Wildland Fire History — Yellowstone: The Smoke Clears

Robert Barbee, Superintendent, Yellowstone National Park
Paul Schullery, Technical Writer, Division of Research, Yellowstone National Park

Originally published Spring 1989 in Interpretation. And National Parks magazine. Please note that many of the writers whose articles are included in this publication have since moved to new / different positions, retired, or passed on.

In the mythology of ancient Egypt there was a large, gloriously colored bird called the Phoenix. Some sources suggest that the bird was unique (the ultimate in endangerment). The phoenix lived for 500 years and then constructed a funeral pyre and immolated itself. From the cooling ashes emerged the new phoenix, which then lived on.

The most common portrayal ofYellowstone’s present ecological state resembles the phoenix myth. We who care about the national park frequently say that Yellowstone, burned in the summer of 1988, will be reborn in the spring of 1989.

The rebirth of Yellowstone is a powerful, seductive, and immensely appealing image, especially in a time when optimistic images are much in demand. Yet this image, for all its attractions, is inaccurate, and will almost certainly backfire on those who use it.

Rebirth implies death. Though many individual life formsplants, birds, mammals, and invertebrates—certainly died in the fires, Yellowstone National Park did not.

Yellowstone, as an ecological whole, cannot die or be reborn. It cranks along, an elegantly complex assortment of processes and states. Its ecological systems and its geological foundations can vary due to many influences, including those of man.

So, at the same time that the National Park Service and its friends reassure people that the animals are fine and that natural revegetation is underway, we talk grandly about Yellowstone “coming back to life,” as if it’s in the grave. The images conflict, and the message that reaches the public is muddled: Yellowstone the undead.

Public education in matters of ecology seems destined to advance by increments smaller than are necessary to understand an entire issue. For instance, it was a wonderful step for people to realize that predators could be important in the balance of deer and elk populations.

The lesson, however, was taught so simplistically that some people now believe that predators are always the controlling factor in deer and elk population dynamics.

It was progress when people began to hear of serotinous pine cones, and to realize that such cones are only opened by fire, thus facilitating the spread of seeds. But the lesson was once again simplistic, and now many people believe that all lodgepole pines require fires in order to reproduce.

Similarly, the rhetoric of rebirth sets up Yellowstone and its visitors for learning something that will have to be unlearned later. If, as we now believe, Yellowstone’s most powerful lessons involve ecosystem processes, we may be hindering efforts to bring those lessons home when we imply that the whole park can die.

Perhaps worse, we succumb to just the sort of overstatement that has ruined so much press coverage of the fires: We imply that Yellowstone National Park was killed or destroyed, that the “devastation” we hear so much about on TV was exactly that.

In our culture, death is evil. In the rhetoric of rebirth, Yellowstone has been killed by fires that must, by implication, have been evil, too.

There seem to be hardly any unloaded words left to us. A forest is described by commercial foresters as “healthy” when they really mean that it is satisfying human needs at a high rate. Most often this “health” is achieved through the maintenance of some artificial state that bears little resemblance to a wild forest, where human notions of good health do not apply.

We even refer to a fire that we hoped would occur–one that burns through a stand of trees that seems ecologically due for burningas a “good” fire, as in “Boy, what this area needs is a good fire,” or, “We had a good fire year back in 1981.” Even at our most enlightened, we’re still applying our values to natural processes.

In the 117 –year history of the national parks, we have become better and better at using scientific principles to direct their management. The accumulated body oflegislation and policy now supporting and guiding the national parks balances scientific knowledge against cultural values.

The result is a sometimes uneasy truce between what science tells us is possible and what our value system tells us is appropriate. Little wonder that it’s hard to discuss such complex subjects in neutral language.

The Yellowstone fires have revealed the extent to which the most thoughtful, intelligent writers and park supporters can become mired down in this rhetorical swamp. Writers, attempting to reassure their audience about the fires, will say, “It really wasn’t that bad. It’ll all come back.”

This implies, again, that the burns were bad in the first place, and that only forests in some late successional stage, forests that have fully “come back,” are good forests. The height of a forest’s trees or the photogenic quality of a vista may be very important to some humans, but it’s all the same to the ecological setting.

Here in Yellowstone National Park, when we speak of recovery we’re talking about the rebuilding and restoration of visitor facilities, such as trails, picnic areas, campground facilities, and other structures destroyed by the fires.

We are not speaking here of the natural setting. The natural setting is merely in a different state of its ongoing life processes. The natural setting does need “recovering.” But our neighbors in the national forests, where much land was also burned, mean something else when they speak of recovery. Except on lands classified as wilderness, they mean planting trees and seeding native or non–native grasses and other aggressive land husbandry techniques that are suited to their multiple–use mandate.

The distinction between the mission of the National Park Service and the mission of the Forest Service is lost on most of the public. Thus, Yellowstone National Park is perceived as a place trying to recover from damage.

Developing an acceptable and meaningful language is one of the greatest challenges we face in explaining national parks to our public. The Yellowstone fires demonstrate the complexity of this challenge.

Consider, for example, animal mortality, a reality in any wilderness. The fires that killed elk in Yellowstone were just doing what fires have done in Yellowstone for thousands of years. Elk and fire have shared the Yellowstone Plateau for a long time.

But most of the elk killed in last year’s fires were killed by human–caused fires (amounting to roughly one–half of the acreage burned in the park). Once started, these fires behaved just like the naturally caused ones, burning vegetation in the same mosaic, creating the same variety of habitat types. The most skilled ecologists on earth could not distinguish the effects of one fire from another.

How do we respond to such a thing? Do we point to some of our burns and call them “good” and point to others and call them “bad?” How do we discern ecological processes that are set in motion by natural bums from the violation of park principles that is represented by human–caused burns? How do we sort out all of our cultural expectations and legal definitions when nature so obstinately refuses to cooperate with us?

What we have here, and what Yellowstone’s fires suggest to us in so many ways, is much more than just a rhetorical problem. What we really have here are many unanswered questions about human perceptions of wild lands and their management.

In the so–called age of ecology we have acquired a veneer of enlightenment that allows us to feel good about our awareness of nature. But scratch through the veneer and we still try to apply our value system to natural processes that simply will not accept the application.

The fires ofYellowstone should remind us just how valuable the national parks are in helping to shape and stretch the national consciousness. As much as we have to learn about the natural world, we have just as much to learn about our own feelings and attitudes.

Nature is not always a gentle hostess, but she never fails to be an inspiring teacher.

Interpretation [was] a combined effort of the Washington Division of Interpretation and the Regional Chiefs of Interpretation. The publication [was] edited and designed by the staff of the Interpretive Design Center at Harpers Ferry:

General Editor: Julia Holmaas
Technical Editor: J. Scott Harmon
Designer: Phillip Musselwhite
Contributing Editors:
Joe Zarki: Yellowstone National Park
Ginny Cowan: Yellowstone National Park

Last updated: January 6, 2017