People in Bozeman, Montana are remarkably fortunate to have Yellowstone Park in our back yard. We can reach a Park entrance in any season, usually in less than two hours. We owe a great deal to the far-sighted conservationists of the late 1800s. Given certain impending changes and challenges, how might we preserve Yellowstone's values and those of other parks and wild lands? It will be helpful to examine historical experiments with Yellowstone.
The Conservation Movement of the late 1800s to 1920 worked to preserve and protect America's wildlife, wild lands, and other natural resources. Leaders of that movement included nature writer John Burroughs, ethnographer George Bird Grinnell, geologist F. V. Hayden, ecologist George Perkins Marsh, and the more well known John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, John Wesley Powell, and T.R. Roosevelt.
Teddy Roosevelt founded the Boone and Crockett Club in 1887. It was the leading conservation organization of its era. Membership was a who’s who of patrician sportsmen-conservationists, e.g., G. B. Grinnell, Yellowstone Park geologist Arnold Hague, and Gifford Pinchot. Boone and Crockett worked for the expansion and protection of Yellowstone Park and led the creation of our National Wildlife Refuge system in 1903. They promoted conservation as an organizing principle of public policy.
John Lawson Stoddard was a contemporary of these men, living from 1850 to 1931. He graduated from of Williams College and studied at Yale Divinity School for two years. Proud of descending from Mayflower settlers, he was a social equal of the conservation pioneers.
Stoddard began traveling around the world in 1874. His books brought the aristocratic Grand Tour of the East Coast elite to popular audiences by the late 1890s. His photographs of foreign and distant places and peoples reached millions of Americans.
His works were published in ten volumes as the Stoddard Lectures from 1898 to 1907. They cover his world travel experiences through natural history, photographs, and art. He wrote about Yellowstone Park in Volume Ten (All of Stoddard's quotes/page numbers that follow are from his volume 10.) He strongly approved of the law establishing Yellowstone that begins: An Act to set apart a certain Tract of Land lying near the Head-waters of the Yellowstone River as a public Park, and continues...
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the tract of land in the Territories of Montana and Wyoming, lying near the head-waters of the Yellowstone river, ...is hereby reserved and withdrawn from settlement, occupancy, or sale under the laws of the United States, and dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people...
Stoddard's 94 page description included photos of Yellowstone in the 1890s. His religious perspective is obvious: "On certain portions of our globe Almighty God has set a special imprint of divinity." He included Yellowstone as one of these few portions. He said it deserved (and I strongly believe it still deserves) special protection. He favored the U. S. Army as the protector and service provider.
Stoddard wrote passionately about the marvels of Yellowstone. Here his observations on the Liberty Cap formation at Mammoth.
...the hand of Time has stilled its passionate pulsations, and lain upon its stony lips the seal of silence." Another treasure is the Grand Cañon of the Yellowstone. "It is as if Almighty God had kept for His own use one part of creation that man might merely graze upon it, worship, and retire. (p. 223)
Stoddard knew the threats of destructive looting and poaching were likely to occur in a remote, unmanaged commons filled with rare and beautiful animals and unique geological features. He understood that poor people on the frontier are often grasping by necessity while the wealthy may opportunistically raid the public weal. By today's standards America was a poor third world nation. (In 1890 the U. S. population was 63,000,000 and the average weekly wage was well under $20.00. Life expectancy for while females was 45 years, males 42 years.)
In short, Stoddard was philosophically and culturally aligned with the patrician conservationists of his time. In their view, people with elite sensitivities would guide professional experts who manage the Park. This, he agreed, was a job for the U. S. Army. At that time in those conditions, it is hard to imagine better counsel. In sum, the experiment of Army running the Park worked well. As Stoddard said,
"No one who has visited the National Park ever doubts the necessity of having soldiers there....Soldiers patrol the Park continually to see that all the camp-fires have been extinguished. (When a forest fire erupts, the soldiers put it out with dispatch.) (p.216)
Another important labor of the United States soldiers is to preserve the game within the Park.....A buffalo head which could formerly have been bought for a mere trifle, commands today a price of five hundred dollars. [That is nearly $13,000 in today's dollars.] Hence daring poachers sometimes run the risk of entering the Park in winter and destroying them....Now to protect the few remaining buffaloes , as well as other animals, our troops patrol the Park even in winter." (p.218)
The military was also responsible for the Park's road system. From 1883 to 1918 the U.S. Army's Corps of Engineers built and maintained Yellowstone's roads and bridges. When they left the park in 1918, the Corps had constructed over 400 miles of roads built to uniform specifications. They also built a hydroelectric plant, a water system, streetlights, and concrete sidewalks at Mammoth.
