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Quammen: Yellowstone At Risk Of Being Loved To Death

Yellowstone National Park. Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River from Artist Point.
© Michael Nichols/National Geographic
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Yellowstone National Park. Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River from Artist Point.

The May issue of National Geographic Magazine is devoted to Yellowstone National Park: America’s Wild Idea. Bozeman-based writer David Quammen - who wrote the entire issue - talks Yellowstone history, and why the park is at risk of being loved to death.

The images in this post are from the May issue of National Geographic magazine. These stories and pictures of Yellowstone National Park's animals will surprise you. 

David Quammen: [Yellowstone National Park] was the first national park—the first national park for the U.S., the first national park for the world. The first time any country in the world had said: By the action of the national government, we are creating a park for all of the people.

Chérie Newman: That’s Bozeman-based writer David Quammen, who is also a first: The first person to write an entire issue of National Geographic Magazine.

The May issue of National Geographic magazine is all about Yellowstone.
Credit National Geographic
The May issue of National Geographic magazine is all about Yellowstone.

DQ: One long piece, sort of a reported essay, in four parts.

CN: Quammen, who has been a contributing writer for National Geographic for about 10 years, says that from the very beginning, the creation of Yellowstone Park was driven by tourism.

DQ: It was inspired by the notion of bringing tourists to the West to see scenic spectacle—to see the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, to see the geysers, to see Old Faithful, to see these amazing hydrothermal features. And it had little or nothing to do with the idea of a sanctuary for wildlife when it was founded in 1872.

The Northern Pacific Railroad was one of the first great promoters of this idea. And it was minions of the Northern Pacific Railroad who promoted this idea in Congress.

There was also other support for it. Ferdinand Hayden, who was Surveyor General of the Territories, made a trip out to Yellowstone in 1871 and he saw the value of this place. So, a combination of people put together this bill that passed Congress and was signed by Ulysses Grant on March 1, 1972.

CN: After the designation, the Yellowstone area became a disaster zone — so much so that in 1886 the secretary of the interior asked the U.S. Army to intervene. So what was going on?

DQ: Well, when Congress passed the bill creating Yellowstone Park, they didn’t give it any budget. There was zero financial support. So there was a superintendent of the park, but he lived in Bozeman and only visited it two or three times. There were no rangers, there were no wardens, there was no infrastructure of professionals for protecting the park. So there was rampant poaching. It’s been called “this massive slaughter” by the Yellowstone Park Historian Lee Whittlesey — this massive slaughter of Yellowstone’s wildlife that went on for more than a decade after the declaration of the Park. Market hunters were killing elk by the thousands. People were killing bison inside and just outside the Park. Some of the visitors were vandalizing some of the park’s features — the rock features, the hydrothermal features. And the place was a mess.

I say in the piece, it was an orphan idea from the beginning. So the Army was brought in in 1886 to serve as the first Park rangers, the first wardens of this place. Finally, a law was passed protecting the wildlife, and the army was there to enforce that law, and stayed from 1886 until 1916 when the National Park Service was finally created as a body of professionals who would be the direct stewards of our national parks. So it was odd that Yellowstone was created decades before the National Park Service was created: 1916. It’s the centennial of that this year and that’s one of the reasons we at National Geographic have been doing a series of articles on the national parks and the parks idea, and this one special issue on Yellowstone.

Notoriously elusive, cougars vary their range in response to their prey, mostly elk and deer. In winter they favor the shallow snow in the northern reaches of Yellowstone. This cougar was caught on the prowl by a camera trap set behind an elk rack on a cl
Credit © Drew Rush/National Geographic
Notoriously elusive, cougars vary their range in response to their prey, mostly elk and deer. In winter they favor the shallow snow in the northern reaches of Yellowstone. This cougar was caught on the prowl by a camera trap set behind an elk rack on a cliff.

CN: You wrote that Philip H. Sheridan, the same Army general once determined to rid the earth of American Indians and bison, observed that Congress had made the park too small. Explain why he thought it was too small, and then what he did about it.

