On The Avenue

For the American Prairie Reserve, One Steppe at a Time

by Ben Diamond Photographed by Becky Hale/American Prairie Reserve
Friday, May 5, 2017

The American Prairie Reserve’s annual gala on Wednesday was a celebration of America in all its grassy splendor, as an eclectic crowd of environmentalists, Wall Streeters and politicos gathered at the Museum of Natural History to honor and protect the beauty of the prairie.

For all its grandeur, the prairie is dangerously unprotected from human development. “When this country created the national parks system, we picked a lot of great beautiful physical monuments, but for some reason we didn’t pick the prairie,” said APR chairman George Matelich. The American Prairie Reserve has sought to correct that oversight. Since 2004, it has purchased or leased over 350,000 acres of land in Montana. Ultimately, the group hopes to be able to connect the Reserve to both Yellowstone and Glacier National Parks. “This is a finite project, and it’s got a single mission, which is to build this park, keep it properly financed and properly managed. This is not a charity that intends to find other things to do,” said Matelich.

But preserving the prairie is about more than protecting an endangered ecosystem; it’s about protecting a disappearing way of life. “I live in a state of 98,000 square miles and only 560,000 people,” said former Senator Alan K. Simpson of Wyoming. “Somebody once asked me, ‘you have more cows than people, why is that?’ and I said, ‘We prefer ’em.’”

It’s no wonder, then, that the evening was a tribute to the American character, with the inaugural  presentation of the Ken Burns American Heritage Prize. Honoring “a distinguished artist, author, conservationist, educator, filmmaker, historian or scientist whose body of work has advanced our collective understanding of the indomitable American spirit,” the award was given to the best-selling historian David McCullough.

Tom Brokaw led off the award presentation. “If you don’t support the American Prairie Reserve, we’re sending this whale to your house,” he said, pointing to the ceiling, before introducing Ken Burns, “a moppet-haired little man who never seems to grow old or lose his enthusiasm.” 

Burns continued the night’s emphasis on the unique American character, introducing McCullough as “the man who almost single-handedly put the word ‘story’ back into ‘history.'”

In his acceptance speech, McCullough stressed a vision of unity and shared destiny. “A lesson to remember, especially now, is that almost nothing of consequence is ever accomplished alone. It’s a joint effort. America has been a joint effort,” he said.

After his speech, McCullough was joined on stage by Sen. Simpson for a very different kind of joint effort. “You’ve had a big night pal, haven’t you?” asked Simpson, before the two, improbably, broke into song. As they sang “Home on the Range” and “Don’t Fence Me In,” it was easy to think that the prairie just might endure.

Other guests included Ralph Lauren, Jacqueline Mars, David Rubenstein and Peggy Noonan.


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