I hope you enjoyed John Stoddard's 1890’s reflections and photos of Yellowstone Park. Finding his manuscript on the eve of the National Park Service Centennial was pure luck.
Yellowstone, the world's first national park, is the crown jewel of the National Park System. It provides a model for park management worldwide and offers great lessons. Here is a key one: Park creation and design incorporates political pressures. Government lands are inherently political lands. Despite problems inherent to and arising from political interference, the National Park System is a great achievement of the Progressive Era. Here is how it began.
During the post-Civil War period, from 1865 to 1910, America resembled a rapidly developing Third World nation. Corrupt big city machines and corporate cronyism marked our political economy. These maladies have re-emerged in modern forms. Governmental units have been captured and mobilized to transfer benefits, usually upward. Not even the national parks are immune from this pathology.
During the Progressive Era, plunder, pollution, and predation were common. Property rights to natural resources were neither well defined nor enforced. Timber seemed inexhaustible, and fish and wildlife were available for exploitation. Antelope, bison, and elk were nearly extinguished while predators including bear, bobcat, lion, and wolves carried bounties.
Fortunately, a conservation ethic for our natural resources was developing as an important force among America's elite. The creation of the Boone and Crockett Club and forestry schools at Cornell, Harvard, and Yale testify to major cultural changes during that period. These changes are important features of Progressive Era reforms.
For example, Boone and Crockett helped expand Yellowstone National Park and led the American Conservation movement. Boone and Crockett helped eliminate commercial market hunting and led the creation of the National Park Service, the US. Forest Service, and the National Wildlife Refuge system. This and allied clubs and organizations also developed funding mechanisms for conservation, always a complex and challenging goal. Here is a reason why.
Environmental policy formation and management are plagued by several confounding factors. Ecological issues usually have two characteristics that make good policy formation and management difficult; they are scientifically complex and carry heavy emotional baggage. This conjunction generates error and acrimony as policies are formulated and implemented.
Stoddard’s perspective helps understand the contemporary challenges to the Park Service mandate of protecting, preserving, and returning the parks to their “natural conditions – that which would occur in the absence of human dominance over the landscape” according to 2006 Park Service 2006 management policy.
One predictable and persistent problem of management is insulating Park scientists and upper managers from political pressures and bureaucratic ambitions. Here is a brief example.
Shorty after the famous Yellowstone Park fires of 1988 the Wall Street Journal requested George B. Hartzog, Park Service Director for nine years, and me to write companion columns for their editorial page. The Journal ran them side by side on November 23, 1988 with the heading "Take Politics Out of the National Parks". Our columns were separated by a graphic of the nation's Capital Building floating above a scene depicting Yellowstone.
Hartzog admonished Americans to "...stand firm to protect these resources from narrow, special interests". He lamented intrusive politics overriding science and stifling sound management of Yellowstone. My companion column observed that: "Political pressure that overrode science has led to years of reverberations felt through the entire ecosystem." What is important here is that we agreed on the goal even as we no doubt had different ways of achieving it. Hartzog wanted to protect his bureaucratic guardians from political interferences. To better accomplish this, I suggested we convert the parks into national public trusts.
In addition to constant political pressures from local and national interests, three known major dangers confront Yellowstone today: growing competition for federal funds, increased crowding by visitors, and controlling the populations of large non-human animals, mainly bison. Two of these three threats, diminished political funding and crowding by people, arise outside the Park. Yellowstone's managers can anticipate and react but not control them. A fourth threat is that resulting from the unknowable dangers of climate change. If Manhattan or Miami are in danger of flooding, their claims on federal attention and funds will surely swamp appropriations for national park funding.
Funding for maintenance, safety, and infrastructure comes first in honoring Yellowstone's mandate. These key functions are at risk. Whereas much federal funding is locked in by legally required federal entitlements, congressional funding for the national parks is entirely discretionary.
Entitlement programs have strong political constituencies. Those of the Park Service are less powerful--although the recipients of Medicare and Social Security funds are eligible for a Golden Age Passport. This grants lifetime access to all national parks and monuments for a one-time charge of $10.00! Younger and likely less well off people may buy an Annual Pass for $80.00. Thus the Park Service has built a constituency of elderly potential supporters but has yet to mobilize them.
Yellowstone faces rapidly growing visitor demand for Park access. Annual visits averaged nearly three million from 2000 through 2010 and then exceeded four million in 2015. At the end of the 2015 visitor season Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk observed, “Last year’s visitation tested the capacity of Yellowstone National Park. We are looking at ways to reprioritize in order to protect resources, to provide additional ranger programs, and to keep facilities clean.”
Visitation rates increased further in early 2016. In the near future the Park Service may have to make some very difficult decisions to ration visitation. Unless carefully done the political fallout from restricting access will be substantial. Only the winners consider government allocations of valuable resources fair, equitable, or efficient.
In regard to large animals the ecologically destructive elk population dynamic of the late 1900s now looms for bison. And of course, the management of a growing bison population is highly contentious. The result is likely to be a replay of the elk controversy that plagued Yellowstone for decades.
