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The Perils Of Going Along To Get Along

What does it say about us when we have leaders who don't have the courage to act?

 A lone bison in Yellowstone, cradle of American conservation. Among all the wonders of Greater Yellowstone, wildlife is what sets our ecosystem apart from the Colorado Rockies, Sierra, Wasatch and most other parts of the US.  Seldom, however, do we reflect on the reasons why the diversity and health of  charismatic megafauna is still able to persist here. Each of us needs to ask ourselves what we'd be willing to do—and do without—to give animals the space they need to survive as epic challenges converge. Photo courtesy Jacob W. Frank/NPS
A lone bison in Yellowstone, cradle of American conservation. Among all the wonders of Greater Yellowstone, wildlife is what sets our ecosystem apart from the Colorado Rockies, Sierra, Wasatch and most other parts of the US. Seldom, however, do we reflect on the reasons why the diversity and health of charismatic megafauna is still able to persist here. Each of us needs to ask ourselves what we'd be willing to do—and do without—to give animals the space they need to survive as epic challenges converge. Photo courtesy Jacob W. Frank/NPS
Climate change.  


More people flooding into our region and exacting a larger human footprint on the land. 

Soaring visitation to national parks and developed parts of the national forests. 

Rising impacts from outdoor recreation. 

The arrival of Chronic Wasting Disease with Wyoming continuing to artificially feed more than 20,000 elk. 

Last week there was a provocative and arguably unprecedented conversation about threats to wildlife at the Northern Rockies Conservation Cooperative’s biennial Wildlife Symposium in Jackson Hole. Inspiring was the number of younger people making keen observations and sharing their concern, including their willingness to demonstrate self-restraint to protect animal habitat.

During the morning session, I gave a presentation as a journalist and NRCC writer in residence, and I posed a series of rhetorical questions based upon 30 years of writing about the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. They all relate to the phenomenon of “going along to get along” which involves the unwillingness of people—politicians, bureaucrats, conservationists, business people, and we citizens—to risk saying anything that might be disagreeable with our peers. 

It was a theme I explored in my book on whistleblowers, Science Under Siege: The Politicians' War on Nature and Truth which probed why some people stand up to do the right thing and others, who feel threatened, will do everything they can to prevent them from making waves. There's nothing wrong, of course, with seeking collaboration and searching to find common ground, values and compromise in natural resource issues but sometimes people in leadership need to make difficult decisions that may not be popular. 

Ironically, we venerate those who defied the status quo to protect the common good—people like Theodore Roosevelt, Rachel Carson, members of the Murie family, Aldo Leopold, Marjorie Stoneman Douglas, Rosa Parks, Jane Goodall, the Craighead brothers, Jacques Cousteau and others. 

The Rev. Gerald Durley, a climate change activist in Atlanta, and Rev. Bernice King, eldest daughter of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., told me that if MLK were still alive today, he would be touting environmental protection and conservation as an extension of civil rights, and that he would be an advocate not only for people but the right of other species to exist.

In light of the serious issues we’re facing in America’s most iconic wildland ecosystem, here are a few things I’m wondering:

What does it say about us, living now in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, to see the converging challenges  mentioned above and yet we behave as if, just by ignoring them, that things will always be the same?

Or worse, what does it say about us when we relegate unpleasant topics which make us feel uncomfortable into a category called “inevitable,” which then lets us off the hook of responsibility?

What does it say about us when we vote into office elected officials too afraid to say the obvious, based on the argument that if they do say things that are not “popular” with the masses they might never get elected?

What does it say about us to have politicians in Wyoming and Montana continue to defend the burning of coal by trying to glibly deny the evidence of climate change documented by the most distinguished scientists in the world?

What does it say about us when the top manager of the National Elk Refuge in Jackson Hole—overseeing the most famous elk herd on Earth— faces certain professional reprisal for warning that the artificial feeding of thousands of elk as numerous previous elk refuge managers have also made clear—is setting us up for a disease disaster?

What does it say us and the credibility of the U.S. Forest Service when it disavows the clear science of wildlife diseases and approves the continued operation of state feedgrounds in Wyoming with Chronic Wasting Disease literally on its doorstep
Clay Bennett Editorial Cartoon used with the permission of Clay Bennett and the Christian Science Monitor under agreement with Mountain Journal. All rights reserved.
Clay Bennett Editorial Cartoon used with the permission of Clay Bennett and the Christian Science Monitor under agreement with Mountain Journal. All rights reserved.
What does it say about us when we have Teton County, Wyoming, represented for years and even today by some of the smartest commissioners in the West—and representing a province operating with a land-use plan that may be the best among all rural countries in the West—yet it is woefully deficient in mitigating the negative development trends sweeping across that incredible place?

