Yellowstone and Me

Mali by the Yellowstone Roosevelt Gate
My wife in front of the Roosevelt Gate that marks the northern entrance to Yellowstone. The road to Mammoth Hot Springs and the Lamar valley are open during the winter. Most of the park is snowed under.

I have moved so often that I am no longer from anywhere, but if asked, one place, Livingston Montana, has the strongest claim. Every summer, from infancy to late adolescence, I spent long happy months with my grandparents in Livingston. If you look at a map you’ll see that Livingston is close to Yellowstone National Park. In the late 19th and early 20th century the town billed itself as the gateway to Yellowstone. In those days most people reached the park by train and the train went through Livingston on the way to Gardner and the northern park entrance where the famous Teddy Roosevelt arch stands to this day.

Being close to Yellowstone we made frequent family trips to the park. I don’t know how many times I’ve entered Yellowstone. We’d make at least one trip every year and some years we went two or three times. We thought of Yellowstone as our own private national park and we were intensely proud of the place. This hasn’t changed. People that live near the park today are as fiercely devoted to Yellowstone as my grandparents and parents ever were.

When I was a child the park service did things differently. In the 1950’s and 1960’s rangers didn’t chase bears into the woods so they hung out on park roads begging food from tourists. Seeing bears closeup was always a thrill. Of course, you weren’t supposed to feed bears. Signs were everywhere reminding Boobus americanus that bears were dangerous wild animals, but the largely ignorant public ignored the warnings with predictable results. Every year at least one moron was killed by a bear. In good years two or three would succumb. Since most of the dead were clueless tourists locals viewed Yellowstone bear attacks as a form of imbecile euthanasia. We were sad when rangers had to put down offending bears. You don’t see a lot of bears in the park these days. When they show up the rangers shoo them into the woods; it’s easier to train bears than tourists.

Family outing in Yellowstone
In the summer of 1967 I snapped this photo of my parents, maternal grandparents and siblings with an Instamatic camera. I was only a teenager but I was already a veteran Yellowstone visitor. We made frequent trips to the park and we all loved the place.

After bears geysers were the next biggest thrill. Yellowstone is world-famous for its geysers. Some estimate that half of the world’s active geysers are bubbling away atop Yellowstone’s massive caldera. The immense size and power of the Yellowstone super-volcano was not fully understood in those days, but you could see the park was a special, almost magical, place with your own eyes. One geyser, Old Faithful, is emblematic of Yellowstone and most of our park trips included a stop at it.

Old Faithful is not the most spectacular large geyser in the park, but it’s the most dependable. By some rare geological quirk Old Faithful has been venting at regular intervals ever since it was named in 1870.1 The interval changes a bit from time to time. The Madison earthquake tweaked the frequency and times vary more than many believe, but if you go to Old Faithful and invest a few hours the geyser will not disappoint. The most dramatic eruptions occur during the winter when super-heated geyser steam blasts into freezing mountain plateau air. Old Faithful in the winter is pure bucket list material. I’ve watched Old Faithful shoot off dozens of times. I’ve seen Old Faithful with my parents, my siblings, my grandparents, my children, my nieces, in-laws and some good friends. My experience is not unique. If you’ve seen Old Faithful I’m betting it was with someone special.

There’s more to Yellowstone than bears and geysers. It harbors the largest high altitude lake in North America. It is home to a variety of North American plants and animals. It has one of the most spectacular river canyons and waterfalls anywhere and it shelters, in scalding geyser waters, rare ancient extremophiles that are among the oldest life forms on Earth. The park doesn’t need me to sell it. It’s one of the world’s very special places.

My kids waiting for Old Faithful
My kids waiting for Old Faithful to erupt in the summer of 2000. Watching Old Faithful is like a family reunion for me. I’ve seen it shoot off with most of the special people in my life and even when I was by myself I was always thinking how others would love this particular eruption.

