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American Prairie Shows How the Free Market is Conserving our Natural Environment

The first time I heard of “free market environmentalism” I was fairly skeptical. My assumption about private capital was that its primary duty was to multiply, but this view demonstrated a failure to properly understand market potential. Markets allow people to provide capital and, so long as enough is offered, receive just about anything they’d like in return. That could be a new car, a set of solar panels, or a piece of land. Even knowing this, though, it never occurred to me that with sufficient investment a private organization could buy enough land to conserve an entire ecosystem and do so for the benefit of people and wildlife alike. This, however, is exactly what American Prairie is achieving on the great plains of central Montana. 

American Prairie |
A picture of American Praire’s wildlife refuge.

With the goal of conserving 3.2 million acres, an area the size of the state of Connecticut, American Prairie is leveraging private philanthropy and property rights to buy ranch land, improve habitat for wildlife, and open it up for public access. That access includes opportunities to hunt, bike, hike, fish, camp, and more. One of the most interesting things about this model is that it is built on the voluntary exchange of goods between private citizens, none of which have to be paid for with tax dollars. In other words, American Prairie is able to provide significant public benefit at no public cost, due largely to the generosity of conservation-minded donors. 

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Do I mean to suggest that all conservation should be privatized and that Yellowstone National Park should be managed by contractors? Certainly not, but given the current political landscape and how difficult it is for the government to effectively buy and manage land, it is important to look for new and more adaptive models. After all, roughly 22% of the 246 million acres being managed by the BLM fail to meet their own land health standards, and this is largely due to budget constraints and capacity issues.

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Some people still believe that conservation outcomes are best achieved when the government intervenes to spare our natural resources from the rapacious greed of individuals, but what if other people are convinced those same resources have greater value when left intact? These individuals exist, too, and thousands of them have chosen to donate to American Prairie’s efforts in Montana, giving voice to a market for publicly accessible land and wildlife. 

The best part is that this is all actually working. American Prairie has already seen increased biodiversity on land where it has been able to graze its private bison herd instead of cattle. One recent study conducted on its properties found that “bison reintroduction appears to function as a passive riparian restoration strategy with positive diversity outcomes for birds and mammals.” Another study conducted over 29 years on three separate pastures in Kansas found that bison reintroduction increased native plant species richness by 86%, compared to only 30% for cattle. 

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This progress can be replicated elsewhere, even if it doesn’t happen at the scale that it is in Montana. A private forest managed alongside existing public land could replicate this success with its own set of native species, as could a private mangrove, desert, or marsh. This innovative management style doesn’t just benefit wildlife, either, as it also creates new opportunities for public recreation and generates profit for local businesses. By managing these lands, livestock, and wildlife in tandem with neighboring ranchers, the BLM, and the US Fish and Wildlife Service, American Prairie is investing in these communities, attracting ecotourism dollars, and bolstering the local economy.

The map shows where American Prairie is operating in Montana.

Some of these benefits are felt most directly by participants in American Prairie’s Wild Sky program, which financially incentivizes wildlife-friendly management practices on neighboring ranches. Interested neighbors can sign up for things like “Cameras for Conservation,” where American Prairie will pay to install game cameras on the rancher’s property and then pay them for each picture of an animal that that camera generates. If your trail cam gets a picture of an elk or deer, that’s $50 in your pocket. A mountain lion? That’s $250. And in the event that you document the presence of a grizzly bear or wolf, that will be $500 per animal, all while you are still running cattle on the property. This program has a ceiling of $6,000 per participant, and it also includes incentives to build wildlife-friendly fencing and tolerate prairie dogs. This is free market environmentalism at work, aligning incentives in such a way as to make conservation and wildlife tolerance a good business decision for local landowners.

A bear and her cub were spotted on a trail cam as a part of American Prairie’s Wild Sky program.

The public/private partnership that American Prairie is built on allows for decisions about the land to be made closer to the people and wildlife who call it home, rather than thousands of miles away in Washington. It should be something that the federal government empowers, but outdated aspects of the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) do the opposite. These rules are the reason it took American Prairie over four years to have a change of use request approved to expand its bison grazing program, and that approval is now being litigated by people who believe public land can serve no higher purpose than grazing cattle. NEPA is a well-intentioned law that has protected our environment for years, but if it is making it more difficult for conservation to be achieved on the ground, then something needs to change, and these regulatory burdens need to be revisited. This does not mean that risky projects should proceed unchecked, but it can serve as an example of how common-sense permitting reform in Congress can actually help conserve natural resources and landscapes. 

American Prairie is twenty years old and now manages nearly 450,000 acres, but counting the adjacent wildlife refuge and national monument, there are now about 1.75 million acres being conserved for people and wildlife in central Montana. In order to achieve its long-term goals, American Prairie will need to keep raising private capital, and outside groups will need to accept that ranching and conservation can, should, and do coexist. America’s landscape is vast and through free market environmentalism, we are working hard to conserve our nation’s natural resources.

Dan Mahoney is American Prairie’s Public Policy Specialist, working to raise awareness for their innovative conservation model with relevant stakeholders in Washington. When he isn’t advocating for bison and other Plains species, he is most likely to be found hiking, camping, or on his snowboard

The views and opinions expressed are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of C3.

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