What does it say about us when commissioners from the 20 counties and mayors and council members in Greater Yellowstone communities fail to get together on a regional level to confront growth issues and instead remain stuck in their silos? 

What does it say about us when the promotion of conservation, in many places, only exacerbates the social and economic inequity for working class people, meaning places with higher quality of life are becoming accessible only to the wealthy? 

What does it say about us when we frame the cause of affordable housing mostly within the context of giving worker bees a place to lodge so that they can serve our needs as maids, teachers, firefighters, police officers etc. and not because it is really a fundamental matter of dignity?

What does it say about us when we disparage coal miners and loggers and ranchers for engaging in resource extraction and yet, in many ways, we’re supplanting those users with industrial strength outdoor recreation whose impacts in many cases may be more negatively permanent and landscape transforming?

What does it say about us when we condemn the conservation movement for lacking human diversity in its ranks—which is obviously true—yet its politically-correct critics fail to understand why building a movement that counts biological diversity and respect for other sentient species is also important?

What does it say about us when we starve federal and state land management agencies of the funds needed to do their jobs and carry out scientific research and then we beat those agencies up for allegedly being inept and uninformed?

What does it say about us when we have a National Park Service that does not end a controversial “elk reduction” program—read hunt— in Grand Teton even though its justification is obsolete?

What does it say about us when we hear that trophy hunting of grizzlies, after we’ve just brought bears back from the brink in Greater Yellowstone, is vital to their conservation? So, if the most compelling argument is that trophy hunting should happen because it generates money and builds more social tolerance, then why aren’t we also sport shooting bald and golden eagles, peregrine falcons, whooping cranes and wild horses?

What does it say about us when we know that wildlife watching is central to our $1 billion annual nature-tourism economy in Yellowstone and Grand Teton parks, much to the delight of untold thousands of visitors, yet we allow popular park wolves, radio-collared for research, to be shot solely to provide a thrill for individual hunters along national park borders? 

What does it say about us when a state—Montana—chooses to deliberately ignore a benchmark report prepared by the National Academy of Sciences that concludes elk, not Yellowstone bison, represent the most eminent threat of brucellosis transmission to cattle and yet we slaughter bison—more than 11,000 of the icons to date— anyway?

What does it say about us when government agencies are not actively coordinating to halt contradictory management practices, often operating at cross purposes and negatively affecting the ecological health of the region, such as: feeding wildlife, permitting oil and gas exploration in wildlife migration corridors, and not demanding cumulative affects studies on the total impact of recreation as different national forests assemble their forest plans and admit they haven’t a clue what the impacts are?

What does it say about us when we see something like running down wildlife with snowmobiles in Wyoming that is so obviously ethically dubious and runs counter to our beliefs as a society, yet we listen as the new head of the Wyoming Game and Fish Department deflects and diminishes the taking of professional responsibility?

What does it say about us when journalism is not constantly seeking answers to these questions, or when reporters pull punches with their stories for fear of alienating advertisers, or reporters refrain from asking tough questions ironically because they’re afraid it might result in them having less access to people who need to be held to account?

What does it say about us when we work for conservation organizations and are reluctant to call out a recreation use and the negative impacts it is having because we engage in that same use on weekends and don’t want to alienate ourselves from our friends involved with the same activity?  

What does it say about us when we wake up in the morning and consciously decide to “go along to get along” even though we know in our guts that if we’re really going to save this place—if we are sincere in our rhetoric about thinking long-term—that we need to challenge status quo thinking and act soon?

In fact, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem we know today is actually the product of individuals who previously were not afraid to tout the enduring value of conservation and smart thinking. We claim to revere them and count them as inspiration leaders, yet what does it say about us when we are too timid to emulate them?

One of those leaders, the forerunning ecologist Adolph Murie who spent time defending wildlife and wildlands in Greater Yellowstone and Alaska, once said: “Let us not have puny thoughts. Let us think on a greater scale. Let us not have those of the future decry our smallness of concept and lack of foresight.”

In Greater Yellowstone, which stands as a beacon for the world, what does it say about us if we’re unable to grasp the meaning of Murie’s words?

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EDITOR'S NOTE
: This story is part of an ongoing series called "Those Who Faced A Challenge And Did The Right Thing," with research underwritten in part through a grant by The Cinnabar Foundation.


Todd Wilkinson
About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson is an American author and journalist proudly trained in the old school tradition. For more on his career, click below. (Photo by David J Swift).
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