By Lynne Bama
MAMMOTH, Wyo. - In late October, during the short lull between the
traffic jams of summer and the snowmobile crowds of winter, the
world's oldest national park breathes a short sigh of relief. Only
a few visitors climb the steaming mound of hot springs that looms
above park headquarters here, and a herd of elk grazes on the lawn
of the chapel, their pellet-shaped droppings dotting the sidewalk
in front of the superintendent's office.
V. Finley, the current occupant of the head office in this former
Army barracks, is a tall man with impeccable manners and a ready
wit. On the back of his office door is a sign that asks, "Are you
lonely? Hate working on your own? Hate making decisions? HOLD A
MEETING." A copy of The Portable Curmudgeon sits on a side
Almost as soon as he arrived in
Yellowstone in November 1994, Finley startled locals with his
forthright statements. He told the park's gateway towns to expect
visitor limits in Yellowstone. He took Montana Republican Sen.
Conrad Burns to task for trying to divert money away from the
park's wolf reintroduction program. And of a Canadian company's
proposal to build a huge gold mine just outside the park, he said:
"How can the logical mind approve this?"
area environmentalists, he's the best thing since sliced bread.
Mike Clark, executive director of the Greater Yellowstone
Coalition, a regional environmental group, calls him "an
exceptional public servant" who can resolve tough issues. But Paul
Hoffman, executive director of the Chamber of Commerce in Cody, 50
miles east of the park, says, "I believe he came to Yellowstone
with this agenda in mind. Before he has the facts, he knows where
he wants to go."
Finley's outspoken style is in
marked contrast to that of his predecessor, Robert Barbee, who
managed the park for 12 years. "Bob Barbee was everybody's friend,"
says Hoffman. Which is not to say that he had no
During the Yellowstone fires of 1988,
Barbee was the man in the hot seat, stuck trying to explain the
scientific basis for the park's let-burn policy to an
uncomprehending press and public, while enduring the wrath of
concessioners and local business interests who saw their golden
goose going up in flames.
In the end, all that
was left of the "natural burn" policy was a gutted shell, and it
was a tribute to Barbee's abilities that he survived. But Barbee
was not one to push issues into the public arena. He never took a
public stand on the gold mine, and never addressed the issue of
crowding in a forceful way.
Finley, an Oregon
native, has worked in parks all over the United States for nearly
30 years. On the windowsill above his desk, a wooden alligator
recalls his stint as superintendent of Everglades National Park. In
the late 1980s he supported a maverick U.S. attorney in Miami who
sued the state of Florida for allowing nutrient-laden farm runoff
to pollute the park. Without Finley, says Jim Webb of the
Wilderness Society, the suit would probably have gone nowhere.
"Finley was pretty aggressive in protecting the interests of the
park," he says. "He kept higher authorities at the Department of
the Interior from backing away."
Ridenour, then director of the National Park Service, later said,
"On many occasions he was close to stepping over the line as to
what a superintendent can or should say without consulting his boss
A few years later at overcrowded Yosemite
Park, Finley made headlines by slashing souvenir and gift sales and
overnight accommodations in the valley, razing stores and cabins,
and closing park gates against the crowds that would have inundated
it on Memorial Day weekend 1993.
The park's borders are
It seems symbolic that Finley's office is
in a former army building. Though the United States is proud of
inventing the national park idea and exporting it to the rest of
the world, its key concept - preservation for all time - is
fundamentally inimical to the American
"The business of
America," as Calvin Coolidge said, "is business." As a consequence,
national parks look about as secure in our cultural landscape as
icebergs in the Gulf Stream.
No sooner had
Yellowstone National Park been created in 1872 than in swarmed a
flock of poachers, squatters and petty criminals. The tourists were
no better: When army engineer William Ludlow reconnoitered the
region in 1875, he reported, "The visitors prowled about with
shovel and axe, chopping and hacking and prying up great pieces of
the most ornamental (geyser) work they could find; women and men
alike joining in the barbarous pastime."
Congress hadn't included penalities for violating park rules in the
Organic Act, which created Yellowstone National Park, there was no
effective way to deal with the lawbreakers. After 14 disastrous
years, during which game herds were slaughtered, trees felled,
homesteads erected and hot spring formations butchered, the U.S.
