Jerry Johnson & John Baden
A sign near Blunt, South Dakota tells you you’ve reached the 100th Meridian – a mythical line of longitude 100 degrees and half a world away west of Greenwich, England. The line runs north and south through the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, the panhandle of Oklahoma, and through the middle of Texas. To geographers it is an expression of east or west. To the west, the climate is characterized by semi-arid or arid lands. Generally speaking, to the east, the land receives warm moisture from the Gulf of Mexico, and as a result, the lands there are productive without supplemental irrigation. To westerners it is an almost perfect demarcation of their lifestyle where the well-watered prairies give way to high plains almost within sight of the Rocky Mountains; and in their rain shadow. This is a land of large rivers and large dams, wide open spaces and barbed wire.
The explorer John Wesley Powell noted the geographic demarcation and suggested in 1876 in his report to Congress that the region was not fit for agriculture due to the lack of water. Further, state boundaries, if there were to be any, should follow watersheds rather than political maneuvering that favored parochial agendas. Congress and the railroads disagreed and continued to pass Homestead Acts up through 1909. The 100th meridian is where the west begins.
If we divide environmental policy into "romance" and "sludge", west of the meridian we are dealing with romance lands. America's most iconic parks, wildlands, wildlife, quality habitat, and spectacular vistas lie mostly in this arid zone. While there is a good deal of romance land to the east, most is in the West. For westerners this is our home territory; it provides the context and substance of our lives and our cultural founding.
What is the West? Based on the census of 1890, Frederick Jackson Turner declared the American western frontier officially settled and to be gone. Full-scale economic development of the west was well under way and few places remained unexplored. He believed our great western frontier shaped the American individualist nature and the American character. That thesis is still debated in academic circles. He wrote of the role of the American frontier that the struggle with wilderness made Europeans into Americans. Expanses of free land and abundant resources created a free and independent people. Historians Richard Etulain and Michael Malone augmented that view in their book The American West. Patricia Limerick challenged the thesis with her book The Legacy of Conquest. She, and others, reflected on the role of others in the western drama. Read a short review of the debate here. The conversation is important because of the political and social culture(s) that pervade the western states today. In many ways the tensions over public lands management is found in the differing western cultures as well as differences with our eastern cousins.
The discovery of gold, silver, and other precious minerals in California in 1849, in Nevada and Colorado in the 1850s, and in Idaho and Montana a decade later, drove a migration of prospectors and miners into the nooks and crannies of the Rockies and in the process made westerners of migrants from Europe and Scandinavia. The timber industry followed - wood was needed to build mining communities and provide timbers to prop up mine shafts. Like churches in medieval villages, a triangular sawdust burner stood in nearly every small town where gold and silver was mined. Timber made the railroads even richer as they logged off lands given to them to encourage westward expansion. A class of natural resource robber barons Charles Wilkinson called “the Lords of Yesterday” was born. Today that economy is mostly gone replaced with second homes and tourists. The idealizeed western culture persists.
The Park and surrounding lands provides an ideal subject through which to view romance. Most everyone knows of Yellowstone and those who have visited inevitably fall in love with the landscape and charismatic animal life. Many return multiple times. Some move here and make a life around its nature and beauty. How many understand the policy evolution that left large expanses of public lands - especially Yellowstone, and the people that made it happen?
The frontier ethic shaped by seemingly limitless land and untold wealth had a profound economic impact still felt today but, in the rush to develop the storehouse of riches on public land, we were terribly wasteful and careless. A series of laws gave away resources to those who would develop them – water, minerals, timber, and land was there for the taking by entrepreneurs and industrialists alike. In the process, rivers were destroyed by hydraulic mining and whole forests were clear cut. By 1900, over 50 million American Bison had been wiped out, almost driving the species to extinction. The post civil war years were indeed a tragedy of the commons on an immense scale. There is still a good deal of cleanup to be done following those decades of development. Consider the mine runoff accident on the Animas River in Colorado in 2015; there are over 48,000 similar mine waste sites throughout the Rocky Mountains.
The initial movement toward conservation was embedded within the Progressive movement of the turn of the 19th century. Where resources were essentially free and unregulated, Progressives favored dropping these laissez-faire practices in favor of a more active federal role in managing the economy. The Progressives were about solving problems and the way to do that was using the best available science. Forestry and silviculture would recover the forests; wildfires would be fought by the recently established U.S. Forest Service. The new forest rangers were recruited from forestry schools housed in the Ivy universities of the east and so were assumed to know best. Congress poured money into the effort and, by 1935; the head of the Forest Service — a veteran of the Big Blowup, Gus Silcox — declared that all forest fires should be extinguished by 10 a.m. the following day. The Forest Service created its own army to fight fires, replete with ground troops to dig trenches and set backfires. They trained elite smoke jumpers to parachute into remote areas and maintained an air force of tankers, reconnaissance planes and helicopters. Of course now we know that, in addition to other factors, the unremitting war on forest fires contribute to the massive fires that burn across the west in the 21st century.
