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When pasts collide

APR and the changing face of Valley County

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Last month, the grassland conservation group American Prairie Reserve more than doubled its holdings in northeastern Montana when it purchased the 150,000-acre South Ranch from the Page Whitham Land and Cattle partnership for an undisclosed sum.

The transaction had been rumored in the Glasgow area for months.

It didn't sit well with some local ranchers, who view APR's continued acquisition of family ranches as an erosion of Montana's ranching heritage.

Missoula Independent news
  • Photo courtesy of American Prairie Reserve

South Ranch's history—penned by Page Whitham partner Steve Page and distributed to various media outlets in late August—offers a somewhat different consideration. The ranch was founded by Civil War veterans Henry Carpenter and Lemuel Gibson, who settled in northeastern Montana as professional bison hunters. The duo contributed to the eradication of bison in the area and began deeding huge tracts of land to ranch sheep. That spread eventually changed hands, becoming part of what's now known as South Ranch.

APR's long term goal is to establish a three-million-acre grassland preserve to accommodate scores of species, including up to 10,000 free-roaming bison. "We're not just a bison conservation project," says APR managing director Pete Geddes. But given South Ranch's roots in the bison hunting industry of the 19th century, the reintroduction effort makes this spread a somewhat fitting purchase.

Geddes describes the Page spread as "a key piece" in APR's jigsaw puzzle. The property is not only massive but lies on the northern flank of the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, believed by conservationists and state agents to be a potential home for a new wild bison herd in Montana. In assembling a contiguous landscape just over the refuge boundary, APR is setting itself up as a major future player in large-scale bison restoration.

The fences aren't going to drop overnight, though. As part of the recent acquisition, APR is leasing back grazing rights on South Ranch to the Page family for up to 12 years, a common practice in APR's private purchases. Although South Ranch will be subject to some immediate habitat protections, Geddes says, "I don't want to give the impression that overnight this turns into a conservation Garden of Eden, because it doesn't."

Last week, Steve Page explained why the owners of South Ranch decided to sell to APR. Much of southern Valley and Phillips counties is public land, he wrote in the Glasgow Courier, and has historically been leased to ranches. With the establishment of various environmental and mineral exploration restrictions, however, "the economic value of a high percentage of public ranch land is being diminished." South Ranch, Page summed up, was no longer viable "for future ranching generations."

APR has already accumulated roughly 123,000 acres of deeded or leased public land throughout the area. Much of that land has come through private purchases of family ranches.

Geddes acknowledges that there are people in Valley County "who are not particularly enamored with what we're doing." They see APR as diluting the iconic image of the Western rancher, an image that artist Charles M. Russell himself helped mold. "I would say the overwhelming majority of the chatter is about a vanishing way of life that people accuse us of accelerating," Geddes says. "And to a certain extent, that's true. We're an agent of change up there, and change is the only constant of the world. That's very upsetting to people."

Equally sensitive is the question of who bankrolls APR's purchases. Among the organization's more prominent donors are candy-fortune billionaires John and Adrienne Mars and Swiss philanthropist Hansjorg Wyss, who also donated $35 million toward the Montana Legacy Project several years ago.

Folks in Montana are particularly touchy when it comes to big outside money influencing their landscape, Geddes notes. "That comes from the era of the Copper Kings in Butte and the time in the early 20th century when we were basically treated like a colonial economy...people are very sensitive to outsiders of all sorts coming into the state." But, he adds, "it's also accurate to point out that outsiders have been coming into Montana since forever, even well-to-do ones, and buying up recreational ranches and amenity ranches and dude ranches."

Page said that it was "not without emotion" that South Ranch was sold to APR. But nothing much will actually change in the near future. APR intends to maintain public access for recreation in perpetuity—"our Eden is not going to be a gated community," Geddes says—and the Page family will continue to raise livestock. What will change, as a result of APR doubling its holdings, is the organization's focus.

The South Ranch acquisition marks a slow transition into more on-the-ground conservation work, Geddes says. Over the next year, APR will be working with scientists from across the country to establish ecological benchmarks for large swaths of Valley County, turning its attention from acquiring new lands to managing and restoring what it now has. It's all about restoring a much older landscape, Geddes says, "a place where people can come, much like Yellowstone or Grand Teton, and see a remnant of what once was there."

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