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A 'Greater Yellowstone National Park': Is It So Far-Fetched?
August 8, 2023
A 'Greater Yellowstone National Park': Is It So Far-Fetched?
To save America's most iconic wildlife ecosystem, two prominent conservationists say in this op-ed that today's epic challenges must be met with grander bolder thinking. If not this, then what?
Heinrich Berann's painting of Yellowstone looking south toward Jackson Hole was commissioned by the National Park Service but it speaks to how the natural qualities of the region's public lands transcend jurisdictional boundaries.
EDITOR'S NOTE: No one argues that many corners of Greater Yellowstone, especially those in closer proximity to Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks, are changing fast due to rising human pressures brought by development, sprawl and trails and river stretches becoming more crowded. At the same time, the region has no cohesive strategy—and not even a dialogue—for how to protect wildlife, ecological function, rural communities and working class people. Fragmented action and thinking results in fragmented landscapes. In the essays, below, Dorothy Bradley and George Wuerthner float a big idea that they say represents a 21st century improvement upon the bold and historic creation of Yellowstone—at least as it pertains to Greater Yellowstone's federal public lands. What would a "Greater Yellowstone National Park" look like and why does it make sense? Bradley, who spent her childhood growing up on a ranch, served several terms in the Montana legislature, nearly won a close race to become Montana's first woman governor and is a lifelong conservationist says its an idea worth considering. Following her piece, George Wuerthner, an ecologist, outdoor recreationist, writer and photographer lays out the details of a conceptual plan he floated a few months ago. Read this provocative pieces and let us know what you think. —Todd Wilkinson
by Dorothy Bradley
An interesting proposition has surfaced—that we consider expanding the acreage of Yellowstone National Park. This is worth our thoughts.
Ken Burns called National Parks “America’s best idea." Who would disagree with that observation? His national park series showed a very sacred collection of glorious and unique landscapes that all Americans love and most Americans visit. It is a ritual with most families to take that time-honored pilgrimage at least once, to introduce our children to one or more of these national treasures. It goes all the way back to vintage cars and feeding the bears, both now among the memories.
The ritual often included a special feature - like seeing the red buffalo babies in spring, climbing the Grand, watching the sun rise from the depths of Zion, and as with my family, taking your children down the Bright Angel Trail in the Grand Canyon, which was a multi-generational tradition, although some of us considered it kid torture.
For our beautiful Yellowstone, many of us near neighbors wonder how many more tourists can be ushered through its expanse each year as it grows more popular by the minute, including its global fan club. Then there are today’s problems of the animal inhabitants disrespecting park borders in their search for food.
One cannot argue that this border expansion is not needed. The increase in the popularity and visitor use of the two national parks is mind boggling. Nor can it be argued that it would be unpopular. Yellowstone's biggest danger is being loved to death. Much of the surrounding land is national forest, already recognized as being part of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, and could be stitched to the national parks with no terrible disruption.
And what about national park management? It is always under the microscope because we all feel a sense of ownership and stewardship for Yellowstone. But national park rules are already set, so we don’t have to rewrite them and try to please a hundred different perspectives. The results of that management speak for themselves. Most of it is positive.
The wildlife, fisheries, and ecosystem come first, and are suitably protected. Although millions of people travel through the parks every year, for the most part they are concentrated and not overwhelmingly disruptive. Bicycles can be ridden for many scenic miles down narrow paved roads, but don’t migrate up every mountain trail. There is space for horseback riding and even cookouts with wagons and draft horses. Snowmobiles are provided special winter access, but generally stay on designated roads so those on skis and snowshoes can pursue treks in the most intense solitude on the planet.
The time is short where such a proposition can be considered. So why not consider?
Ahead of their time but their ideas might be perfect for ours. Some of the early founders of The Wildlands Project who helped pioneer the thinking of large landscape conservation. Note: since their first meetings and as their movement expanded globally, it brought diverse people into the fold. Pictured here, left to right: Roz McClellan, John Davis, David Johns, Jim Eaton, Doug Tompkins, Dave Foreman, George Wuerthner, Mitch Friedman, Monte Hummel, Jamie Sayen, Rod Mondt and Reed Noss. Kneeling is the late Michael Soule, a forerunner in conservation biology.
by George Wuerthner
I just saw the movie Wild Life about Doug and Kris Tompkins’s efforts to protect wildlands in South American Patagonia.