Army marched in to take charge. The soldiers stayed 32
Yellowstone is still fighting similar
problems. Alien lake trout have been illegally dumped into
Yellowstone Lake, threatening not only the native cutthroat but the
grizzlies, otters, eagles, ospreys and pelicans that depend on them
for food. Poachers persist, hostile ranchers and some
conservationists have gone to court to stop wolf reintroduction,
and bison continue to be slaughtered as soon as they wander outside
park boundaries - out of fears they might transmit disease to
domestic livestock. Finley laments: "We're doing it to the bison
Yellowstone's most famous feature, Old
Faithful geyser, could be damaged by geothermal development outside
the park. When the Church Universal and Triumphant, just north of
the park, proposed drilling a geothermal well several years ago, a
bill to protect the park's geysers was introduced in Congress. No
federal legislation has yet been enacted; and although a water
compact between Yellowstone Park and the state of Montana now
prevents damage from that quarter, there is no similar protection
in Wyoming or Idaho.
At the top of the list of
external threats to the park is a mining project proposed by Crown
Butte Mines Inc., an offshoot of Canadian mining giant Noranda Inc.
The company wants to mine gold, silver and copper high in the
mountains of Montana just two-and-a-half miles from Yellowstone
Park's northeast boundary. The project would produce 11 million
tons - four tons for every ounce of gold - of acidic waste rock. If
exposed to air and water, the tailings would generate a weak
sulfuric acid which would leach heavy metals like lead and cadmium
into waterways, killing all life in them. Several streams in the
area are already polluted from historic mining that dominated the
area before the park was created.
plans to mix about half the waste with concrete and use it to
backfill the mine shafts. The rest would be submerged in water and
held in a bathtub-shaped structure the size of 100 football fields,
10 stories deep, lined with clay and plastic. The design is
untested in the extreme weather of this 9,000-foot altitude.
Yellowstone, moreover, is the second most geologically active
region in the lower 48 states, with as many as 1,000 earthquakes a
Finley said last year, "The public is
supposed to believe we can put a potential acid slurry in an
envelope and keep it there forever - gimme a break."
If the impoundment were to fail, acid waters
would pollute the Clarks Fork of the Yellowstone, Wyoming's only
designated Wild and Scenic River. One of the two alternate tailings
sites is on a creek which flows into Yellowstone
Finley also notes that since
three-quarters of the ore body is located on the Yellowstone side
of the mountain, tunneling and blasting could alter groundwater
flows, sending pollution into the park itself.
Acid-mine drainage is not the only problem the New World Mine could
create. Although the company has proposed building living quarters
at the mine site and restricting workers from living close to the
most sensitive nearby areas, the project will still bring up to 321
employees into a corner of Yellowstone that is often called the
Serengeti of North America.
Can Finley do
anything to influence a mine outside the boundaries of the park? As
his experience at Everglades showed, there is legal precedent for a
national park to sue when activities outside a park's borders could
degrade the park itself. In this case, however, mining is slated
for the Gallatin National Forest, and federal agencies don't sue
As the environmental analysis
proceeds, Finley hasn't been shy about making his concerns known.
After U.S. Forest Service Regional Forester Hal Salwasser dismissed
Finley's fears about the mine as "nonsense" last summer, Finley
retorted that Salwasser "spoke before all the information is in and
all the data evaluated. That's very improper for a decision-making
The New World project may now be the
most visible mining controversy in the northern hemisphere. It has
been blasted by New York Times editorials, for which writer Robert
Semple just won a Pulitzer Prize, and skeptical stories have
appeared in U.S. News and World Report, many other publications,
and on television.
Last summer, after President
Clinton visited the site while vacationing in Wyoming, he issued a
moratorium on new mining claims in the area. But before it could
become official, the company filed 38 more claims. Crown Butte
project manager Dan McLaughlin says these claims had been in the
works for two years and had to be filed by Sept. 1 each year. But
conservationists were outraged, and the timing could not have been
worse for a foreign company that will not - thanks to the 1872
Mining Law - pay a penny in royalties for the gold it removes. The
indignation of Paul Pritchard, who heads the National Parks and
Conservation Association, is typical: A gold mine would make
"incredible demands on a pristine environment ... It's about as bad
a place to have a human intrusion as you can imagine."
