National Parks
The American Experience
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Preface to the Third Edition

Yellowstone at 125:
Anniversary Remarks on the Recent History of National Parks

Now a century and a quarter old, Yellowstone maintains its popularity as the landscape closest to every ideal of what comprises a national park. Nor should the story of its exploration and founding as a scenic refuge ever grow tiresome. It is just that the story may never again seem as inspirational as when the country itself was young. Mounting pressures on the environment now betray the erosion of cultural attachments to both regional and national landscapes. Initially, in 1972, my research itself dampened the celebration of the Yellowstone Centennial. A hundred years earlier, I noted, the opponents of Yellowstone Park had insisted that it include nothing of proven commercial value. [1] My cause for despair was my own preference for the utopian version of the evolution of national parks, in the words of the historian Wallace Stegner still "the best idea we ever had." [2]

The lost innocence of the national parks may indeed be the dominant theme of preservation in the twenty-first century. When this book originally went to press, the United States was preoccupied with the protection of national parks and wilderness. Now the future of Yellowstone, its fame aside, is but one of many concerns competing for the attention of the public and the media. Historians themselves remain divided between sentiment and objectivity. Like Wallace Stegner, many are tempted to celebrate national parks as the ideal expression of landscape democracy, despite evidence reaffirming that many parks have also been compromised or mismanaged. [3]

One inescapable cause of management problems is the extraordinary growth in traffic and visitation. The country that invented national parks held just thirty million people. As late as World War I, Yellowstone's annual visitation rarely exceeded 50,000. Moreover, the large majority came by train and stagecoach, part of a community of travelers bound to responsibility by limited access, poorer roads, and rustic accommodations.

The nation about to carry Yellowstone into another millennium has ten times the population of 1872. Park visitation, both domestic and foreign, now exceeds three million every year. The park's sense of timelessness and benediction, of summer renewal and winter sleep, is lost amid a million cars and the drone of a hundred thousand snowmobiles. No different from any urban landscape, Yellowstone is constantly importuned, providing digression, but hardly sanctuary, from the complexities of the modern world. [4]

Meanwhile, economic forces dictate that extractive industries are still of greater value to the West than either wilderness or tourism. Thus, Noranda Minerals Inc., a Canadian conglomerate, opened the 1990s by pressuring federal officials to authorize a large gold and silver mine near Cooke City, Montana, barely two miles outside Yellowstone's northeastern boundary. For obvious reasons, any prior conviction that the region should be added to Yellowstone National Park had never been taken seriously, even though mining, first advanced more than a century ago, suggested only a modest strike. Over the years, existing mines were occasionally reworked and other mountainsides freshly scarred, little of which, it was argued, had spilled over into the park. Finally, technology overtook preservation with the invention of new extractive options. One technique, using cyanide as a leaching agent, coaxed as little as an ounce of gold from several tons of low-yield ore. Suddenly, what had once been only a marginal deposit was being hailed as the West's newest bonanza. Unfortunately, this time the mounds of tailings and a reservoir of toxic wastes might loom over a watershed feeding directly into Yellowstone. [5]

The so-called New World Mine brought home in the twilight of the twentieth century what had been true of the park ever since its establishment. Even as Congress in 1872 pledged its commitment to scenic preservation, it qualified repeatedly that Yellowstone's future indeed hinged on reassurances that only scenery was at stake. The mine was just the latest example of that historical precondition. In the end, the ambitions of American materialism still favored development over the ideals of conservation.

To be sure, Congress had established many additional categories of national parks and their equivalent, including recreation areas, historic sites, wild rivers, and scenic trails. However, most tended to be corridors or islands on the American landscape, the majority significantly altered by prior development. Urban parks especially portended enormous costs for cleanup and maintenance, expenses generally not associated with areas traditionally reserved from the western public lands. Accordingly, if federal budgets persistently dwindled, as a mounting deficit seemed logically to predict, there was reason to fear that protection in the original natural units would also erode as one result.