I am very familiar with that effort as I worked for Doug and Kris for more than ten years and made numerous visits to Patagonia. Unfortunately, with Doug’s tragic death kayaking, we lost one of the world’s most ardent supporters of wildlands.
I first met Doug in 1991 when he gathered some wilderness activists and conservation biologists at his San Francisco home to discuss how to reinvigorate the conservation movement. Beyond meeting Doug, one consequence of that meeting was the formation of the Wildlands Project, which advocated for a continental vision of protected wildlands across North America using conservation biology concepts.
When I worked for Doug, we had numerous discussions about what we considered a fundamental crisis in the worldview of the environmental movement. Doug constantly reminded me that most conservation groups were too timid, too narrow in their vision, and lacked the imagination and courage to think big.
Doug used to quip: “We are always losing, no matter what, so you might try to preserve as much as possible.”
He even chided me as board president of RESTORE the North Woods because he thought our 3.2 million acre proposal for a Maine Woods National Park was too “small,” even though it was a million acres larger than Yellowstone National Park. Doug kept telling me to go bold—argue for 5 million acres.
Doug didn’t lack courage, vision, or imagination when advocating for large, protected landscapes and he continues to inspire me even after his death.
The late adventurer Doug Tompkins and his wife Kris McDivitt Tompkins, both successful business executives in the outdoor clothing industry who put their money where their hearts are and became pathfinding modern conservationists. Together, the Tompkinses purchased strategic lands in the Patagonia region of Chile and Argentina, important for biodiversity, and turned them into national parks and protected areas. While initially meeting resistance, citizens in those nations now recognize their value now and for generations to come. Photo courtesy George Wuerthner
Biocentric vs. Anthropocentric: Protecting Nature Betters Our Lives
I’ve felt for years that wildlands advocates should work to expand Yellowstone National Park and preserve the entire Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem under national park management.
Greater Yellowstone is the largest intact temperate ecosystem in the world. But it is suffering the cumulative impacts of a thousand cuts. Something needs to change, or we may lose our last chance to get it right.
Across the globe, large, protected areas have been shown repeatedly to be the best way to preserve evolutionary processes and biodiversity. Even where species decline is noted, the creation and maintenance of protected preserves tend to slow the losses and, in some cases, reverse the trend.
Wildlands advocates are busy fighting every abuse and insult to the ecosystem’s integrity. It is a rear-guard action. Rather than spend time trying to contain these misuses, a more proactive strategy is to put forth a positive vision to counter most of these ecological insults.
If we can’t preserve the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem here, where can we?
Recognize The Entire Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem
and Treat Every Part Like It Matters
Yellowstone has become a model for conservation across the planet. Depending on how you define the borders, Greater Yellowstone is anywhere from 20 to 24 million acres. To put that into perspective, that is roughly the acreage of Maine. The heart of the ecosystem is the 2.2-million-acre Yellowstone National Park. Surrounding the park are other parklands like Grand Teton National Park and the John D. Rockefeller Parkway.
There are seven national forests surrounding Yellowstone. Many of these forestlands are designated Wilderness, one of the most stringent land protection management categories available. Wilderness is managed primarily to enhance and preserve wildness—or “self-willed lands.”
Unfortunately, these public lands outside the Wilderness are “open” for business. Mining, logging, livestock grazing, oil and gas drilling, and industrial recreation all find a favorable reception in the national forests.
One of the most vulnerable national forest landscapes is the Gallatin Range, which lies south of Bozeman, Montana. The Gallatin Range is currently part of a Wilderness Study Area but lacks Congressional designation as Wilderness. It is a crucial area that should be protected as Wilderness.
A meadow flanking Buffalo Horn Creek in the wild Gallatin Mountain Range that runs from the west side of Yellowstone Park northward between Paradise Valley and Big Sky and ends on the southern doorstep of Bozeman. Amazingly, it is home to all of the major large mammal species present in 1491, before Europeans arrived on the continent. Photo courtesy George Wuerthner
Another significant area currently without protection as Wilderness is the Pryor Range which lies on the eastern edge of Greater Yellowstone. The Pryors have some of the greatest plant diversity of any mountain range in Montana and recently a grizzly was confirmed to be wandering there. The Forest Service, BLM, and Park Service manage the range. Similarly, the Wyoming Range, Salt River Range, and Commissary Ridge on the Bridger-Teton National Forest south of Jackson should also be given greater protection as Wilderness.