One result of the scientific management era is seen in how we managed wildlife. Up through 1900 wildlife were managed as any other common pool resource. Unregulated market hunting resulted in massive slaughter of shore birds for plumage, extermination of the passenger pigeon for food and, commercial hunting of elk and deer. Some populations were wiped out, others nearly so. Passage of the Lacy Act in 1900 and the establishment of a system on national wildlife refuges helped many populations recover. Notably however, in the eyes of wildlife managers, there were now good animals and bad animals. The Predatory Mammal Control Program established in 1931 ensured that “pests” (mountain lions, bears, wolves, coyotes, bobcats, fox, etc.) were eliminated in favor of agribusiness and “good” wildlife defined as elk, deer, turkey, and similar charismatic and utilitarian species.
The national parks too were subject to the Progressive culture of wildlife management. Feeding bears garbage so the public could enjoy them was common as early as 1889 in Yellowstone and the 1930s in Yosemite. The emphasis of park management during those early days was on public enjoyment rather than conservation. The last garbage dump in Yellowstone was closed in 1970.
To say that management of public lands and resources has undergone a radical transition in favor of the natural world would be inaccurate. Rather, science has changed how we view the natural world and, for the most part, natural resource managers adapted because of emergent public demand for a clean environment and healthy ecosystems. Predators are no longer seen as the limiting factor for game animal populations indeed, to enlightened wildlife managers they are a necessary element for healthy herds of prey and game species. Tourists demand to see bears and wolves in thier natural environment. Fires are allowed to burn when property is not at risk and forests are cleansed of fuel buildup. We understand that a forest that burns is a healthy forest. We no longer spray DDT in the parks and we often think hard and long before adding to the permanent human infrastructure in our national parks. Roads that gave access to visitors are now understood as barriers to animal migrations.
Cultures of management and visitors change in some predictable ways. Quality attracts quality whether money, goods and services, or people. The process is autocatalytic; greater quality attracts money and money attracts quality but alas, not all good things go together. Amenity towns like Bozeman, MT or Flagstaff, AZ exemplify this process. Many lament the changes to their small slice of heaven on Earth while valuing better grocery stores, medical care, restaurants, cell phone service, and air transportation that accompanies growth in the local economy and population. The solution, some conclude, is to simply close the gate after they arrive.
The same is true for our national parks. More visitors from all over the world increasingly visit our national parks - especially Yellowstone, Grand Canyon, and Yosemite. This places greater pressure on park managers to control traffic, crime, and wildlife encounters. Unfortunately, as in amenity communities, the increased revenues cannot possibly keep up with infrastructure demands and maintenance.
The future of our parks and public lands holds a good deal of uncertainty but new thinking and new wisdom will inform it. Where Bob Barbee was the first of a new generation of natural resource managers trained in wildlife management and ecology, those of the future may more closely resemble Yellowstone’s current superintendent Dan Wenk – a man well versed in forging alliances with nonprofits and whose expertise lay in creative public fiscal management. Where the issues of large predator management may become a thing of the past, the future of progressive park management may be in entrepreneurial experiments like public/private partnerships or as freestanding non-profit land trusts partnering with the park service. These are potentially risky endeavors that require a new sense of administrative entrepreneurship.
Most people associate entrepreneurs only with for-profit enterprises. However, entrepreneurs with high social capital also create novel institutional arrangements to achieve social and environmental goals. They discover innovative ways to organize and mobilize people and other resources to produce things people value far more than financial returns. Examples are good habitat for wildlife, social welfare organizations, and civic institutions. They need not invent things, few do. Creativity is the common denominator; it is the key to the success in every case. Bob Barbee used his personality and depth of knowledge, along with a willingness to take risks, to become a successful bureaucratic entrepreneur.
Park management has evolved and will continue to do so. From its designation as the world's first national park in 1872 until 1919 the U. S. Army was assigned responsibility for its development and stewardship. John Stoddard was a Williams College graduate who went on to Yale Divinity School. He was a professional traveler and lecturer who toured Yellowstone in the 1890s. Stoddard observed and defended the position that only the Army could manage this responsibility.
This made sense in context. Yellowstone was a commons whose exploitation needed control to protect its many values. Poaching and looting were genuine and observed threats. Today the Park Service manages and protects but the balance continually shifts. In view of likely developments, that model too may be obsolete. Why? Constraints on the Federal budget constraints pose a looming threat.
America's federal debt as a percentage of our annual GNP is growing because of fiscal promises for Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and similar statutory obligations; these are necessary and valuable for our nation's well being. They are non-discretionary expenses with a powerful and broad constituency. A financial crunch is inevitable and as much as Americans love their national parks and other environmental amenities, hard trade-offs linger on the horizon. And then what? Managerial entrepreneurship is one answer. New fiscal tools are another.
The shift in management requires bureaucrats to take risks – both political and fiscal. Such behaviors are antithetical to most in large public and private organizations alike. Our conversations with Bob Barbee and his contemporaries demonstrate what a non-risk adverse manager can achieve. The hard problems of bear management and wolf reintroduction provide lessons for those who chose public service. Let’s learn from our elders what risk and reward look life from their point of view. Let's think about what future management might hold in store for our nation’s crown jewels.