotion to private property rights, the current loathing for conservation is powerful enough that they might win another time. The Doctrine of Discovery is still with us today: no use of land is acceptable that doesn’t fit within its paradigm.

How you deal with identity is a question nobody has an answer to yet, at least not that I’ve seen. People know how to weaponize identity, as Eric Hoffer wrote about so vividly, but have not yet figured out how to reconcile it when expectations and values shift and evolve. A view of “how things are” resists change and must insist on a static past—in this case, a history that begins with the influx of ranchers and homesteaders, a history that must be seen as inevitable, as progress. Any unwinding of their work is a reversion to something lesser. 

We haven’t yet figured out how to ease the fears the drive aggrieved entitlement and terror of change, nor how to make injured identity whole. Perhaps that will become one of the essential projects of our time. I don’t know. I don’t know how to heal the scars of the timber wars or the resentment that will linger in coal mining-dependent and ranching communities.

I don’t even know if I’m being fair to people who want to stop the American Prairie Reserve, whether it saves cowboys or not. Nor do I know how to heal my own heart when I see the places I love ripped apart for others’ profit or private enjoyment. In the end I, too, am just trying to fit this all into a vision of how I want the world to be.

But I can say that making land whole for the non-human life that depends upon it might be the very thing we need to make a start.