Viewpoint: Yellowstone – the land of hope
I’ve been fortunate to explore much of the West’s natural landscapes, including every national park and preserve in Alaska. Yet, none of these experiences matches my love for Yellowstone and the surrounding Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
Yellowstone, for instance, still has all the larger mammals, including predators that have existed in the park region for thousands of years.
It is worth noting that this did not occur by accident. It was because there was a concerted effort by citizens across the country to recognize that this landscape was extraordinary and deserved protection. I am grateful for their efforts to leave some parts of the West close to their natural condition.
The original reason for setting Yellowstone aside in 1872 as a national park was motivated by the amazing concentration of thermal features (about 10,000), and early visitors felt it deserved federal preservation.
Think about how unique this decision was. In the 1870s, the United States was dominated by the Manifest Destiny perspective that encouraged settlement and development. As a result, we had the Homestead Act, the Timber and Stone Act, the Mining Law of 1872, Railroad grants, and other legislation designed to expand human presence and exploitation of the land.
And then we created Yellowstone, where we said, at least, we accept limits. Here we will not allow the on-going rush toward domestication of the West to occur. We drew a line in the sand and said we will do things differently here.
However, any analysis of the cumulative impacts of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem integrity would conclude that it is on-going erosion of the land's ecological function and wildness.
Degradation of the landscape from logging, roading, mining, and livestock grazing on other public lands is now joined by increased development of private grounds and recreational pressures.
I don't blame people for wanting to live here. Who wouldn't want to have one of the last functioning ecosystems in the world in their backyard?
But with this decision to live near a world-renowned ecosystem comes a responsibility to minimize personal and collective impact, or these superlative ecological values that make this area attractive will eventually become no better than everywhere else.
Land use planning and zoning is an anathema to many residents, but if you want to see elk and grizzlies into the future, we must avoid new housing tracts in THEIR backyards.
The concentration of housing in urban areas can reduce, though not eliminate, human impacts on wildlife, water, and natural processes.
We need to identify and protect corridors for the free movement of wildlife across the landscape.
To the greatest degree possible, we must preserve all the remaining natural public lands surrounding Yellowstone. Therefore, places like the Gallatin Range, Lionhead, Crazy Mountains, Pryor Mountains, Gravelly Range, and other Custer Gallatin National Forest lands should be considered as wilderness.
What we need is a Greater Yellowstone National Park.
There is a less tangible benefit to wilderness or park designation. Setting aside these landscapes teach restraint and respect for others besides ourselves. In preserving places like Yellowstone, we are saying humans are obligated to give some attention to the plight of grizzly bears, bison, elk, trout, and a thousand other creatures and plants with whom we share the planet.
The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is, in effect, the land of hope. If we can figure out a way to live here without eroding the values that draw us to this place, it will be a lesson we can transfer to the rest of the planet. And that is a lesson we desperately need.
George Wuerthner has published three books on Yellowstone as well as numerous other titles on national parks around the country.