Billionaire-funded eco group quietly taking farmland out of production in rural America
The American Prairie (AP), a conservation project in Montana, has quietly scooped up more than 450,000 acres of land with the help of its billionaire donors and the federal government.
The little-known project aims to create the largest “fully functioning ecosystem” in the continental U.S. by stitching together about 3.2 million acres of private and public lands, according to the American Prairie Foundation which founded the reserve more than 20 years ago. The group has recorded 34 transactions spanning roughly 453,188 acres of land throughout central Montana — much of which were once used for farming and grazing — since 2004 and continues to aggressively expand.
“Our mission is to assemble the largest complex of public and private lands devoted to wildlife in the lower 48,” Pete Geddes, AP’s vice president and chief external relations officer, told Fox News Digital in an interview. “For comparison, about 25% larger than Yellowstone.”
“We’re not asking the federal government to create anything, we’re not asking the federal government for any money,” he added. “Instead, we’re engaged in private philanthropy and voluntary exchange by buying ranches from people who would like to sell that to us.”
The American Prairie Foundation has raised tens of millions of dollars in recent years, according to recent tax filings, thanks, in large part, to its donors which include well-known Wall Street and Silicon Valley magnates. Hansjoerg Wyss, a Swiss financier and mega-donor of liberal causes, deceased German retail mogul Erivan Haub, John Mars, the heir to the Mars candy fortune, and Susan Packard Orr, daughter of the Hewlett-Packard Co. co-founder, have all donated to AP, Bloomberg previously reported.
AP said about 3% of its contributions have come from international donors.
“It’s an area that doesn’t have a lot of people in it and has been depopulating for a long, long time,” Geddes said. “So, the thinking was, perhaps there’s greater potential for less conflict over conservation in this part of the world.”
AP’s plans, though, have faced increasing pushback from top state officials and local ranchers who argue such a nature reserve would remove key land from production and negatively impact surrounding privately-owned lands. Using its donor funds, the group has purchased about 118,000 acres of private land and leased another 334,000 acres of public land owned primarily by the federal government.
“Those donors are able to write those contributions off as a charitable donation, so they don’t have to live with the consequences of what they’re doing to these communities,” said Chuck Denowh, the policy director at the United Property Owners of Montana (UPOM), a group made up of local ranchers opposed to AP’s plans.
“It’s really concerning that we have such an amount of foreign money coming into AP to buy up our ag land,” he told Fox News Digital. “For the future of food security of this country, we need to take a close look at that.”
Denowh said the vast majority of locals throughout the surrounding counties, who have looked after and conserved the land for decades, are opposed to the AP’s plans. The region is almost entirely dependent on the agriculture industry.