Looking Back Two Decades On Managing The Greater Yellowstone Ecoystem

Twenty years after the vision of managing a "Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem" arose, some still find it difficult to manage.

Editor’s note: It’s been said that to know where you’re heading, you have to know how you got to your current location. And yet, even when you do know that, it can be hard to move forward with what you’ve learned. For 20+ years Todd Wilkinson has been following land-management decisions in and around Yellowstone National Park. In this essay, he looks back to a seminal moment from 1989 and points out what has, and hasn’t, been learned by those involved in managing the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

It’s almost funny sometimes to look back at commotions that were made about relatively small things within a bigger picture. 

Twenty years ago, a controversy erupted over a mere term and a concept that now, in hindsight, makes all of the resistance and wasted time marshaled by politicians to stop it, seem rather silly.

And yet, it marked a turning point in the region that includes America's mother of national parks, as the cut-and-run era of industrial forestry, thoughtless mining, and public-land livestock grazing sometimes conducted at the expense of other values, were coming to a close.

In 1989, a year after the Yellowstone forest fires, and six years after the Greater Yellowstone Coalition was founded by conservationists meeting in Jackson Hole, Wyoming, two ideas were advanced. The first was somewhat rhetorical:  To get the multiple federal agencies -- National Park Service, Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Indian Affairs, Bureau of Reclamation, Army Corps of Engineers, and state agencies -- to use a common reference point.

Indeed, there was a time when “Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem,” based on the recognition of common, interconnected topographical features instead of feudal bureaucratic jurisdictions, was a foreign concept met with resistance.

Today, there are still graybeards retired from the Forest Service who refuse to utter the word “ecosystem” and will at best invoke the term Greater Yellowstone “Area.”  Why?  Because they view it as a rhetorical usurpation of turf and agency mandate.

Which leads to the second “controversy,” one inflamed by some congressional delegations to feed the nonsense of there being “a war fought by Washington, D.C. on the West.”

The issue involved compelling federal and state agencies to move beyond merely using the symbolic word ECOSYSTEM and actually crafting a common vision for managing and protecting forests, rivers, wildlife, geothermal phenomena, and indeed sustainable economies that aren’t confined by artificial human lines drawn on maps.

It was a year, mind you, when the obnoxiously loquacious congressman from Montana, Ron Marlenee, referred to all environmentalists as “fern feelers” and “prairie fairies.”  Infamously, he said there would never be more federal wilderness; no wolves, over his dead body, returned to Yellowstone; and no “vision” document forcing, namely, the Park Service and Forest Service to stop their childish bickering and century-long turf battles.

The proposed “vision” document was likened by conspiracy theorists to a communist plot secretly written by the United Nations to make the U.S. bow before a tyrannical agenda of One World Government.

Whew, what a mouthful. The only thing lacking in the paranoid accusations: proof.

In truth and spirit, the rationale, actually conservative in its intent, was that by getting agencies to work better together in enforcing laws and management planning, they could be more accountable to the public, be more predictable to users, save taxpayer money in efficiency, and resolve contradictory policies that undermined smart decision-making and frequently resulted in lawsuits.

The conspiracy-speak was no different in tenor from the slogans one sees today on placards at Tea Party rallies.  The bottom line:  Residents in the region were scared of change, especially changes that challenged cultural identities. And the “ecosystem” concept, although an accepted way of thinking now across the country and articulated by visionaries such as Aldo Leopold, was then a departure from attitudes held over from the frontier.

The punch line is that bringing together the federal and state land agencies into a cohesive framework wasn’t a scheme invented by environmentalists.  It actually originated with Congress following an independent investigation by the non-partisan Congressional Research Service into why recovery strategies for rescuing the collapsing grizzly bear population were such a mess.

Why were national forest clearcuts, for example, blazed in a straight line for miles right up against the border of Yellowstone with little regard given to the impact on wildlife?  Why was the New World Mine even being considered for permitting inside a drainage on Yellowstone Park’s back doorstep?

Great questions.

Unfortunately, while progress has been made in getting agencies to “think like an ecosystem,” there has been far less success in implementing it, as evidenced by the sloppy way the Bridger-Teton National Forest and U.S. Bureau of Land Management have approached gas drilling south of Jackson Hole in the Pinedale Anticline and Jonah Field, failing to grasp the full impacts.

It’s true that a bureaucratic entity known as the Greater Yellowstone Coordinating Committee exists, but it has no teeth, no authority to mandate true cohesion, and it actually answers to two different cabinet-level secretaries.

Some momentous strides could be taken to deliver on the promises made decades ago. It’s time to be fiscally prudent and unite the six different national forests into their own Greater Yellowstone management region encircling Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks because most of the ecosystem comprises Forest Service land. It’s also time to embrace hard, sound science instead of heeding those who yell the loudest.

As a brand, the Greater Yellowstone ECOSYSTEM is a powerful national symbol for high quality of life, and it’s all owed to healthy landscapes that need a focus in order to stay that way.