Revisiting America’s Best Idea: Access vs. Preservation

“Yellowstone is a wild place, constrained imperfectly within human-imposed limits. It’s a wild place that we have embraced, surrounded, riddled with roads and hotels and souvenir shops, but not tamed, not conquered—a place we treasure because it still represents wildness.”
National Geographic Magazine, May 2016 issue


John O. Sullivan

The National Parks Service mission reads as follows:

The National Park Service preserves unimpaired the natural and cultural resources and values of the National Park System for the enjoyment, education, and inspiration of this and future generations. The Park Service cooperates with partners to extend the benefits of natural and cultural resource conservation and outdoor recreation throughout this country and the world.

This mission reflects two fundamental goals for the National Parks System that exist above all other objectives. 1) To preserve the nation’s great natural wonders and and sights for posterity, and 2) To provide and facilitate access to these locations for the enjoyment of all Americans. These two goals have coexisted virtually since the beginning of the Parks Service, but times are ever changing. With a record high of over 300 million park visits in 2015, and with every indication of more record-setting years to come, the National Parks are silently falling into crisis at the same time that they are trumpeting some of their greatest successes. The two fundamental goals of the parks, access and preservation, are on the verge of no longer being compatible. We are inching ever closer to a world where the Parks Service, with its current resources, cannot both provide access AND preserve the nation’s natural wonders.

Nearly 1/6th of all National Parks System visitors are recorded at just the ten most popular parks out of the 417 protected areas managed by the Parks Service. These most-visited parks are truly the ones inching towards crisis. These most popular parks include legendary American landmarks such as Grand Canyon National Park, Yosemite, Glacier National Park, Yellowstone, and Grand Tetons. Of these, Yellowstone can in many ways be considered the symbolic flagship of the National Parks System as the first U.S. (and some say the world’s first) National Park. It is the oldest U.S. national park by almost two decades, one of the most popular National Parks, and the Greater Yellowstone region is also the location of some of the most rapid development of anywhere in the country. For these reasons, Yellowstone is on the leading edge of this “access vs preservation” conflict, and as such will be the primary case study examined in this article, as a symbolic poster child of the larger issue at hand.  

It is beyond clear that Yellowstone, along with the rest of the National Parks, are headed towards a crisis. Yellowstone National Park’s superintendent Dan Wenk said in 2016:

“Last year’s [2015] visitation tested the capacity of Yellowstone National Park. We are looking at ways to reprioritize in order to protect resources, provide additional ranger programs, and keep facilities clean.”

But prioritization can only do so much. As park attendance continues to skyrocket, protecting both people and wildlife in Yellowstone has simply become an increasingly difficult task with the park’s existing resources. One indication of this challenge is the rising interactions between visitors to the parks and the wildlife that lives there. In the last century there have been  just 7 fatal bear attacks in Yellowstone. But 3 of those 7 occurred between 2011 and 2015. That’s a jump from an average of one bear-related fatality every 24 years to one every two years. Park infrastructure and public knowledge of bears is better than ever, but the bear fatalities have risen in a remarkable manner. This is by no means an indictment of Smoky, Yogi, or any of the other bears that reside in our parks. Nearly as many people have died of lightning strikes in Yellowstone as have died from bear attacks during that same time period. More have died from drowning in Yellowstone during that time frame. But it does demonstrate the new challenges that come with the rise of tourism. As more people seek access to the parks, it is becoming harder and harder to preserve the natural, undisturbed habitat of the wildlife. Without the resources to manage the wildlife, and more importantly the selfie stick welding tourists, the people and animals of the parks are coming into close contact more than ever, and those close brushes doesn’t always end well for anyone involved (both bears involved in the fatal 2011-2015 attacks were euthanized).