Last October, nine conservation groups,
including the Sierra Club Legal Defense Fund, won a victory against
Noranda-Crown Butte in U.S. District Court. Last month, the ruling
was upheld by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. A judge found
the company was responsible for existing water pollution at the
mine site and might have to pay as much as $75,000 a day in fines
until it was cleaned up. Noranda had asked to be dismissed from the
case, reinforcing the fear of critics that the giant company might
try to walk away from its Crown Butte operation if a tailings
Then in December the World
Heritage Committee, a United Nations affiliate, declared
Yellowstone a World Heritage site "in danger." Even conservative
northwestern Wyoming, the closest populated area, has grown cool to
the mine proposal, according to a recent poll.
For now, GYC's Clark is optimistic: "We've got them on the run."
But whatever happens to the mine, other threats to Yellowstone,
more subtle, more cumulative in nature and more deeply embedded in
the American character, have emerged.
Here comes everybody
the road that follows the upper valley of the Yellowstone River to
the world's first national park is an abandoned railroad bed, the
ground around it still dark with cinders. It is the last trace of a
spur line built to carry tourists there in the 1880s, and mute
evidence that Yellowstone National Park is not really a melting
iceberg in the Gulf Stream of American culture at all. On the
contrary, it is as much a part of that culture as Ford or
Historians generally agree that the
Northern Pacific Railroad was the driving force behind the idea of
placing the bizarre features of the Yellowstone Plateau into a
public reservation. The company realized that there were profits to
be made from hauling well-heeled visitors to view those
curiosities. It was a letter from Northern Pacific general
passenger agent J.R. Nettleton to Yellowstone explorer Ferdinand
Hayden that set the legislative process in motion. The Northern
Pacific had many allies in Washington, and the bill creating a park
slipped through Congress with little debate and less public notice.
Those hard-headed railroaders could not have
foreseen that a young country still awed by Europe's superior
culture, always looking over its shoulder at Shakespeare and the
Sistine Chapel, would find something central to its identity in a
park like Yellowstone. It was not only that the scenery there was
unparalleled, it was also that Americans had thought to preserve it
Yellowstone's early years were a
hurly-burly of competing entrepreneurs, but by the 1920s a
Northwestern robber baron named Harry Child controlled the park's
hotels, camps and transportation.
was blessed by the National Park Service's first director, Stephen
Mather, himself a millionaire from developing borax. Mather saw
concessioners like Child as allies. "Our national parks are
practically lying fallow," he said, "and only await proper
development to bring them into their own."
Child and his family dominated Yellowstone's concessions for 75
years, and it can be doubted whether they ever lost money except
during the Depression. They sold their interests to General Host in
1956 for about $6.5 million.
The new owner, a
conglomerate which included at various times Frontier Airlines and
Hot Sam soft pretzels, invested practically nothing in its
Yellowstone facilities. By 1979, conditions there were so
disgraceful that the government, in an almost unprecedented move,
bit the bullet and bought out the company's park investments for
A buyout was required by
Congress, which continues to favor concessioners. Although the firm
realized a profit of nearly $14 million on the deal, they were
reportedly dismayed at losing the contract; in 1977 the franchise
had made close to a 15 percent profit on gross receipts of $12.8
Yellowstone's present major
concessioner, TW Recreational Services Inc., took in over $40
million in gross receipts last year for running the park's lodging
facilities, an RV park, four campgrounds, restaurants, cafeterias,
snack shops, cocktail lounges, gift stores, cookouts, corrals, a
marina, ski shops, snowcoach tours, snowmobile rentals, guided
snowmobile trips, and photographic tours. That's more than double
Finley's budget for running the park.
also generates profits outside its borders. Wyoming tourism
director Gene Bryan says visitors are a $1.7 billion-a-year
industry in his state. A recent survey revealed that 69 percent of
Wyoming visitors head for Yellowstone. The park also has a
substantial impact on Idaho and Montana, which also border
Mather's strategy has been a resounding
success. Yellowstone Park is now, in Finley's words, "an economic
gold mine." But there have been consequences that were not foreseen
80 years ago.
