Ken Burns, on the American Prairie Reserve

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

I’ve mentioned several times how interested I’ve been in the American Prairie Reserve, in northern Montana. (And, yes, this is what I’d prefer to talk about on this latest primary-election night.) The beauty of the place is obvious, though still surprising to see in person. For me the fascination involves the match between what its creators are trying to do, and the era in which they’re trying to do it.

Their goal is to create what would be the largest natural reserve in the lower 48 states, of more than three million acres (or more than 5,000 square miles), and  restore it to something like its pre-Lewis and Clark wildlife and vegetation, complete with large herds of free-roaming bison and other animals. Such grand efforts would be challenging at any time, but they are harder now than 130+ years ago, when Yellowstone Park was being created and human settlement had not yet left such a mark.

The APR’s route toward this end is a thoroughly modern “all of the above” approach. In part it relies on already protected public lands, with the Charles M. Russell National Wildlife Refuge along the banks of the Missouri at the heart of the envisioned reserve. In part it means gathering raising money to buy land for permanent protection. In part it is collaboration with the tribes from the large, adjoining reservations: Fort Belknap to the west and Fort Peck to the east. And in very large part it means using market incentives to enlist neighboring ranchers in the effort. An organization called Wild Sky pays ranchers a premium for cattle raised with wildlife-friendly practices, from special kinds of fencing to a tolerance for wildlife and predators. In turn it sells Wild Sky beef as a premium brand at stores and restaurants around the country.

Last week the APR announced a new “Ken Burns Prize” program, named for the documentary filmmaker and designed to honor people whose work has “advanced our collective understanding of the indomitable American spirit.” I talked with Burns this morning by phone, to ask him how he got connected with the APR, and what this prize was about. A lightly edited version of our talk is below.

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JF: How did you get involved with the American Prairie Reserve? What’s the connection between you, them, and this prize?

Ken Burns: “They’re in an area I know pretty well. For my Lewis and Clark project I felt compelled to retrace their steps in both directions, and more than once.

“I fell in love with the area. But I was also conscious of how difficult it was [when filming] to achieve the pristine perspective of Lewis and Clark. There was a fenceline of an old homestead here, a crumbling shack there, the cattle who were tagged and lowing contentedly in the field. There were highways and hydro dams and even the black cars of the servicemen who serviced the nuclear missile sites.

“So we were straining to find a sense of what Lewis and Clark saw. And we were amazed at how we spend so much time in our ADD existing flying over or avoiding the ‘boredom’ of what is our magnificent prairie.

“My National Parks film was being rebroadcast, and the Park Service essentially represents the federal government saying: Manifest Destiny is terrific, but let’s save a few of these places! Not every river needs to be dammed. Not every forest needs to be measured in board feet. Not every canyon needs to be mined for its mineral wealth.

“That impulse, of preserving the land, attracts me to it, and of course it’s a tremendous honor that they would create the prize in my name.”

JF: What about the approach the American Prairie Reserve is taking, with its mixture of market incentives and other tools?

Ken Burns: “I think you’ve got to develop a lot of strategies to accomplish anything in this area today. We’ve essentially run out of real estate. So we’re not talking any more about opening land to settlers, and saving this little piece of it. It’s a much more complex and sophisticated — and civilized operation that is going on.

“I don’t mean civilized as opposed to ‘uncivilized.’ I mean what happens when you get a complex society. These negotiations have to proceed with strategies that don’t at first blush seem clear-cut. This sort of re-ceding of the land [he spells it out to distinguish it from seeding] — this re-ceding of the prairie — is going to require creativity. And I am drawn to their approach.

“Not all of the attempts will be successful, not all will be without pushback and controversy. But we have the sense that committed individuals can carve out an area in one of our least populated regions and turn it to something like what it once was.

“At the time of Lewis and Clark it was said that a squirrel could climb a tree near the Atlantic coastline, and not touch ground before the Mississippi. The glory of the prairies is different from that. But we have the opportunity once again to have that shared glory.”

JF: Tell me more about “shared glory.”

Ken Burns: “In one way or another, every film I have worked on has been trying to work on this tension, between individual freedom and collective freedom—between what we need individually and what we need together. We can perceive that we live in a narcissistic age when it’s All About Me. But you can just look at a little girl seeing the falls in Yosemite and understand what our common wealth means.

“And not in any socialist way, but in the idea that we share things in common. We got out of the depression together, we’ve done many things together. We’d like to use this prize as a kind of megaphone to herald the good news of this project, and to celebrate a kind of American spirit that we think is concurrent with the values of the American Prairie Reserve.”

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For the record, my wife Deb and I have no connection with the APR other than as interested observers, nor any with Ken Burns other than as long-time viewers. And right at the moment I’d prefer to think about this aspect of America rather than more immediate news.