Alas, Stoddard lamented, the government is far too stingy. "Surely the honor of our government demands that this unique museum of marvels be the pride and glory of the nation with highways equal to any in the world." The funding problem for Yellowstone and other parks is evident today - and with infrastructure needs going far beyond roads.
Institutional entrepreneurs arise in anticipation of these worsening budgetary problems. They explore all manner of creative arrangements, notably partnerships and user fees. We’ve had two earlier and largely successful experiments with managing Yellowstone, the Army until 1918 and the Progressive Era’s Park Service there after.
Now leaders in the park system expect increasing trouble funding the 400 units of the National Park system. New experiments are underway and there are reasons for prudent optimism. We have far better understanding of ecology and of political economy than we did a century ago. Also, Yellowstone is now extremely well known, highly prized, and its workings better understood.
These are ingredients for success in a changing, challenging environment. It will take institutional entrepreneurs to arrange these positive features to preserve Yellowstone’s qualities and those of other parks and wildlands.
The 100 Year Park Service Experiment
Congress created the U. S. Park Service in 1916 and it took over Yellowstone's management in 1918. Since then we have enjoyed, or at least experienced, a century of experimentation with political funding of Progressive Era management.
Yellowstone’s successes include successful reintroduction of the wolf in 1995 and rejuvenation of the grizzly population. The latter has more than doubled after a population crash in the 1970s. The grizzly’s distribution has increased 200 percent since 1981 and they are pushing out in all directions. While the Park Service has made mistakes, most have been corrected or are reversible. Compared to likely alternatives, America has surely benefited from the experiment.
“As far as we can tell, with the return of the gray wolf the region called greater Yellowstone has reclaimed its full complement of historic mammals; indeed, the area is now commonly described as the largest generally intact ecosystem in the temperate world. This project says a lot about the value Americans place on the creatures of the wild, even those that can be troublesome on occasion. For that matter the entire restoration was guided by directives contained in the Endangered Species Act – a law created to ground a decades-old cornerstone of science that says the healthiest, most stable nature systems tend to be those with high levels of biodiversity. It was specifically the flowering of that knowledge that led the National Park Service – the same agency that killed the last wolf in Yellowstone in 1926 – to commit seventy years later to an extraordinary effort to bring them back. Admittedly, some consider the act of returning the very animal we spent millions of dollars eradicating as a sign of madness. But to others, including many scientists, this has been a move filled with hope – a clear indication that we’ve finally started to move beyond a longstanding body of myth that treated all predators as if they were God’s great mistake. To those who value ecological health, the wolf has become a powerful touchstone to the wisdom of managing the last pieces of wild America with a generous commitment to wholeness.” (Decade of the Wolf: Returning the Wild to Yellowstone, Douglas W. Smith and Gary Ferguson, Lion’s Press, 2005)
Now new threats are emerging--and I'm not including climate change or invasive species. Consider the political economy of the National Park System. Under existing institutions the future looks grim. A key reason is simply that discretionary spending by the federal government is trending downward.
Discretionary spending is one of two categories in the federal budget. Mandatory spending, about 60% of the federal budget and growing, is the other. All Park Service funding is discretionary.
In contrast, mandatory spending, which includes servicing the national debt, is automatic. The Congressional Budget Office projects the interest on the national debt to more than double from 2015 to 2020, from $251 billion to $556 billion. Mandatory government spending is determined by formulas, many set years ago. Social Security, Medicare and, agricultural subsidies have strong constituencies and so Congress responds each year to political pressures. Adjusting for inflation, the National Park Service’s operating budget has dropped twenty percent since 1990 and national parks are operating with about two-thirds of what they claim is required to meet their mandate. The Park Service deficit is about $600 million a year.
