Yellowstone at 125: The park as a sovereign state

  • Bison at Giantess Geyser

    National Park Service
  • Flying over border of Yellowstone and logged Targhee N.F.

    Bruce Gordon/LightHawk 96
  • Feeding deer in the early years

    Photo courtesy Yellowstone National Park

Note: this front-page essay introduces this issue's feature story.

In June 1986, Max Peterson, then chief of the Forest Service, went to Yellowstone National Park. In the course of his speech, he mentioned how nice it was to be in Montana. Unfortunately, he was standing in Wyoming. The press hooted.

We shouldn't have. It's a virtue to misplace Yellowstone. The park, now celebrating its 125th year, is as sovereign and important as the three states it supposedly belongs to. We the people may delegate national defense and Social Security to the president and Congress, but when it comes to Yellowstone, we try to govern directly.

Take wolves. The West's senatorial delegation is both powerful and united in its hatred of wolf reintroduction. But when the citizens of the United States decided that wolves should return to Yellowstone, the delegation could only gnash its teeth.

The park's reach was also shown when Congress shut down the federal government in the January 1996 battle of the budget. The backlash against the closure of Yellowstone and other parks reopened government and shifted a measure of power from Congress to the president.

Finally, the mining industry is an incredibly powerful force in this country. But not strong enough to force a gold mine onto a site a few miles from Yellowstone.

Those are big things. On little things, out of sight of the nation's attention, the West's congressional delegation micromanages Yellowstone. The campground at Fishing Bridge continues to endanger grizzly bears because that's the way Cody, Wyo., businesses want it. Parts of the park have the worst carbon monoxide levels in the nation because of the snowmobile industry around the park. And the bison population has increased in part because packed snowmobile trails make life easier for them, until, of course, they run out of food and have to use those tracks to leave the park.

Although the park's neighbors feel free to reach into the park, they become enraged when the park reaches out to them. The Yellowstone fires of 1988, the wandering bison and grizzly bears, and now the wolves are taken not so much as affronts as declarations of war.

The surrounding states often act as if the park were a center of infection, and any seepage out of it - whether of fire or wildlife - meets the harshest possible response. It is not just grizzlies and bison that are handled roughly. The region's top federal land managers got the same kind of treatment in 1991, when they released a "Yellowstone Vision" document, that would have lightly coordinated management of the park and the six surrounding national forests. For a moment, it seemed the 2,000 square-mile park was to exert some influence over the 18,000 square-mile Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

But only for a moment. The West's leaders saw the threat as so serious that they forced President George Bush and top aide John Sununu to take time out from the Iraq crisis to deal with Yellowstone. Within weeks, the plan had been rewritten into meaninglessness; within months, the two highest-ranking federal land managers in the region were gone.

The conflict between the nation and the states around Yellowstone is rooted in history. Yellowstone was established as a park in 1872 as an exception - our first exception. Every other piece of ground was to be developed; Yellowstone was to be spared.

It wasn't much of an exception: 2,000 square miles out of the 325,000 square miles in the three surrounding states of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming.

But the exception was amplified when the park came to be surrounded by six national forests and private ranch land. Of the six forests, the Targhee, in Idaho, has been slaughtered (see photo above), but the others are in relatively good shape. And despite an onrush of suburbanization and ski development in the greater Yellowstone ecosystem, by modern standards the area is surprisingly intact.

It is this relative lack of development, and the possibility that Yellowstone's presence will retard or stop the full development so many Western leaders dream of, that makes the surrounding states react with rage when fire or wildlife or even ideas escape from Yellowstone.

They are especially angry these days because they're increasingly unable to keep Yellowstone sealed within its boundaries. In the six years since their victory in the fight over the Yellowstone Vision document, the states around Yellowstone have lost clout. That is clear from the wolves, from the proposed buy-out of the New World Mine, and from the states' inability to force the Park Service to kill the bison within the park.

Instead of an accommodating superintendent, Yellowstone is run by Mike Finley, who on some issues can and does stand up to the region's congressional delegation. What's more, the nonprofit Greater Yellowstone Coalition and its allies showed that, for now, it is environmentalists who influence the White House.

In its 125th year, then, Yellowstone is on a roll, poised to increasingly influence the land around the park. But if it is to do that, the park must get its own house in order - it must show that it knows what it is doing when it promotes "natural regulation" on its 2,000 square miles. As the articles beginning on page 8 show, that will not be easy.

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