As I entered my teenage years we moved to Iran where I spent a year before moving to Lebanon for school. During this time I saw large chunks of the Middle East, Egypt, Turkey, most of Western Europe and England. We returned to Canada. From Canada I moved to Ghana, then Denmark, then Barbados, then western Canada, then eastern Canada, then back to the US. I’ve seen dozens of national parks in many countries and many are spectacular. With so much to compare it against I started thinking of Yellowstone as, “a been there, done that”, “nothing to see here”, “not worth the hassle,” bore! Doesn’t everyone have a boring old Yellowstone in their backyard? I was blasé about Yellowstone for years until two notable events and advances in geology made me reassess my feelings about the park.

Remember the great Yellowstone forest fires of 1988. Dramatic images of vast fires filled newscasts for weeks. The park service endured abuse from all quarters for letting the fires rage. Fire has always been important for North American evergreen forests. Years of fire suppression in the US and Canada slowly produced dense tinderbox forests that blaze when set alight. The great Yellowstone fires of 1988 punctuated this point. We now understand that fire is necessary for the long-term health of forests, but explaining this to outfitters, tour operators and other businesses that depend on moving tourists in and out of parks remains a hard sell. A few years after the great 1988 fires I visited the park with my young children. I was expecting a burned out wasteland, but I was surprised by verdant undergrowth and the largest fattest elk herds I had ever seen. Between the black timbers lush ferns and other plants burst forth by the billions. It was a good time for ungulates. I know it pisses people off when experts are right, but the experts were right about forest fires. Fortunately, the braying nitwits soon had something even more controversial to whine about.

The most famous animal in the park these days was absent during my youth. I am talking about wolves. Wolves had been exterminated in Yellowstone for the usual fallacious bullshit reasons in the early 20th century. When people started seriously entertaining the idea of reintroducing wolves to the park every brain-dead rancher in the west decided to go on TV and show the world that westerners are every bit as ignorant as Yellowstone bear-food tourists. I remember one particularly eye-rolling twit going on about how kids waiting for school buses at lonely winter ranch gates would fall prey to bloodthirsty wolves. It didn’t matter that there have been very few authenticated wolf attacks on people or that there were good ecological reasons for reintroducing wolves. Ranchers the world over subscribe to what I call rancher ecology. If it’s not a cow or a rancher shoot it! I’ve endured this sentiment in the US, Canada, Brazil and Ghana. Grow up people; you’re embarrassing us! If you’re really this stupid having bloodthirsty wolves pick off your idiot spawn would help us maintain our species IQ.

The park service ignored the loons and brought the wolves back. What happened, just the biggest and most successful species reintroduction in national park history? Watching wolves reestablish themselves has made it crystal clear how important top predators are to functional ecosystems. Before the wolves came back the elk and deer, like welfare recipients, had gotten stupid and lazy. Their biggest problem was avoiding traffic. The wolves changed all that. Now if they’re not on their hooves they’re probably going to get eaten. The presence of wolves has had many unexpected benefits. The elk no longer clear out the underbrush near streams; this has led to a profusion of wild flowers and other plants that were rarely seen before wolves. The denser plant growth has provided habit for insects that feed birds. The slower moving waters are more suitable for native fish and beavers. The park is in better shape than it has been at any time in my life and we can credit the work of Canis lupus for a lot of it.

Bison on the high plains of Yellowstone National Park.
Most of Yellowstone is a high elevation plateau. It’s great habitat for deer, elk, bears and now wolves. There are mountains in the park but they are not as impressive as the Tetons to the south or the Absaroka range to the north.

And, despite the western whining, the biggest beneficiaries of wolf reintroduction have been, you guessed it: Homo sapiens. Lots of people are making money on Yellowstone wolves. Every winter thousands of people make their way into the Lamar valley to watch and hear wolves. People come from far and wide and occasionally the wolves put on a riveting show for them. Yes they occasionally stray from the park and there have been livestock losses. Whenever a sheep of calf gets eaten the rancher press covers it like a mini 9/11 terrorist attack. In some cases the attacks occur in the park. It’s not widely known that domestic animals graze national forests and parks. Hey, if your cow is eating state subsidized grass stop whining about occasional losses to wildlife. You’re damn lucky the stupid public tolerates grazing on public lands. In pure economic terms wolf introduction has been a rare government money-maker. Perhaps if Congress assholus were reintroduced to their natural habit, prison, similar benefits would ensue.