The GAO has documented about $11 billion in backlogged maintenance and neglected infrastructure throughout the system. Yet the number of units in the system keeps increasing as a result of external political pressures from Congressional delegations and conservationists. There are over 400 units in the system, 59 of them national parks. Although the maintenance backlog for existing units continues to increase, fifteen have been added since 2010. Barely three months beyond the euphoria raised by Ken Burns’ 2010 documentary on the national parks (America’s Best Idea), President Obama moved to freeze funding levels of the National Park Service. Current appropriations are simply not enough to run the parks nor will it whittle away at the agency’s maintenance backlog, which, Park Service Director John Jarvis recently told congressional committees, is nearing $11 billion.
It’s not only the federal government that has these budgetary constraints, nearly every state has similar problems. For example, the caretakers of Lincoln’s tomb face serious financial trouble on the 150th anniversary of his death. Caretakers of Abraham Lincoln’s tomb faced an unflattering critique in National Geographic magazine as looming budget cuts threaten the historic site - - on the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s assassination. The popular tourist site was criticized in National Geographic as having all the historical character of an “office lobby”.
Given the obvious and growing squeeze, new arrangements must be created to honor the Park Service mission:
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.
Governments face tighter budgets constraints, especially retirement expenses at state and local levels. When they kick in, the phrase, “cooperates with partners” will be key to the future of America’s parks and wildlands.
When John Stoddard wrote about Yellowstone Park in the 1890s he believed the U. S. Army was the appropriate caretaker. He wrote, “No one who has visited the National Park ever doubts the necessity of having soldiers there....” He was probably correct at that time. Then, in 1916 the Progressives created the Park Service with the goal of scientific management. That experiment has generally worked well. However, as the political economy environment changes, the Park Service must adapt to honor its mandate.
If we agree national parks are among America’s best concrete ideas, the challenge is to preserve the values that justified their creation. Some creative conservationists are exploring options for managing parks and wild lands in this changing environment. A key to this success is insulating the parks from political pressures and supplementing or replacing federal funding. This implies increased cooperation with a variety of public nongovernmental organizations.
Americans excel at creating such organizations through a variety of foundation and fiduciary trust arrangements. As we approach the 100th anniversary of the Park Service, people are exploring new models for funding and stewarding the lands and resources it manages. On October 31 of 2014 Dan Wenk took a temporary leave as Superintendent of Yellowstone to become interim head of the National Park Foundation in order to help search for a new president and CEO for the Foundation. He later returned to his position as Superintendent of Yellowstone National Park. Closer to home, the Bozeman based Yellowstone Park Foundation is planning a major capital campaign, ten of millions of dollars stating asking supporters to help sustain the Park and exercise “...the same visionary action that created the Yellowstone we love today, [with] your support we can preserve an extraordinary Yellowstone that lasts forever.”
Institutional entrepreneurs envision new arrangements for cooperating toward a shared purpose. They are undertaking this challenge for our parks and wild lands. Their success is our hope for preserving unimpaired the natural and cultural resources of the national parks. As Alexis de Tocqueville noted in 1840:
“In the United States, as soon as several inhabitants have taken an opinion or an idea they wish to promote in society, they seek each other out and unite together once they have made contact. From that moment, they are no longer isolated but have become a power seen from afar whose activities serve as an example and whose words are heeded”.
Yellowstone is unlikely to soon become a legally independent fiduciary trust like George Washington’s Mount Vernon. It is a foundation that has not accepted any government funding. Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello likewise is a private, nonprofit 501(c)3 corporation, that “...receives no ongoing federal, state, or local funding in support of its dual mission of preservation and education.”
The political mischief of October 1 through 16 of 2013 caused a shutdown of most routine federal activities including the national parks. Mount Vernon and Monticello, being independent trusts, remained open. (Nearby parking lots on federal land were closed by federal law enforcement.)
These events indicate some of the dangers inherent to government ownership, management, and control. There will surely be no rapid and radical change in the national parks. However, as the logic of our costly political capitalism plays out, I predict increasing experimentation with fiduciary trusts to manage our parks. They provide one way to protect the values justifying their creation.