Ask any person in America about their impressions of the American west and many will point to our national parks and public open spaces – the products of forward thinking and seemingly unlimited wild lands. In polls over several decades, support for national parks is unwavering. Visitation continues to increase especially in the natural parks like Yosemite, Acadia, and Yellowstone. The writer Wallace Stegner saw “geographies of hope” in our wild places and public lands. He wrote that “visiting them was good for us as vacation from our insane lives”. More broadly, he called national parks "the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst."

The Best Idea. Various people are credited with the statement that the national parks are the best idea America ever had. In his stellar PBS series The National Parks: America's Best Idea, Ken Burns attributes the quote to Wallace Stegner. Others - Franklin and Theodore Roosevelt, John Kennedy, Steward Udall, virtually every director the National Park Service, and others have invoked the American ideal of national parks as reflecting the best of American values. The earliest source of the quote (and acknowledged by Stegner) is from Lord James Bryce, the British ambassador to America in 1912. However, a rereading of his speech to the American Civic Association, "National Parks: The Need of the Future" reveals that he never used the term "best idea". The source of the quote, according to Canadian park historian Adrian Hawkins, is still somewhat of a mystery. In any case, it has now entered our mythology and is most often attributed to Stegner as a uniquely American idea.

Management of our public lands is a continual process of weighing tradeoffs. Subject to political whims, we vacillate on what we want them to produce and how we should go about doing so. For example, in 1872 Congress passed both the visionary Yellowstone Park Protection Act and, the General Mining Act. The first set aside public land from development in favor of conservation, the other codified the exploration and ownership for public resources in favor of economic development. Originally, our public forest reserves were managed to produce wood products and protect watersheds. Conservationists pushed back when the director of the U.S. Forest Service Gifford Pinchot supported building a dam in the Hetch Hetchy valley near Yosemite. Water would be diverted to the San Francisco Bay area to help spur the urban economy. John Muir, the Scottish-born mountaineer and founder of the Sierra Club, saw things a little differently. He considered the pristine valley as another example of America’s cathedrals and opposed any development. The story is a classic in environmental studies programs.

Conservation vs. Preservation. One of the best sources of the story that recounts the history of the Pinchot/Muir/Roosevelt conflict over conservation vs. preservation is found in the first half of The Big Burn: Teddy Roosevelt and the Fire that Saved America by Timothy Egan. The fallout of Pinchot's vision has implications. In the second half of the book he chronicles the causes and consequences of the largest wildfire in American history in August 1910. In two days it burned an area more than three million acres, burned five towns to the ground, and killed nearly one hundred people. Remnants can still be seen in the black stumps of giant cedar trees still standing in the Northern Idaho panhandle. Pinchot's emphasis on utilitarianism of natural resources is directly linked to the legacy of continued fire control up through the last part of the 20th century.

Similar debates have pervaded public land management ever since. Should we continue to subsidize cattle grazing on public land or submit it to market forces, should we expand our system of wilderness areas and if so, what sorts of recreation is appropriate, should the federal government divest itself of public lands to the states? In recent decades public managers have shifted on a variety of positions in favor of the environment. They have moved from a default on predator eradication to predator conservation and their role in wildlife management. They have in some states changed the definition the legitimate use of public water from irrigation or power generation to leaving it in the stream for fishery preservation. After the fires of 1910 public lands managers sought to extinguish every forest fire they could, today we often let wildfire burn itself out without our intervention. After almost 150 years we are still debating questions of how to manage our public lands. Through all these changes (and more) public lands managers face political and economic challenges, shifts in cultural norms, and changes to scientific knowledge as they oversee nearly 30% of the land mass of the United States.

The federal government currently owns roughly 635-640 million acres, 28% of the 2.27 billion acres of land that make up the United States. Most of it is west of the 100th meridian. Four agencies administer 609 million acres of this land: the Forest Service (USFS) (193 million acres) in the Department of Agriculture, the National Park Service (NPS) (80 million acres) and the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) (248 million acres), and Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) (89 million acres), all in the Department of the Interior (DOI). Most of these lands are in the West and Alaska. In addition, the Department of Defense administers 19 million acres in military bases and training ranges. Numerous other agencies administer the remaining federal acreage and they all do so according to different management goals and administrative intent.

fed lands mapThe largest landowner in the United States is the American people through the federal government. Within the 48 contiguous states over 810,000 square miles of land is under federal management. About 90 percent of these lands are in the 11 western states. Some of the fastest growing counties in the western United States are those with significant amounts of high quality public lands. (Source: USGS)

The Greater Yellowstone region is a particularly interesting management problem because of the multiple legal jurisdictions that make up the region. This includes two national parks, seven national forests, twenty-two counties across three states, and multiple other assorted entities including a good deal of high value private land.

A Stark Boundary. In order to understand the complexity of multiple jurisdictions on the landscape consider the western boundary of Yellowstone and the Targhee National Forest. The Forest Service operates under a multiple use mandate is to produce timber for homes, protect watersheds, provide for recreation, control fires, and act as an economic base for rural communities. Only about 35% of Forest Service lands are available for timber harvest.