Bison didn't live in the Yellowstone high country in large numbers until the late 1800s. In 1876 they were nearly extinct elsewhere and the Park provided refuge. Essentially, they are extremely large, tough, exotic animals. Without population control by human hunters or successful predators, bison numbers increase. Ultimately they degrade the productivity of their range and suffer winterkill and low caving numbers. Ecologically and ethically, this is a serious downward spiral.
Park Service is caught between the cultural-political force of "Don't kill the animals!" and the ecological reality of excessive numbers. This constrains management options. The agency then creates themes such as "natural regulation" to govern the system.
Shifting the task to nature, the key to "natural regulation", provides a justification for avoiding active management. Observers from outside the agency, some with excellent credentials, challenge the scientific justifications of the policy--and even the integrity of Park Service officials. Indeed, one of the most dramatic and disquieting of these was the publication of Alston Chase's book, Playing God in Yellowstone: The destruction of America's First National Park, in 1986.
Wolf reintroduction in 1995 addressed and greatly improved the elk population problem. Wolves reduced elk numbers by some 80%. There is no such simple, politically acceptable answer for bison. Any solution will require political shrewdness and creativity along with cooperation with outside agencies, private landowners, and NGOs.
Since we can't (yet) reintroduce the saber tooth tiger or dire wolf, both extinct for some 12,000 years, I can't think of a solution analogous to the wolf-elk population fix for the nearly 5,000 bison overgrazing the Park, especially the Lamar Valley. Management options are constrained by political forces and the ecologic ignorance of well-intended citizens.
Yet, things that can’t go on indefinitely will somehow stop. Given this, what are the best ways to arrest adverse consequences of funding shortages, high visitation numbers, and rising bison population growth? Ecological, political, and economic constraints on management cannot be pretended away. What arrangements will better enable sound ecological science to be buffered from political forces and bureaucratic ambitions? Let’s envision a new institutional arrangement that could address all three and in the process reform the Park Service.
A proposal for reform employs recent experience with land trusts and builds on my suggestion following the Yellowstone fires of 1988.
First, Park Service and outside scientists estimate the Park’s carrying capacity for bison and initiate an extended public education program on the multiple and ever growing problems of excessive bison numbers – just as they did with the reintroduction of wolves.
Next would be to enter into a cooperative agreement with, for example, the American Prairie Reserve. APR is a non-governmental public land trust. It could take the Park's excess bison and manage the resultant herd within their 3.5 million acres. This area is one and a half times the size of Yellowstone Park, is roughly a mile lower in elevation, and has far more and better grazing land.
APR range and wildlife scientists are better insulated from political pressures than those in a governmental agency. The APR could market excess bison along with their cattle via an expanded Wild Sky Beef program. In the words of APR, Wild Sky Beef "supports wildlife-friendly ranching by returning a portion of its profits to participating ranchers raising cattle to a set of specific conservation-oriented practices. By creating incentives for ranchers to view wildlife as an asset we plan to blur the boundaries of the Reserve with surrounding agricultural lands."
Being a non-profit 501 (c-3) trust with open books, APR has freedom to innovate. Park leaders and their colleagues can only envy its opportunities to innovate and succeed.Here is the American Prairie Reserve’s position on bison told to me by Sean Gerrity, the founder and president of the American Prairie Reserve:
“We are of course very interested in taking Yellowstone bison (provided they are tested with SNPS (Single Nucleotide Polymorphism testing) technology and certified disease free, which is not hard to do) and incorporating them on the APR. Happy to take them anytime and let the public enjoy them as they are doing with the bison roaming the prairie out there now.”
If bison are successfully transplanted, then an obvious question will arise: Where else could this happen? What other areas could provide habitat and good management for the Yellowstone bison? Environmental entrepreneurs inside and outside of governments will search for them, some in unlikely places. People who want to see large herds of bison in their native habitat will visit APR and spend money and time locally. Visitor revenues and contributions will help pay for infrastructure and operating costs.
Yellowstone National Park is a conservation experiment, one that evolved from management by the U.S. Army from just after its founding until 1918-19. This experiment is ongoing and subject to ecological, political, and economic reality checks. The bison population problem could lead Americans toward policy options that will help protect the world's first national park by expanding the model elsewhere
Policy makers can learn from earlier, highly contentious issues of feeding bears, exterminating wolves, and extinguishing fires. Finding a solution to excess bison and other problems will require wise, courageous, and creative Park Service managers. A successful outcome will surely involve the kind of environmental entrepreneurship being demonstrated on the American Prairie Reserve and elsewhere throughout the world. Not only can such organizations manage animal dynamics, they also have more flexibility to generate revenue and handle human visitor pressures than do agencies constrained by political forces.
The creation of the National Park System in 1916 is surely one of America’s best ideas. It is a stellar example of institutional entrepreneurship that created legal and political arrangements to achieve social goals. Nearly a century later, environmental entrepreneurs from Bozeman, Montana created the American Prairie Reserve. As Yellowstone became a model for parks worldwide, organizations such as APR may play similar roles in the 21st century.