A park boss goes to bat for the land

  • Yellowstone National Park

    Diane Sylvain
  • Michael V. Finley, superintendent of Yellowstone National Park

    Lynne Bama
  • Old Faithful Geyser

    Dewey Vanderhoff
  • Bear cubs mingle with traffic in 1950s Yellowstone

    HCN File Photo
  • Snowmobiles are big business

    HCN File Photo
  • Crown Butte mine site outside the park

    Tim Clark/Greater Yellowstone Coalition
  • Wildlife stops traffic in Yellowstone

    Mike McClure
  • Crown Butte mine site in Montana just outside Yellowstone Park

    Patrick Cone
  • Vehicles wait to travel through Yellowstone's east entrance

    Dewey Vanderhoff
  • Outrage at the government shutdown spawned signs like this

    Michael Milstein

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.

Michael 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 table.

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?"

To 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 backbone.

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."

James 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 porous

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 ethos.

"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."

Since 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 years.

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 again."

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.

Crown Butte 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 year.

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 Park.

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 each other.

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 official."

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 disaster occurred.

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

Next to 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 IBM.

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 for everybody.

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.

His enterprise 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 $19.9 million.

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 million.

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.

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 it.

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 years.

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.

TW Services' 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 seasons.

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 press.

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.

The Gateway Alliance has written Finley several letters offering to work with him. He has never responded.

"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 pocket.

"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 juggernaut

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 Hotel.

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 unscathed.

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."

Finley calls 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."

The shutdown 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 spring.

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 caretakers.

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.

And of 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.

The 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. park system.

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 level.

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).

Finley says 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 him.

"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 institution.

"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.

But 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.

For 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 dollars.

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, Wyoming.

The following sidebar articles accompany this feature story:

- Noranda stirs up a swarm of opposition

- Yellowstone's wintertime blues

- The West's new prospectors seek microbes

For more 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.


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