Although neither Yellowstone nor Grand Teton is currently covered by a wilderness overlay, for the most part, the Park Service manages its lands as defacto wilderness.
There are several concepts of large landscape conservation out there. One of them is the Yellowstone to Yukon Conservation Initiative that ponders biological connectivity from the permafrost to Wyoming’s Red Desert. It’s big and ambitious.
Another is the Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act (NREPA)—a bold and visionary proposal that would have made Doug Tompkins smile. NREPA would go a long way towards protecting these areas and many other roadless areas in other parts of the region. NPEPA would also finally bring wilderness designation to Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks.
Though I support wilderness designation as an overlay to federal lands, Wilderness alone is not necessarily as good as the national park designation overlain by Wilderness. For instance, even with Wilderness surrounding Yellowstone on nearly all sides, wolves, grizzlies, bison, and other animals are regularly killed by trappers, hunters, and sometimes agencies like the US Department of Agriculture’s Wildlife Services. Livestock grazing is permitted.
The National Park Service’s mission to preserve “unimpaired” natural values tends to preserve evolutionary processes. For example, the agency is willing to close large areas of Yellowstone to protect grizzly bears. These “Bear Management Units” cover as much as a quarter of the park and are designed to minimize conflicts between bears and people.
Similarly, the Park Service will close areas to human use around wolf dens, eagle nesting sites, spawning streams, and other wildlife use areas to protect these animals from human intrusions.
For the most part, National Park management seeks to preserve evolutionary and ecological processes, not just species. Thus, wolves preying on elk or wildfire rejuvenating the landscape are tolerated and celebrated in national parks.
The National Park Service has experience trying to find a better balance between the needs of wildlife and people, Wuerthner says. But studies show that national parks are not large enough to preserve wildlife and ecological processes. Even Yellowstone needs to be able to breathe, as shown here in Hayden Valley, when congestion clogs some of its arteries. Photo courtesy Jacob W. Frank/NPS
Why Choose The Park Service Instead Of Different Agency?
Other land management agencies fail to protect Greater Yellowstone values. From the dominance of livestock grazing to promotion of logging and oil and gas development, the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and even the Fish and Wildlife Service support resource extraction and activities such as artificially feeding thousands of elk that degrade the ecosystem’s ecological integrity.
Even though some national forest lands are preserved with an overlay of Wilderness, many areas outside Wilderness are vulnerable to resource extraction. Therefore, putting the entire Greater Yellowstone under the jurisdiction of the Park Service is the best way to ensure the long-term preservation of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
That is the ideal agency for managing a Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem Park because its mission is to enhance and preserve natural processes and minimize human influences. The Park Service has a mandate to manage these lands for all people.
Only one to two percent of Yellowstone is roaded or developed with parking lots, hotels, and other facilities, and nearly all human impact is limited to those few areas. While neither Yellowstone nor Grand Teton National Park are designated Wilderness, the Park Service still manages these lands as if they were designated Wilderness.
Enlarging Yellowstone would ensure more winter range for the park’s ungulates like bison, elk, and pronghorn. It would ensure predators can roam freely over more of the landscape without fear of being trapped or shot. A bigger park would store more carbon and preserve more headwater streams from mining, grazing, and logging.
Private Lands: Yes, No One Is Saying Private Property Rights Shouldn't Be Respected
And Private Landowners Would Benefit, Too, From Conservation
Private lands are also a noteworthy feature of Greater Yellowstone. I do not want to imply that conservation lies only on public lands. Private lands possess and deliver many conservation values. Unfortunately, we have few mechanisms to foster consistent long-term conservation protection on private lands.
Nevertheless, efforts to protect critical landscapes are ongoing, including measures like zoning, conservation easements, various kinds of incentives and outright acquisition of biologically critical lands. Be it as it may, the livelihoods of people matter. Congressional funding for critical linkage, migration corridors, and important biological hot spots should be prioritized. Beyond the mission of the Park Service, there are other reasons for creating a Greater Yellowstone National Park.