In 1995, thanks in part to
advertising by park concessioners and gateway towns, over 3 million
people visited Yellowstone Park. On a busy summer day, it can take
a full hour to drive the 16 miles from Fishing Bridge to Canyon,
and the local people have learned to stay away during peak periods.
Often, says Finley drily, the park is "oversubscribed."
The West is attractive to early retirees and
families with portable incomes, who can now set up housekeeping
right on Yellowstone's doorsteps. Subdivisions are beginning to
fragment the gateway valleys, conflicting with foraging grizzlies
and disrupting the migration routes and winter ranges of the park's
big game herds. The park itself, which is only a small part of a
natural system long protected by remoteness, is now in danger of
being choked by a necklace of development. Finley, who began his
Park Service career here in 1967, says he is stunned by the growth
that has taken place in the Yellowstone area in 29
Finley has been candid about what he sees
as inevitable - limits on both winter and summer visits to
Yellowstone. Last May he told the Cody Enterprise, "I'm managing
Yellowstone on behalf of the people who love it. To the extent that
people want to take shots at me, that's okay." It would be unfair,
he says, to let local businesses believe that growth in visitor
numbers can continue indefinitely.
outgoing vice president Steve Tedder says his company can live with
visitor limits. "Any park has to close its gates at some number,"
he says. The concession company has little to lose if growth is
curtailed. When it came to Yellowstone in 1979, the park had
already adopted a general management plan that stipulated there
would be no new lodgings within its boundaries. TW signed its
contract knowing it could not expand. At the same time, it is
practically assured of operating at capacity during the peak
Limiting visitors, however, does not
sit well with some gateway chambers of commerce. "We are interested
in protecting the resource, or we don't have anything to promote,"
says Cody's Hoffman. To escape the crowds, he adds, "all you have
to do is walk a quarter of a mile from the highway."
Last summer, Hoffman organized an alliance of
Yellowstone-area chambers of commerce to work on the overcrowding
problem. Some of the ideas which were tossed out at the Yellowstone
Gateway Alliance's first meeting, such as building four-lane
highways into the park, opening more entrances, increasing entrance
fees to bring in "a more affluent type of visitor," and putting
congressional pressure on Finley if he would not cooperate, caused
the group acute embarrassment when the minutes were leaked to the
In the ensuing flap, one of the four
chambers of commerce involved withdrew, commenting, "We do not
think Yellowstone ... should be viewed in the same way as Disney
World." A second chamber made it clear that, while it would remain
in the organization, members did not favor any of the ideas which
had received so much notoriety.
Alliance has written Finley several letters offering to work with
him. He has never
"I think their
approach to me was disingenuous," he says. "I didn't fall off the
potato truck yesterday."
He prefers to work
with the chambers separately, he says, because they're all
different. Some are responsible, but others "would sell hot dogs at
a funeral." To them, "I'm Darth Vader with a big padlock in my
"Every gateway markets
Yellowstone," he continues, "but they don't take the cumulative
effects into account." He sees that as his job. He adds, "This park
is owned by people in Bar Harbor, Maine, and Austin, Texas, as much
as someone in Cody, Wyo. And by those yet unborn."
The park as
It is February now. Snow is falling
at Mammoth, adding to the piles that have already been plowed from
the streets. The elk, along with a lone bison, are still grazing
among the buildings. In the dusk, a van loaded with cross-country
skis and passengers pulls up to the entrance of the Mammoth
There is no evidence in this peaceful
scene of the upheaval Yellowstone has been through for months. The
budget crisis shut the park down for over three weeks just at the
height of the busy Christmas tourist season. Many area business
people were furious. Tedder says his company lost close to $1
million in sales. "We didn't have insurance for political unrest,"
he comments. Local businesses were also hard hit; according to some
estimates the town of West Yellowstone was down over $2 million in
park-related business by Dec. 29.