As if to sharpen that debate, in the summer and fall of 1988 Yellowstone was swept by a series of unprecedented wildfires. Virtually all of the park was affected by drifting smoke and ash, and approximately half of its forests burned, although intensities and tree loss widely varied. Dramatically, in late August and early September flames literally raced across the park, forcing firefighters into "last stands" around Yellowstone's endangered historic buildings. Other contingents battled to protect adjacent forests framing its primary scenic wonders. Weeks later, costs had surpassed a hundred million dollars to maintain an assault force still numbering several thousand people, including rangers, military personnel, and members of the National Guard. [6]

Finally, as the first snows of autumn snuffed out the still stubborn flames and hard-to-reach embers, the country began taking stock of its legendary landscape. The obvious reaction was despair, to pronounce Yellowstone hopelessly burned beyond historical recognition. And yet, the biological value of fire had many defenders, most insisting that any talk of tragedy had been grossly overstated. Granted, the fires had been serious and their intensity unforeseen. Too late, the Park Service had moved to suppress back-country burns worsened by lengthening weeks of heat and drought. Even so, Yellowstone in time would surely recover. In retrospect, fire seemed less an enemy of preservation than did a century of human abuse and manipulation. [7]

As another pivotal event in the history of the national parks, the Yellowstone fires refocused every debate regarding when to intervene in the management of natural environments. For a majority of Americans, Yellowstone's obvious appeal was still as the nation's distant, fabled "wonderland." Much relieved, everyone applauded that its geyser basins, canyon, and waterfalls had survived the flames intact. For others, however, wilderness was indeed the new criterion for maintaining the integrity of every natural area. In Yellowstone, the wolf had been exterminated and the grizzly bear long threatened with extinction. By implication, Yellowstone itself was hardly perfect. The term wilderness implied sanctuary, a landscape reserved for every native plant and animal as well as scenic wonders.

Literature buttressed such convictions, including environmental history, which by now had also left the romanticism of the nineteenth century far behind. Notable books included Yellowstone: A Wilderness Besieged (1985), by the historian Richard A. Bartlett, and Playing God in Yellowstone: The Destruction of America's First National Park (1986), by a journalist, Alston Chase. Using different styles and approaches, both authors challenged the historical and contemporary priorities of the National Park Service. Development, they argued, often took precedence over the protection of key natural features. [8] In another critical review, the historian Stephen J. Pyne noted the agency's tendency to ignore obvious distinctions between good and bad fires. Yellowstone, he concluded, had survived only because the park was truly big enough to absorb a million-acre holocaust, defined either as a natural occurrence or a management mistake. [9]

Regardless, within months of the fires, efforts to assess their long-term damage evinced a dwindling air of certainty. Through winter and into spring precipitation returned to normal. A minuscule percentage of the park, that portion where soils had been sterilized by the flames, showed no signs of imminent recovery. Elsewhere, in 1989 Yellowstone came alive in a sea of grass and wildflowers. It was, even skeptics admitted, one of the most glorious springs on record. Off through the blackened trees, long-forgotten vistas had reopened while, underfoot, millions of new seedlings were already taking root. Granted, many areas would take decades, even a century or more to recover fully. Then again, fires historically had reduced forest litter and undergrowth in cycles measured in years instead of centuries. What had appeared "natural" before the fires might be deceptive in its own right, self-generating, perhaps, but a landscape no less artificial than any of Yellowstone's most popular, developed areas. [10]

In that respect, the question of natural fire was part of the larger issue of Yellowstone's long-term survival. In the 1990s a new definition, Greater Yellowstone, addressed the park in further relation to the health of its neighboring lands. The thrust of its argument obvious, Greater Yellowstone included all potential wilderness surrounding the national park, another eight to ten million acres in addition to Yellowstone's original two. In short, Greater Yellowstone departed dramatically from cultural biases limiting preservation only to "worthless" lands. Inside the park, that criterion still prevailed; adjacent, however, lay many areas now designated for all forms of commercial development, including ranches, mining claims, logging operations, resorts, and summer homes. [11]

True, Greater Yellowstone referred primarily to lands still held in trust by the federal government. The vast majority, in national forests, further embraced several million acres already protected under the Wilderness Act of 1964. Even so, the national forests themselves were often pockmarked with commercial claims and private property. More critically, the U.S. Forest Service fundamentally disagreed that so much territory deserved set-asides as wilderness. On paper, the idea of buffering Yellowstone with everything outside the park might seem comforting and attainable. The hurdle, so easily discounted, was that it was no longer 1872.