Biodiversity: How Well We Preserve It Is A KeyTo Achieving Resilient Landscapes
There is abundant evidence that human exploitation and occupation of the planet are causing undue and unnecessary species extinction. Many suggest we are experiencing the Sixth Great Extinction (some argue there were more past extinctions). Whatever the number, there is no excuse for knowingly permitting millions of species to disappear without at least attempting to provide a lifeboat. Parks and Wilderness are among our best lifeboats for countering this species’ demise.
Given the fundamental mission of the NPS to protect and preserve evolutionary and ecological processes, not to mention individual species, the creation of a Greater Yellowstone National Park would likely ensure that the ecosystem will continue to be a place where species have a chance of survival into the next century.
In 2002, I, and colleagues, completed of a survey of biological hot spots in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. A Greater Yellowstone National Park would contain all the biological hot spots we identified.
Gratitude To Past Citizens, To Wildlife And Future Generations
Being Grateful When Thinking About Us
Whenever I spend time in Yellowstone, I am grateful that someone came up with the idea of a national park to preserve the landscape features. The prime consideration among park proponents was the protection of thermal features like geysers and hot springs, which there are more of in Yellowstone than in any other place in the world. However, since its original designation as a national park, its value for preserving wildlife and evolutionary processes has grown. Yellowstone prompts gratitude in my heart for its role in expanding the concept of “natural rights”, where Nature and all life have a right to exist beyond the economic or exploitive value to humans.
Thinking Biocentrically and Recognizing The Huge Intrinsic Value Of Nature
Yellowstone’s management mandate to leave lands “unimpaired” tends to fosters a biocentric perspective.
Wildland preservation is not about humans but acknowledging that other life has a fundamental right to existence. Parks and Wilderness foster humility and are an antidote to domination and human arrogance.
Keeping wild places wild is an expansion of “rights” to other creatures. It fosters an attitude of self-control and personal responsibility—both essential elements of any society.
However, this view is under increasing attack from social justice advocates who tend to view everything from a human perspective. Nevertheless, if Yellowstone persists as a conservation model, biocentric attitudes will likely continue to be valued.
Beauty Of The Region Is The First Thing That Catches The Eye
It may seem unimportant, but parks preserve beauty. Beauty stimulates human appreciation and positive interactions. Studies have shown that immersion in nature demonstrates that people are just nicer to each other in a natural setting.
Preserving beauty is one of the values park designations seeks to maintain. Aesthetic value is often associated with natural landscapes. Beauty is not just a luxury but a fundamental human right. Wildlands preserve beauty not found in the humanized urban or even pastoral landscape.
Preserving The Spirit Of Place In Turn Inspires The Human Spirit
For many humans, wild landscapes have always been places for spiritual connection. Some see “God” in the natural world. John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, Rachel Carson, to more recent scholars like Wallace Stegner, asserted, “Wilderness was the Geography of Hope." Few find spiritual comfort in city streets, among factories, much less clearcuts, oil fields, and mines. Native Americans say natural areas are essential to their spiritual traditions, as have many wildlands advocates. We should democratize this concept by preserving the Greater Yellowstone National Park together, where everyone can discover their spiritual renewal.
Protecting Genetic Diversity Is A Foundation For Healthy Ecosystems
Greater Yellowstone National Park would increase the overall population size of most species protected from human manipulation, such as hunting/trapping or “thinning” of forests, and so forth. A larger metapopulation is the best insurance for preserving genetic integrity. In addition, since national parks generally keep and encourage ecological and evolutionary processes, such as predation, wildfire, floods, hurricanes, and other factors that select for genetic responses fundamental to genetic integrity, a large, protected area is our best bet for ensuring a reasonable chance of preserving genetic integrity.
One of the essential values of conservation biology is preserving core populations and migration corridors. Placing the Greater Yellowstone under Park Service management would likely enhance the prospect of sufficient representation of biological hot spots and critical corridors.
Fostering Management Based On True Ecosystem Thinking Across Artificial Borders
Currently, management responsibility of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is fragmented among different administrators, including the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Wildlife Service, state lands departments, and state Fish and Game agencies with variable missions. Consolidating the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem under one agency like the NPS would ensure equal and consistent ecosystem management.
