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for people who care about the West

Portrait of a threatened land


Travels in the Greater Yellowstone
Jack Turner
288 pages, hardcover, $25.95.
Thomas Dunne Books, 2008.

Jack Turner's Travels in the Greater Yellowstone chronicles both the subtle and radical changes that he's seen in the place he's called home for over three decades. Turner, author of several books on ecology and mountaineering, has watched this extraordinary landscape change in ways that casual visitors might not notice, "ways that profoundly affect its future."

Canoeing, climbing, hiking and fishing his way through the region, Turner vividly reports his adventures and observations. He defines the Greater Yellowstone in this way: "Its heart is Yellowstone National Park, but in much the same way as a heart is dysfunctional without a body, the Park will become dysfunctional without the protection of a much vaster area surrounding it."

Turner notes that one-third of Greater Yellowstone is vulnerable to real estate development; industrial energy development threatens to fracture another one-fourth. While portions of his book are argumentative, much of its power is derived from elegant descriptive passages: "At times the plain is a monotonous gray, dim and dreary. At times the falling snow unifies land and sky into a subtle gray bleached of reference and coats us until we assume the hue of the place through which we pass."Elsewhere, Turner humorously embraces the role of curmudgeon during sudden tirades against snowmobiles, the oil-obsessed government of Wyoming and national environmental laws that are "flaunted or ignored to privilege economic development."

Turner's book sets out to accomplish in words something similar to what Thomas Moran did in oil and watercolor. Over a century ago, Moran's sumptuous landscapes influenced Congress to set aside and conserve this land for future generations.

Turner presents Yellowstone and its surroundings in stunning, elegiac detail, made powerful by his witness to its degradation by local governments, invasive species, various landowners and (especially) energy developers. Where Moran's paintings first revealed the area's raw beauty -- and made the nation aware that it was land worth preserving -- Turner's prose reminds us that the protected wildness of Yellowstone can be still be lost to us, piece by piece.