Billionaire-funded environmental group quietly takes farmland out of production in rural America
The American Prairie (AP), a conservation project in Montana, has quietly reclaimed more than 450,000 acres of land with help from its billionaire donors and the federal government.
According to the American Prairie Foundation, which founded the reserve more than 20 years ago, the little-known project aims to create the largest “fully functioning ecosystem” on the American continent by bringing together about 3.2 million acres of land. private and public. The group has recorded 34 transactions covering approximately 453,188 acres of land in central Montana – much of which was once used for farming and grazing – since 2004 and continues to expand aggressively.
“Our mission is to assemble the largest complex of public and private wildlife lands in the Lower 48,” Pete Geddes, AP’s vice president and director of external relations, told Fox News Digital in an interview. . “For comparison, about 25% larger than Yellowstone.”
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“We’re not asking the federal government to create anything, we’re not asking the federal government for money,” he added. “Instead, we engage in private philanthropy and voluntary exchange by buying ranches from people who would like to sell them to us.”
The American Prairie Foundation has raised tens of millions of dollars in recent years, according to recent tax filings, largely thanks to its donors, which include well-known Wall Street and Silicon Valley moguls. Hansjoerg Wyss, a Swiss financier and mega-donor to liberal causes, late German retail magnate Erivan Haub, John Mars, heir to the Mars candy fortune, and Susan Packard Orr, daughter of Hewlett co-founder -Packard Co., all gave to AP, Bloomberg previously reported.
The AP said about 3% of its contributions come from international donors.
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“It’s an area that doesn’t have many people and has been depopulated for a very, very long time,” Geddes said. “So the thought was, maybe there’s a greater potential for less conflict over conservation in this part of the world.”
However, PA plans have been increasingly rejected by senior state officials and local ranchers who argue that such a nature reserve would take key land out of production and negatively impact private land. surrounding. With funds from its donors, the group purchased approximately 118,000 acres of private land and leased an additional 334,000 acres of public land mostly from the federal government.
“These donors can write off these contributions as a charitable donation, so they don’t have to live with the consequences of what they do to these communities,” said Chuck Denowh, director of policy at United Property Owners. of Montana (UPOM), a group of local ranchers opposed to PA projects.
“It’s really concerning that we have so much foreign money coming into AP to buy our farmland,” he told Fox News Digital. “For the future of this country’s food security, we need to look at this closely.”
Denowh said the vast majority of residents in surrounding counties who have cared for and conserved the land for decades oppose the PA’s plans. The region depends almost entirely on the agricultural industry.
Opponents of the AP have focused their anger in particular on one of the group’s main proposals to release wild bison on the property, giving visitors “a chance to witness the majestic species.” UPOM expressed concern that free-ranging bison could infect surrounding livestock with brucellosis, an infectious disease commonly found in bison and elk populations, which could be extremely costly for herders if it spreads to their livestock.
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The foundation sought permission from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), the federal agency responsible for managing 245 million acres of public land, to allow bison grazing on portions of the leased property in 2017. and again in 2019. The agency announced Thursday that it had approved the PA’s application for bison grazing on 63,500 acres of federal property.
Governor Greg Gianforte and a series of state agency heads wrote letters to BLM late last year urging the agency not to approve the request. Montana Department of Agriculture Director Christy Clark said the plan would remove “large swathes of land from production agriculture,” likely decrease income from agricultural production, and hurt agriculture-supporting industries. area such as machine sales and ranch workers.
“It’s downright illegal,” Montana Attorney General Austin Knudsen told Fox News Digital in an interview. “This is federal land that is specifically — by the Taylor Grazing Act, by federal law — set aside for cattle grazing. Bison are not cattle, even under federal law.”
“That’s the part that everyone seems to ignore here,” he continued. “AP doesn’t want to admit it, certainly the Bureau of Land Management and the Home Office don’t want to admit it. But it’s just the fact.”
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Knudsen criticized AP for what he called its surreptitious plan to create an “American Serengeti” where “liberal coastal elites can come hang out and watch the pretty animals.” The attorney general added that his office is closely reviewing the Biden administration’s decision on Thursday to determine its next steps to protect ranchers and state interests.
The Taylor Grazing Act, which Congress passed in 1934, is designed to prevent overgrazing by allowing local ranchers to lease public land for grazing cattle and raising forage crops. The bill was approved to increase food and animal production on land that had, for years, been seriously mismanaged.
Although the AP argued that the law allows bison grazing, the group also acknowledged that its plans were primarily focused on conservation, not production. For example, the group boasts on its website that its land acquisitions have already led to the removal of 63,777 acres of livestock grazing leases in the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge, allowing federal authorities to “restore the ‘habitat primarily for wildlife use’.
“We don’t consider this a non-productive use,” Geddes told Fox News Digital. “These bison are in a very productive role. It’s absolutely true that they’re not commercial livestock production, but they’re productive in the sense of what they’re doing for this prairie ecosystem.”
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“Yes, some of this land is no longer productive, but the land is no longer productive everywhere, all the time,” he continued.
An estimated 800 bison currently roam some of AP’s properties, a number the group hopes to reach “several thousand” as part of its wildlife restoration plan.
AP currently leases some of the land it oversees to cattle ranchers who, in the midst of a major regional drought, are in desperate need of available grassland for cattle grazing. Geddes said these ranchers have been made aware of AP’s plans to evict them from reservation property once bison are allowed to roam on these leased lands.
“Let’s say in a few years we’ll have 1,200 head of bison. In the seven counties we work in, there’s probably half a million head of cattle,” he added. “This criticism that we’re dropping the neutron bomb and wiping out agriculture in this area – it’s just nonsense.”
Montana’s $4.72 billion agricultural industry is among the largest sectors in the state and provides the United States with a large amount of wheat, hay, lentils, corn and meat, according to the Montana Department of Agriculture. As of January, Montana ranchers operated an inventory of 2.2 million cattle, making it one of the few states with more cattle than people.
Overall, cattle inventories have been declining in Montana and across the country in recent years, according to a recent report from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service.
“AP is working to buy as much land as possible to remove as much livestock as possible from the landscape and ultimately drive these people away,” Denowh told Fox News Digital. “These lands were created in the first place to ensure an adequate and constant supply of protein for the country.”
“That’s probably one of the biggest dangers in the PA,” he said. “If they can set this new precedent with BLM, we think [non-governmental organizations] across the West are going to buy land to take control of these grazing leases and take them out of production. It’s definitely bigger than AP.”