The Upper Green River Basin in southern Wyoming, besides being a fecund crossroads for migratory wildlife and other species, is the headwaters of the Colorado River. It's a stunning landscape being threatened by natural resource extraction and residential subdivision expanding on private land. Photo courtesy George Wuerthner
Storing Carbon, Holding Water
Given climate change, one concern that is increasingly important is using natural landscapes for carbon storage. A Greater Yellowstone National Park has tremendous potential for preserving carbon and holding water in soils, beaver-friendly streams, trees, grasses and other vegetation.
Instilling A Standard For How To Behave Responsibly And Respectfully
National parks consistently promote non-intrusive behaviors among visitors. Whether that is advising visitors to keep some distance from wildlife or even something as simple as not picking wildflowers. Leaving the landscape and wildlife unimpaired for future generations is a core value of NPS management. On a larger scale, wildland preservation is an expansion of justice beyond humans.
Wilderness and parks, while not immune from human influences (climate warming is a good example), still provide a reasonable control where we can compare the manipulation of the landscape outside of these protected areas with places where human impact is reduced.
Protecting large landscapes by limiting and reducing human intrusions and exploitation is one way that all of us can pay our obligation to the planet that has sustained us. Setting aside landscapes like the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem as a conservation model promotes a worldview that sees the Earth as more than a “cookie jar” for human consumption.
Parks have not created social equity any more than the Civil Rights Act did, but both are a step toward that goal. Parks are among our most democratic institutions. They are even better than other institutions because they recognize more life forms than humans as having value worthy of “rights.
The Economics Of Protecting Nature’s Sustainability
Greater Yellowstone is not the nation’s woodbox, feedlot, oil patch or industrial playground.
It’s real economic values are what I call the three Ws–wildlands, watersheds and wildlife. For instance, the annual combined economic value of just Yellowstone and Grand Teton to surrounding communities and states is $1.2 billion, and it is also linked to about 15,000 jobs. A Greater Yellowstone National Park would invariably enhance local economies.
Can We Get There?
We Often Tout How Smart We Are. Let's Show It
The first step in any political conservation concept is to lay out the vision. Only then can one begin to strategize how to implement it.
A national monument could be established on lands outside the existing national park boundaries, encompassing the entire ecosystem. National monuments can be created by Presidential decree. Many national monuments are later codified by Congressional action as national parks.
However, independent of these west-wide proposals, legislation is the most secure way to expand Yellowstone’s borders to encapsulate Greater Yellowstone.
This change will not happen overnight. In the 1930s, Bob Marshall, who has a famous wilderness named after him in Montana, proposed that everything north of the Yukon River in Alaska should be preserved as one great wilderness national park. Marshall’s vision has not yet been fully realized.
However, a review of a map of Alaska north of the Yukon River will show that most of the landscape is now in some protected category. We have the Koyukuk NWR, Selawik NWR, Kobuk Valley NP, Cape Krusenstern NM, Yukon Flats NWR, Kanuti NWR, Gates of the Arctic NP, Arctic Wildlife Refuge, Noatak Preserve, among other designations.
If we add up the acreage of the Noatak Preserve, Gates of the Arctic National Park, and Arctic Wildlife Refuge, the combined total is approximately 33 million acres. Only protected areas of that size can reasonably ensure long term ecosystem protection. We need a similar preserve in the lower 48 states, and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is the best candidate for such a preserve.
The first step in any campaign is to articulate the idea. That is what I have tried to do here. It's the same kind of situation our ancestors were in when they considered the radical ideas to preserve the lands of Yellowstone and create the first national forest and important wildlife refuges. No one looks back at those actions today as being anything less than brilliant citizens being able to think and act for the betterment of others beyond their own time.
ENDNOTE: Why do you think about the thoughts presented in the essays above by Dorothy Bradley and George Wuerthner? Send us your thoughts by clicking here. Please keep them on point and be respectful. We may publish them. Also, below, watch the short tailer for Wild Life about Kris and Doug Tompkins.
A Reader Responds:
The State of Yellowstone is encompassed by I-80, I-90, I-15 and I-25. Think BIG!