The reintroduction of the wolf in 1995 further aroused complaints of government indifference to the needs of local residents. Like the grizzly bear, wolves were prone to wander beyond the boundaries of the park itself. Among critics, the reintroduction cemented arguments that Greater Yellowstone presaged a government "taking," allegedly, a subtle but overt attempt to limit the rights of property holders without just compensation. [12] Once again, the matter illustrated the futility of visualizing wilderness as something behind a fence. Wilderness was hardly real estate; it was a landscape immune to zoning or other forms of subdivision. Short of some sentiment for wilderness on private lands bordering any national park, wildlife as mobile as the wolf and grizzly bear was certain to face continuing persecution.

Once again, any expansion of the national park system to round out the integrity of natural environments was restricted to topographic provinces where such additions would not impinge on civilization. Thus, the battle for Alaska behind them, preservationists renewed their interest in the deserts of California, Nevada, and Arizona. Yellowstone, as one result, ironically lost its preeminence as the largest national park in the continental United States. Under terms of the Desert Protection Act of 1994, Death Valley National Monument, expanded and redesignated as Death Valley National Park, now surpassed Yellowstone by more than a million acres. [13]

The successful outcome of the Desert Protection Act had indeed hinged on the matter of expansion without sacrifice. Greater Yellowstone conflicted with productive forests, growing communities, and several important watersheds. In contrast, the word desert seemed self-explanatory. The barren outcroppings of Joshua Tree National Monument, simultaneously expanded and renamed a national park, suggested, like Death Valley, the absence of traditional commercial values. Weeks earlier, Saguaro in southern Arizona made the same transition from a monument into a park. However, where mining, hunting, and grazing were still deemed significant, principally in California's East Mojave Desert, even a landscape so inextricably linked with visions of waste and hopelessness guaranteed no priorities for wilderness preservation. Designated only a national preserve, the East Mojave Desert served further notice of that enduring contradiction, the one bent on appeasement rather than closure of commercial claims to the nation's public lands. [14]

Although a century and a quarter old, the national park idea still awaited true consensus, a confirmation of cultural significance unaffected by expedience or remoteness. Indeed, earlier visionaries had considered parks but a necessary stage in the evolution of a more enduring ethic, one transcending political and social boundaries to see all land as sacred space. [15] The proper evolution from Yellowstone into Greater Yellowstone was ultimately America the Beautiful. National parks should be more than reservations separating wilderness from the grasp of civilization. Rather, they should inspire Americans to care for every landscape, especially those enveloping their daily lives. Ideally, the future of the parks was projection, awareness rippling outward as well as people flowing in. A new philosophy, as it were, first demanded a new maturity. Behavior inappropriate to a national park was likely to be inappropriate anywhere.

In that respect, the events preceding another major Yellowstone anniversary foretold an uncertain future for national parks and wilderness. For every achievement there was still ambivalence; for every success an element of national doubt. At least on the eve of the anniversary the news was mostly positive. In August 1996, President William Clinton announced an agreement with the Noranda company liberating Yellowstone from the proximity of the New World Mine. On payment of $65 million, and in exchange for other federal properties yet to be determined, Noranda pledged to relinquish all of its historical claims to the controversial New World site. [16]

Apparently, both Yellowstone and Greater Yellowstone had dodged a crippling blow to their respective identities as national park and wilderness. History alone raised the discomforting question: How long would any such agreement last? The euphoria of the moment conveniently masked that larger reality. For every victory came only the certainty of a different renewal of the threat.

In that respect, Yellowstone at one hundred and twenty-five was really no more secure than Yellowstone at any anniversary in between. Earlier preservationists simply had the luxury of a smaller, less demanding population. No longer could Yellowstone, or any national park, survive all that civilization now portended. Contemporary celebrants could only hope the twenty-first century would bring no threat so serious it might undo every past success. If so, the original conviction of American nationalism would obviously have to hold. The glory of the United States lay in landscapes still pristine and undeveloped. Only then might wilderness survive the social and cultural changes spilling over into the next millennium. Only then might restraint possibly sustain the limitations of tradition, ensuring the timelessness of the national parks as the best idea America ever had.


National Parks: The American Experience
©1997, University of Nebraska Press
runte1/preface3.htm — 17-Mar-2004