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Walking along a ridgeline in eastern Montana this fall — the expanse of prairie surrounding me, setting moon behind, rising sun before, a flock of geese passing overhead — I thought of Willa Cather’s words, “Anyone can love the mountains, but it takes a soul to love the prairie.”

I have not lived on the prairie, nor ranched here nor homesteaded, yet over a lifetime of living in the West, it is the place to which I am continually drawn to replenish my soul and sense of well-being. I hold that in common with anyone who has ever loved this land and called it home.

Many have lived on the prairie and shared this sense of place. Native American cultures thrived on these wide open spaces. Their cultural lore provides rich insight about living here and obtaining sustenance from the land. When our country expanded westward and new inhabitants settled to farm and ranch, those who succeeded were anchored not only to producing livelihood, but to the land itself.

Living here is not just about lovely sunsets and sweeping vistas of waving grasses or flowers in spring. The prairie offers challenges to inhabitants and visitors alike — dramatic weather and shifting conditions create obstacles in all seasons — and one must respect the natural world in order to survive. All of the prairie’s moods contribute to making it one of the most remarkable and essential ecosystems that makes up our vast natural world.

It’s an extraordinary place we need to preserve and share. As a historian and educator, I understand the importance of protecting and celebrating our shared past, which includes the story of the land as well as story of the people. That’s why I support the work of American Prairie Reserve (APR), which is actively working to preserve this landscape, honor its history and share this sense of place with other Montana residents and visitors to our state.

The work of APR is not being done at the exclusion of the historic ranching or Native American communities on the prairie. As a community we are foolish to see the challenges of today as a “them versus us” situation. We could learn a lot from each other.

No one is excluded from the conversation about conserving the land: the naturalists who study an undisturbed ecology of prairie grasslands; the hunters who help manage the wildlife; the visitors seeking to recreate in the natural world; the Native Americans, whose traditions go back for generations; and the ranchers who live here and have been important stewards of the land.

American Prairie Reserve is a relatively new piece of this region’s rich history, and their presence is helping introduce more people to it. The recent announcement of a new National Discovery Center in Lewistown shows they are committed to providing an environment that is open to the public and that preserves and carries on the story of the land and those who love it.

Everyone deserves to experience the revitalizing power the prairie provides. Sitting at my desk, in town, looking out the window at streets and houses, I revel in the knowledge that remarkable people have had the vision to preserve a remarkable landscape that I can visit and renew my own sense of place with others whose souls love the prairie.

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Mary Jane Bradbury is an educator, storyteller and public speaker based in Helena.


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