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It Started With A Pilgrimage To Wonderland
March 23, 2022
It Started With A Pilgrimage To Wonderland
In the first of a three-part series, "Reflections on a Changed and Changing Yellowstone," writer Earle F. Layser remembers his first visit to America's first national park 75 years ago
Traffic gridlock, also known as "bear jams," have been a fixture in Yellowstone going back generations. In the past, begging black bears, hooked on human food, would approach cars and sometimes creating dangerous encounters. Today, grizzlies are often seen along the roadside in Yellowstone and Grand Teton but they forage on natural food. Photo courtesy NPS
Part 1: Yellowstone And The Price Of Popularity
by Earle Layser
My first visit to Yellowstone National Park was in 1947. I was seven years old. My parents, along with me and the family dog piled into the back, were on a road trip from Pennsylvania, camping out of a wood-paneled Plymouth station wagon; the iconic American road trip. Quite adventuresome for those days. Back then, the US population was only 144.1 million people.
Of course, I recall seeing Old Faithful, but mostly, I remember the black bears boldly coming into the campgrounds. Maybe I recall the bears looking for handouts because of my mother’s frightened response. While my father fished and trapsed about, she, with me and the dog in tow, retreated to the Plymouth—doors closed, windows up.
Days later, while camped in Jackson Hole in the sagebrush fronting the Tetons, a horseman approached us—America’s mythical cowboy, an enduring symbol of Western culture. My father was profusely apologetic for being on what he thought might be private ranch land. The rider spat and said, “Don’t matter, it all belongs to Rockefeller anyway.” A sentiment reflecting the region’s chronic land use conflicts, even back then. But, heck, I was excited seeing a real cowboy.
(You can learn more about how it was the private land protection efforts of John D. Rockefeller Jr. and generations of family members in Wyoming that enabled the Grand Teton National Park we enjoy today to happen. Without it, you can only imagine what would have become of private ranches carved up into development).
Two decades passed before I returned to Yellowstone again, traveling through the park as a side trip in route to the East Coast from Montana. Roadside bears were still a major attraction. Somewhere I have 35mm transparencies of them. It was an analog world. And the country’s population was then a mere 198.7 million; however, park visitation had increased disproportionately to 2.2 million.
"I am certain readers can likewise add countless similar experiences about their visit to Yellowstone. The list can go on and on... a storybook filled with awe, discovery, commanding images, challenge, inspiration, joy, nostalgia, wonder, wistfulness, richness, love, and feelings of wellbeing; experiences and images that become a part of one’s mindscape and who we are."
In my life, with a career in US Forest Service administration, and later as a private consulting biologist, I was fortunate to have lived and worked in some of the American West’s out-of-the-way places before they became roaded and widely known—particularly, northwestern Montana’s Yaak River, the southern Selkirks in northeastern Washington and north Idaho, and the Selway and Salmon River country in north central Idaho. It was de facto wilderness back then.
Many of those extraordinary wildlands which were never classified with high protection under the 1964 Wilderness Act are mostly only remnants of what they used to be.
When my career in conservation and natural resource management first took me to Jackson Hole in 1976, the US population had grown to 218 million people. Park visitation remained similar to the 1960s, around 2.5 million.
Jackson Hole’s appeal, which continues for me yet today, was its proximity to the national parks, and the extensive surrounding wildlands and all they portend, particularly the free-flowing rivers and wildlife. It is not mere platitude to acknowledge Greater Yellowstone as the most intact ecosystem left in the US Lower 48.
The US population has continued to grow exponentially to 332.4 million people, at last count, more than double since I first saw Yellowstone. For a number of years, I left Jackson Hole to follow my career, but I never moved away in spirit.
Nowadays, those of us fortunate to be able to visit or live close to Yellowstone and Teton national parks and the surrounding public lands, safe to say, are grateful. But having watched the transformation, I believe our parks and public lands should not be taken for granted; they are a heritage that endlessly enrich our lives.
