Alison Piper Fox

Alison Piper Fox

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Hiking, biking, camping, hunting and other outdoor activities have always been important to Montanans, but in 2020, as the pandemic swept through our lives, people turned to the great outdoors more than ever.

There is no better barometer for this outdoor surge than witnessed at Yellowstone National Park. Despite operating at limited capacity, the national park set new visitation records for September and October.

While places like Yellowstone were more popular than ever with visitors, it seems Montana residents were more willing to explore off the beaten path. Montana’s State Parks system, for instance, reported record-setting visitation in 2020. That includes a 60% visitor increase at Makoshika near Glendive, our largest state park, but also one of the most remote.

At American Prairie Reserve, we also saw this dramatic surge of interest as more folks than ever came to explore the prairie of central Montana. Overnight reservations in 2020 were up nearly 200% compared to 2019, indicating that Montanans had an interest in exploring the expansive wild prairie of Montana. This increase came despite having only 40% of our camping and lodging inventory available due to COVID-19 precautions.

Most visitors to our facilities are typically Montanans, and 2020 was no different. This year, though, higher numbers of state residents travelled from bigger cities like Billings, Bozeman, Missoula, and Helena, but they also came from surrounding communities like Lewistown.

One of American Prairie’s biggest draws is our growing hut system. We built these huts as a way for families and groups to stage adventures into the prairie grasslands. The comfortable accommodations are affordable and can up to host 8-9 people. And apparently word is getting out in Montana. More than 80% of visitors who utilized our huts in 2020 were from in-state.

Montanans also used our campgrounds more than ever in 2020. American Prairie met this demand by opening our newest campground at Antelope Creek, which includes RV spaces with full hookups. Campgrounds were particularly busy during the general rifle hunting season, presumably, from folks who hunted nearby public lands and the 64,000 acres of American Prairie’s private deeded acres we enrolled in Montana’s block management program last year.

Many visitors left us positive trip reports and testimonials in our logbooks including this one from a family who visited from Missoula:

“It’s been a strange year with COVID-19 – social distancing and trying to adapt to a global pandemic. I’m so thankful for the vision of the APR founders and creating space like this for respite and renewal.”

I also really enjoyed reading this testimonial from a Montana family who used our huts for a reunion with loved ones:

“We gathered together for a great weekend getaway with two couples and three little boys — had great times swimming in the Judith, going on bike rides, and hanging with cousins. We’re calling it “Cousin Camp” and we’ll be making it an annual trip.”

As CEO of this organization, I’m extremely happy to see so many Montana families discovering the prairie. It’s validation of our efforts to build more outdoor opportunities and provide more public access for Montanans. While the increased visitation at American Prairie was likely driven by the pandemic, we hope the positive experiences and memories will keep folks coming back in future years.

Montana’s northern plains are one of the few remaining places where it is still possible to save one of the least protected ecosystems on the planet — our grasslands. We invite you and your family to visit us in 2021 and learn more about the work we are doing to restore Montana’s wildlife and prairie habitat.

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Alison Piper Fox is CEO of American Prairie Reserve, a Montana-based conservation nonprofit that stewards more than 400,000 acres of deeded and leased lands, and has opened it to the public for hiking, camping, wildlife viewing, stargazing, and more.