Finley may be
concerned about overuse of the park, but he handled the shutdown
with tact. When the governors of Wyoming and Montana failed to
strike a deal with the Department of the Interior to keep
Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks open, they and Interior
Secretary Bruce Babbitt shared the blame. Finley somehow emerged
Said Wyoming Gov. Jim Geringer in a
Dec. 29 letter to Babbitt, "Your superintendent ... exhibited an
extraordinary sense of good neighborliness and decency in trying to
work out a simple solution, only to be thwarted by meaningless
maneuvering on the eastern shore."
the shutdown "an unnecessary tragedy inflicted on the American
public." He adds that some members of Congress "placed the burden
of their inability to resolve the budget conflict on the backs of
our visitors and our neighbors."
reaffirmed, he says, how valuable neighboring communities and the
services they provide are to park visitors. To lessen its impact,
he extended the winter season for an extra week in
The incident illustrates that the
superintendent of Yellowstone has other styles than confrontation,
and can use a difficult situation to advantage. But it also shows
where the limits of his power lie. He can challenge a gold mine, or
even a gateway town; but to stand in the way of the economic
juggernaut Mather created is probably suicidal.
Yellowstone National Park may generate billions each year, but
precious few of those dollars return to its
It is true that TW Services spends
20 percent of its gross proceeds on maintenance and construction of
park-owned facilities in lieu of the customary modest franchise
fee. But although Yellowstone has realized some $80 million on this
arrangement in the past 16 years, the money cannot be used on
anything not linked to visitor services.
the $4 million the park collects each year in entrance fees, it is
allowed to keep only the amount needed to run the toll booths. The
rest is deposited in the federal Treasury. The park depends on
Congress to appropriate the $19.5 million it needs to operate each
year, an arrangement which leaves it at the mercy of political
fashions and those with political clout.
latter includes park concessioners, which are huge. TW, for
instance, also operates concessions in Bryce Canyon, Zion and
Everglades national parks and Mount Rushmore National Monument. The
company recently merged with Amfac Resorts Inc., which has
contracts in Grand Canyon National Park and Death Valley National
Monument. It is now the largest concessioner by volume in the U.S.
All national park contractors pay,
on average, only about 3 percent of their annual gross receipts to
the government in franchise fees, and so far have managed to stave
off any legislative reform.
As for political
fashions, the budget-conscious 104th Congress has not been generous
to parks like Yellowstone. One of the first tests Finley had to
face here was a proposed $2.4 million cut in the park's funding.
Although that threat has receded, and Yellowstone now has money to
operate until the end of September even if the Interior budget
stalemate continues, it is only funded at the 1995
Finley has been creative in finding ways
to keep the park's programs going. Fishing fees (which Yellowstone
retains) were just doubled, and the park is now charging for
backcountry reservations. Finley has also been active in soliciting
private and corporate donations to park projects. Long-time
benefactors like the Yellowstone Association for Natural Science,
History and Education gave the park a record donation of over
$630,000, and Conoco, the park's fuel supplier, has created a
nonprofit foundation to raise money for scientific studies and
other park projects. Private donations are also helping restore
wolves to the park (HCN, 12/25/95).
increased entrance fees - even if the park could keep them - would
never make Yellowstone self-sufficient. He estimates that the park
would have to charge over $50 a person to operate that way. And the
current obsession with the bottom line disheartens
"Some people," he says,
"have lost sight of the values of the national park system. It's
not just another federal program." He is also troubled that all
people heard about during the government shutdown was the economic
dislocation it created; no one mentioned "the loss of a valuable
"It's as if you
closed a university and all they cared about was how many hot dogs
they didn't sell in the cafeteria," he says.
the Christmas closure of the parks may have marked a turning point
- the moment when public uneasiness about the congressional drive
to balance the budget by gutting environmental laws and dismantling
the public domain crystallized. Perhaps it will mark a turning
point for places like Yellowstone, as well.
the national parks still occupy a crucial place in the American
psyche. The preserves once gave a young country something to
compare with the cultural treasures of Europe. Not for nothing are
they called the nation's crown jewels. And although a crown jewel
may be worth a fortune, its ultimate value can't be measured in
Finley is already making plans for the
first crown jewel's next birthday party. Its theme: "125 years of
the best idea America ever had."
Lynne Bama writes in Wapiti,
information, contact the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, Betty
Stroock, mining issues coordinator, Box 1874, Bozeman, MT 59771;
Crown Butte Mines Inc., 2501 Catlin, Suite 201, Missoula, MT 59801;
National Parks, Forests and Public Lands Subcommittee, Rep. Jim
Hansen, chairman, O'Neill House Office Building, 300 New Jersey
Ave. SE, Washington, DC 20515.