No doubt I am preaching to the choir, but the outdoor experiences, interactions with wildlands and wildlife, can provide experiential, restorative and spiritual benefits—places and times where one’s spirit sings and one’s soul recognizes its home. Such interactions with nature have potential to form deeply held and poignant memories, possessing the power to shape our character and influence who we are and who we might become.
It is impossible for me to name just one favorite thing in Yellowstone country that possesses those powers; there is a multitude and some can be serendipitous. We each tend to acquire our own compendia of favorites over the years. A few, among my many, range from skiing couloirs in the Beartooth Mountains in July or once finding and climbing a limestone plunge wall behind an unnamed intermittent waterfall in the Gros Ventre Wilderness and viewing a never to be forgotten magical kaleidoscopic sunset through the cascade’s thundering spray and mist.
The coordinates of these places I hold close to myself; their locations need not be touted to the rest of the world.
In Yellowstone Park itself, numerous places and experiences leap to mind—some locations capable of handling crowds— from observing the enchanted prismatic colors of the reverberating Yellowstone River’s Lower Falls and Grand Canyon or Thomas Moran’s Artist Point to immersion into the timeless Lamar Valley watching wolves in winter and observing bears in spring—grizzly and black. Or the ethereal feeling of canoeing through the park’s atmospheric sky—at dawn it can be hard to tell where heaven ends and Earth begins amid the cloud reflections on the mirror-like surfaces of Yellowstone or Shoshone lakes.
I am certain readers can likewise add countless similar experiences about their visit to Yellowstone. The list can go on and on... a storybook filled with awe, discovery, commanding images, challenge, inspiration, joy, nostalgia, wonder, wistfulness, richness, love, and feelings of wellbeing; experiences and images that become a part of one’s mindscape and who we are. And it is all possible without declaring our experiences on social media, “exploring” Yellowstone via the Internet, running computer simulations of Nature, or pretended you are there behind a virtual reality mask.
We could stop there, but like many things in today’s world, there is a flip side.
Stasis—a period of inactivity or equilibrium—is relative or even illusionary; sustainability is an issue, but what does it really mean? The landscape we like to picture as pristine, primeval, or largely natural is considered quaint imagery by some; an old-fashioned trope. For most, real life is a highly-mechanized, technological, and digital existence. There are a lot more of us moving through the landscape, diminishing the wild character of the region.
Our population is now more than 2.3 times greater than it was when I first visited Yellowstone as a child—83 percent of it urban. We are, after all, living in the Anthropocene epoch; everywhere and everything on Earth is subject to human influence.
Many landscapes and related experiences once commonly available to my generation are changed or changing, ephemeral as dreams—backcountry fading into front country. Scene after scene being continually modified, altered, and transformed to fit today’s human needs; becoming increasingly more humanized and citified as the population continues to expand—developments occurring right up to the parks and public land boundaries.
"Many landscapes and related experiences once commonly available to my generation are changed or changing, ephemeral as dreams—backcountry fading into front country. Scene after scene being continually modified, altered, and transformed to fit today’s human needs; becoming increasingly more humanized and citified as the population continues to expand—developments occurring right up to the parks and public land boundaries."
We are beyond hyperbole on how fast the West is changing. And for some, who feel their political and societal ideology trumps our Western parks and public land heritage, nature and natural values seem to be scornfully little valued. Today the US population has grown exponentially to 332.4 million people, more than double since I first saw Yellowstone. However, Yellowstone Park’s total visits has increased fivefold to a record 4.86 million in 2021.
I wrestle with the question of how can we prevent this precious region from following the same course as Colorado or Utah, where the mountains and valleys seem to exist only to meet human needs and desires, not to maintain their essence.
EDITOR'S NOTE: In part two of his series coming next, Earle Layser looks at an obscure entity called the Greater Yellowstone Coordinating Committee formed in the 1960s to help build a cohesive strategy for managing Yellowstone and its adjacent public lands. And he laments why he thinks it has never fulfilled its promise and is falling down on the job today.