Another key problem that has been brought to the surface by the rise in attendance is Park size/boundaries. Like many of the parks, when Yellowstone was created, we did not have as full an understanding of the ecology of the places we were protecting as we do now. The parks were in many ways given their borders based on political factors, not realistic scientific ones. In the words of Mountaineer and Author Rick Reese: “Yellowstone is not an island” and the ecosystem that Yellowstone protects is not limited to the park gates. A 1987 study in Nature found that almost all National Parks in the west had lost mammal species since their inception, but that the largest parks lost less. This is because of a simple fundamental principle: the larger the park, the more biodiversity it contains and the more self-sufficient the park ecosystem. Predatory mammals with large ranges, like wolf packs and the (mostly) solitary grizzly bear, may be trapped or shot if they wander from the protection of Yellowstone. We also now know that the natural range and migratory pattern of Yellowstone’s bison populations extends far beyond the borders of the park, and that bison frequently winter outside the park, in people’s yards and among domesticated cattle, where they are both an obstruction to modern life and outside the protection of the park. Under current law, Bison outside the park may be corralled and shipped to the slaughterhouse by ranchers. The principle is simple: when it comes to ecosystem and natural resource management, bigger is always better, and in the way that it currently exists, many parks, including Yellowstone, may simply not be large enough or in quite the right place to safely preserve the marquee animals the park is supposedly protecting. However, there is no easy solution to this problem for many of the parks, and there is no better example of this than Yellowstone. Park visitation has both created the problem and is the biggest obstacle to its own solution. Most of the land around Yellowstone is already in use, and much of it is developed. Before it was developed, the local wildlife wandered in and out of the park freely with little ill-effect. However, in more modern times, as tourism to the parks have skyrocketed, significant urbanization has begun in the Greater Yellowstone Region. Resorts and tourists towns, full of hotels, lodges, gift shops, and restaurants, all crisscrossed by roads and highways, and all to support park visitors (as well as a growing population of permanent residents), now exist smack in the middle of what was once a contiguous natural habitat. Much of the land around Yellowstone is also in use by cattle ranchers, who are no fans of bison being able to wander about through their herds, and also have a bit of history when it comes to federal land management. While it might be best for the preservation of the natural environment for the federal government to seize all the land around Yellowstone, that is legally, logistically, and ethically dubious thanks to the very development that is the very problem. It would put thousands out of their homes and businesses, and likely cost millions or even billions in Eminent Domain payouts, not to mention being inherently contradictory to the mission of access the Parks Service carries out.

The National Parks Service has all it can handle on its hands within its own borders with its current resources. Last year in Yellowstone, parking lots were over capacity, trashcans were overflowing, and bathrooms were over crowded. The number of Parks Service staff at Yellowstone also hasn’t increased for well over a decade despite rising visitorship, compounding these problems. So great are the overcrowding issues much that Superintendent Dan Wenk said he could easily foresee a future where a cap on the number of daily visitors to the park would be necessary. The angry reactions and resistance from the public that any proposed visitation-cap policy would elicit goes without saying, but it is still a realistic possibility. Even more pressing than what happens within the borders of the parks is what happens outside. The growing rural sprawl around Yellowstone shows exactly the kind of economic benefits people hope to see from parks and protected lands, an economic boom around the centerpiece of abundant and protected natural land, but it is also a major obstacle to the health of the parks. In a country where anti-regulation sentiment is on the rise, how can the federal, state, and local governments work together to manage economic development around the parks in a way that encourages and facilitates the intersecting needs of access for visitors to the parks, preservation of the wildlife in the parks, and economic growth in the communities around the parks?

All parts of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem are delicately and intricately intertwined. Not just the plants and animals but the visitors and full-time residents as well. When grey wolves were reintroduced to Yellowstone, it caused the elk population to become more migratory. Without the predatory pressure of the wolves, the Elk had become stagnant, which diminished willow stands along the streams and rivers of Yellowstone due to overgrazing. When the wolves were reintroduced, the elk began migrating more and the willow stands recovered, allowing beaver colonies to skyrocket, which had a positive impact on stream health by reducing erosion and “smoothing” flood-drought cycles. However, reintroduction of the wolves also caused competition between the wolves and Grizzly Bears over the elk, which led to the bears eating more fish. This, combined with overfishing by sport fishermen, is leading to a precipitous decline of the Yellowstone Cutthroat Trout. The Cutthroat Trout feeds primarily on insects, many of which are parasitic and otherwise harmful to animals such as the moose, so fewer trout means fewer mooses. The trout in turn serve as food themselves to America’s Mascot, the Bald Eagle in addition to the Grizzly Bear. The Cutthroat Trout also shares another connection with the elk; the growing number of beaver colonies protect the streams the trout use to migrate back to spawning grounds from running dry. These streams run dry more frequently now due to climate change, but the beavers help protect against that effect, so the wolf reintroduction has ultimately (and confusingly) been BOTH good AND bad for the trout population. The same global warming that threatens the trout has also caused the Mountain Pine Beetle population to explode. This is putting the Whitebark Pine at risk for extinction, which impacts Grizzlies (they eat the high-fat nuts of the Whitebark Pine in preparation for hibernation), and also the Elk (forested areas provide the elk with food and some protection from predation). These ripple effects are known as trophic cascades, and they are not always as well understood as they could be. Anything from pesticide use as far away as the corn belt to hunting licenses issued in Montana can impact the the ecosystem of Yellowstone. The point here is that the ecosystems are incredibly complex, and our actions have measurable and often unanticipated impacts on them. It isn’t always possible to fix things once broken, so it is important to be careful not to push ecosystems to the breaking whenever possible. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is one of the few mostly-intact ecosystems remaining in North America, but it won’t stay that way without very careful and deliberate custody. Unfortunately the Parks are coming to a crossroads, and an important question will likely decide their fate: how much access will we be willing to give up in order to preserve what we love so much? And whatever we are willing to give up, will it be enough?


Feature Image Courtesy of Yellowstone.Net

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