DQ: This is an irony that Phil Sheridan, this notorious Indian fighter, showed a very different side of his personality when it came to Yellowstone. He saw this place and he saw that the Park boundaries had been drawn in such a way to leave out the winter range for the migrating ungulates — for the bison, for the elk, for the deer.

Yellowstone is a very high place. It’s on the Yellowstone Plateau, most of it at 8,000 feet, or higher. And that means it’s brutally cold and inhospitable during the winter. So the great herds of herbivores need to migrate down out of there in winter, to winter range at lower elevations. And those areas of lover elevation are not within Yellowstone Park. Phil Sheridan saw that and he said Oh my god, you made the place too small. He was responsible for a proposal that went to Congress to enlarge the Park at the end of the 19th century — it would have almost doubled the size of Yellowstone Park, adding about 40 miles to the eastern boundary and about 10 miles to the southern boundary, and including those areas of winter range. But that proposal didn’t pass. And this is important up to the present day because those winter range areas outside the Park — some of the most important of them—are large private ranches. And the fate of those large private ranches will, to a great degree, determine whether the great elk migrations in and out of the core of Yellowstone are able to continue.

CN: What should we, the people of United States, who are ultimately responsible for Yellowstone National Park, and all our parks, what can we do to help with preservation and reconciliation?

DQ: Well, there are a number of things, but the first is probably that we have to be careful that we don’t love this place to death. There are two kinds of pressure on Yellowstone that have potentially enormous consequences for the future—negative consequences. And those are the exploding expectations of visitation and human imprint within Yellowstone National Park and Grand Teton Park.

Yellowstone had four million visitors last year, Grand Teton had three million. There’s gonna come a time when there will be more and more pressure to build more hotels, more roads, more parking spaces, wider roads in Yellowstone to accommodate the increasing pressure of visitation. We Americans have to realize that that’s not the best thing for Yellowstone and its not the best thing, therefore, for what we value about Yellowstone. There’s gonna come a time when park managers may have to say, 'sorry, Yellowstone is full. No more people can come in.' Or 'welcome to Yellowstone. Here’s the gate. Park your car in that big lot, get on the shuttle, and come on in.' It may not be possible for us to keep driving private automobiles in this place.

The second thing that involves, potentially, all of us as the public, is the private lands in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. A lot of people want a piece of the wild, wanna buy a hundred acres, or 200 acres, or 500 acres, and build a road and a cabin, and live here amid the wildlife. And that trend is a disastrous form of erosion of the landscape of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. It’s the kind of thing that cuts off those migration corridors that we were talking about. It transforms the habitat of wild animals into suburbs. And so the best way we can support Yellowstone, we can love Yellowstone, we can value Yellowstone, is to realize that there are limits to the degree to which it can be our playground. Yes, we should be able to visit it. But the ways in which we visit it may be changing as human population pressure and the very popularity or the place, the preciousness of it continues to collide with modern American population growth.

Almost like clockwork, every 60 to 110 minutes, Old Faithful shoots out a jet of steam and hot water up to 184 feet high. In summer the nearby parking lot fills and empties at about the same pace. “One of the great fears of every superintendent of Yellows
Credit © Michael Nichols/National Geographic
Almost like clockwork, every 60 to 110 minutes, Old Faithful shoots out a jet of steam and hot water up to 184 feet high. In summer the nearby parking lot fills and empties at about the same pace. “One of the great fears of every superintendent of Yellowstone,” says Dan Wenk, “is that Old Faithful will stop erupting when they’re superintendent.”

CN: As the National Park Service celebrates its centennial with free days in the parks, and the debate about removing grizzly bears from the Endangered Species List rages, Quammen notes the paradox inherent in the concept of thinking of National Parks as wild places.

DQ: This is part of what I call, in the piece, the paradox of the “cultivated wild.” This place, we’re trying to let it be wild and represent wild America. And yet to do that we have to cultivate it, we have to manage it, we have to tinker with it constantly.

CN: The May issue of National Geographic Magazine is available in stores and online. It’s the first issue ever written by one person, Bozeman-based author David Quammen.

You can read Quammen’s story in the May issue of National Geographic magazine, and see more stunning images taken in Yellowstone National Park.

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