Wolf reintroduction put Yellowstone back in the news but advances in geophysics and geology vaulted the park’s status to global icon. There aren’t very many super volcanoes in the world and there are even fewer active super-volcanoes. This is probably a good thing. Too many of these puppies blowing off would seriously depress the market and no amount of quantitative easing would excavate your baked ass from cubic kilometers of volcanic ash. Geologists have been aware of Yellowstone’s violent volcanic past for decades but it wasn’t until the age of high precision GPS monitoring and satellite radar that the alarming dynamism of the park made headlines. We’re not used to landscapes “breathing” but something like that is going on in the Yellowstone caldera. The entire plateau goes up and down in amazingly short times. It takes a lot of energy to move a few hundred square kilometers of rock in a matter of years. Yellowstone ground movements have been monitored since the 1920’s and they are so marked that even the public notices. Now that we better understand the monster that lurks under the park everyone expects it to wake one day and blow the joint sky-high. Maybe we’ll get lucky and see it blow in our lifetime. The last time the Yellowstone super-volcano erupted Homo erectus walked the Earth. They we’re on the other side of the world but super-volcanoes make themselves felt at great distances. I’m willing to bet that evidence of large Yellowstone eruptions will eventually be detected in ancient African or Asian hominid fossils. Yellowstone’s super-volcano gives the park real sex appeal. Let’s face it, chicks dig bad boys, and bad boys that can waste entire countries are volcanically hot!

View of Yellowstone Lake from West Thumb.
Yellowstone Lake from West Thumb. Yellowstone Lake is large and deep and most of it lies within the Yellowstone caldera which covers an area three times larger than the lake. Imagine this entire landscape erupting. They’re not called super-volcanoes for nothing!

Yellowstone’s enduring importance has nothing to do with landscapes, geysers, bears or volcanoes. Its major contribution is the idea of a national park. In 1872 the US Congress took time out from their usual whoring and profiteering, work they assiduously pursue to this day, and accidentally did something worthwhile; they created the world’s first national park: Yellowstone. Despite modern whitewashing this wasn’t an act of a farsighted and wise people. Yellowstone was too far away, too high for agriculture, had no known mineral deposits and wasn’t even in a state at the time. How the hell can you deliver pork to nonexistent districts? Congress couldn’t see how to pillage and profit from Yellowstone so they gave in to a small but determined movement that wanted a park. The congress of 1872 was probably less corrupt and venal than our modern degenerates but they weren’t freaking saints and it annoys the hell out of me that partisan revisionists are constantly citing Yellowstone as a wonder of big government. Yellowstone was a product of the corrupt and incompetent Grant2 administration for Christ’s sake. The same dolts that brought you Custer’s last stand.

Judging the motivations of the long dead is pure hubris but evaluating the results of their actions is how we learn from history. By any standard Yellowstone was a glorious result. The congress of 1872 set a precedent that spread worldwide. Ken Burns argues that national parks are the single best idea the US government has ever had and I agree. I shudder to think what Yellowstone would be like if it wasn’t a national park. It would probably be the biggest hive of luxury spas and posturing celebrity scum on the planet. Imagine Aspen, Cannes, Bath, Monte Carlo, Dubai and Hollywood all whored up with natural boiling mud and geyser waters. Instead of being proud of Yellowstone I would be advocating nuking the place. The nukes wouldn’t damage the super-volcano but they would cauterize the celebrity infestation. Thank the all squiggling FSM that this nightmare was aborted in 1872. National parks have aborted many such nightmares all around the globe.

In my ideal world parks would cover at least a third of Earth’s lands and oceans. We’re not there yet, but when we are, people will still look at Yellowstone, the world’s first national park, and my personal favorite, as one of the very best.

  1. Nobody knows who first discovered Old Faithful. It was known to Native Americans long before it was named “Old Faithful.”↩︎
  2. Unlike the current occupant of the White House Grant did something that mattered before he was elected president.↩︎

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