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Know the West

Scientist's critique was just plain wrong

  Dear HCN,

We are pleased that High Country News had the good taste to introduce Fred Wagner's editorial "Scientist says Yellowstone Park is being destroyed" (HCN, 5/30/94) as "opinion," because there certainly isn't a lot besides opinion in it. His comments about the Yellowstone grazing issue are specious, riddled with errors, and overloaded with conspiratorial accusations. Wagner puts such a shrill spin on this whole story that it would take a small book just to suggest the real complexity behind his simplistic arguments.

Rather than writing such a book, we will offer a couple of general observations for HCN readers, who are welcome to contact us for more specifics.

First, Wagner proposes that the recent scientific research directed by Congress in 1986 "did not address the key problems. It focused on herbaceous vegetation when it is the woody vegetation that is fast disappearing from the northern range under elk browsing." Yellowstone history is too well known for Wagner to rewrite it like this. Since the grazing issue first arose early in this century, concern for the grasslands has been overwhelmingly the central issue. If there has been a secondary issue it has been erosion supposedly caused by elk. Woody vegetation has always ranked well below those concerns.

We therefore assume - now that a wealth of new ecosystem-based research has challenged traditional interpretations of grassland deterioration and has simply disproved the old views of elk-caused erosion - that Wagner is grasping for a fresh villainy and the only thing he could find is elk effects on the woody vegetation. It is, indeed, true that there are important unresolved questions about woody plants, and we have every intention of continuing to foster research on those questions. But however hard Wagner tries to rewrite our history, he isn't going to change what has really mattered here.

Second, Wagner repeatedly questions the credibility of recent research conducted by respected scientists from numerous agencies and universities. But while these researchers have regularly published their findings in the leading refereed scientific journals, every source of criticism that Wagner mentions (including his own "opinions') is entirely unrefereed. Apparently critics aren't held to the same standards as the people they criticize.

Something odd is going on here, something that doesn't seem to have anything to do with science. At first glance, Wagner seems to have adopted Yellowstone-bashing as some kind of bizarre hobby in which self-righteous indignation can replace a balanced perspective on extremely complex issues. Could it be that he, like others, is somehow threatened by the new thinking on range ecology coming out of Yellowstone research?

Since the 1960s, the many scientists who have actually done research here and have thereby influenced the direction of Yellowstone management deserve great credit for going up against the hard-liners of traditional range management. They have real data, and so we will continue to listen to them rather than to the casual observers and the hobbyists. We owe it to this resource to use the best information available in its management.

Robert D. Barbee

Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming

Robert Barbee has been superintendent of Yellowstone National Park for the last 11 years.