In the early 1970s, in the "Island Park" area of the Targhee, a massive salvage of lodge pole pine killed by the mountain pine bark beetle was begun. Forest planners predicted nearly 100% of the forest would die and that wildfire would sweep the area fueled by millions of board feet of dead timber. Over the next decade Idaho U.S. Senators put enormous pressure on the forest supervisors to keep cutting trees and provide local timber jobs until the forest was clear cut right up to the boundary with Yellowstone.


Just across a boundary the National Park Service will manage the same forestland for its preservation values. Where the Forest Service now spends upward of half their budget on fire suppression, the Park Service will often leave backcountry fires to burn naturally and they carry out no timber harvest. The photo below, taken in 1999 by Landsat 7, shows the stark contrast between the management of Forest Service and Park Service lands. To the west (left) of the delineation is the Targhee National Forest.


This area used to be good hunting but with the tree cover gone, the regional elk herd now lives in the Park where there is no hunting or timber harvest allowed. The boundary of Yellowstone Park is now physically marked by the many clearcuts and, seen as a straight line easily visible in satellite photographs.

Ironically, the North Fork fire, part of the 1988 complex of Yellowstone fires, started in one of the clearcuts that were meant to prevent the forest burning. A woodcutter dropped his cigarette in a pile of logging debris and the clearcuts burned as readily as the forest.


yellowstone l7 boundaryThe boundary between Yellowstone National Park and Targhee National Forest is clearly seen in this Landsat 7 image. On the right side of the vertical line running through the center of the image is mature forest located inside the park. The forest to the left of the boundary is dominated by numerous clearcuts, shown as light orange/pink amidst the darker, greener forest. (NASA landsat image)

The complex administrative construction is at the heart of the region’s intense political conflict over resource issues such as wildfire, timber harvest, recreation, and agriculture. These issues are grounded in deep cultural traditions, and resolution, if it comes at all, is usually short term and complicated. Those who study these particularly intractable issues call them “wicked problems”.

Wicked problems seem infinitely difficult to solve. Politics and emotion frequently overwhelm good sense and often, good science and logic. The term wicked problem is used in the context of public policies where a “purely scientific-rational approach cannot be applied because of the lack of a clear problem definition and differing perspectives of the affected public”. Wicked problems often lack optimal solutions or definitive answers because the conditions that define the problem change over time; they are forever issues. Cultural bias, on the part of both the park service and area residents especially in the context of environmental policy, plays a key role in our inability to find resolution.

Ten characteristics of a wicked problem:

  • There is no definitive formulation of the problem. The information needed to understand it depends upon one's idea for solving it. Formulating a wicked problem is the problem.
  • There is no stopping rule. Because solving the problem is identical to understanding it, there are no criteria for sufficient resolution and therefore completion.
  • Solutions are not true or false, but good or bad. Many parties may make (different) judgments about the goodness of the solution.
  • There is no test of the solution. Any solution generates waves of consequences that propagate and spawn new problems.
  • Every solution is "one-shot" -- there is no opportunity to learn by trial and error. Every solution leaves traces that cannot be undone. There is only another interation.
  • No enumerable set of solutions.There is only one "good" solution and that is defined by your position on the issue.
  • Every wicked problem is unique.There is nothing to learn from past solutions to similar situations.
  • Every wicked problem is a symptom of another problem. It resides within a failed system.
  • Wicked problems can be explained in many ways. There is no obvious cause.
  • The policy maker has no right to be wrong. He is responsible for the well-being of many; there is no such thing as hypotheses that can be proposed, tested, and refuted.

Read more

In most instances, social values and conservation science share the same goals for the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The public lands agencies are generally honest brokers in the policy of natural resource management for the region as they struggle to fulfill their agency mission. The source of policy conflict is not, as might be readily assumed, when we do not know enough science; the problem is that we often do not know enough about human values with respect to ecological science of complex ecosystems.  

Today, the “most wicked” problem in the Yellowstone region is the continued disagreement over the reintroduction and subsequent management of the grey wolf. Conservation of large apex predators like wolves and bears is problematic for a variety of reasons. Such animals are potentially dangerous to humans and are often perceived to threaten private property as they prey on livestock on both public and private lands. Predator management has been a political issue in the region for almost 100 years and, in the case of the wolf, continues with no end in sight.

beartooth editPublic lands represent cultural and economic values across the political spectrum. The management of these lands is increasingly contentious as positions harden and social values change. (Jerry Johnson photo)The administration of any public agency follows a well-understood script. Knowing how to help write the script is key to being an effective manager, or influencing them. It begins with framing a narrative or story line for the policy debate and ideally ends with a rational and measurable metric for success. Along the way, tactics are identified to help implement a process that fulfills agency and social goals. All institutions – agencies, media, advocacy groups, seek tactics to write their version of the script. The most successful administrators control the frame to their political advantage in order to help them win the support of decision-makers and clientele in the battle over resource allocation. For the National Park Service, shaping the script is problematic and it stems from the inception of the national park ideal.

The very nature and reason for our national parks sets up an institutionally generated wicked problem that makes park management particularly difficult. When Yellowstone was created there was no institution to actually manage the new park and few had a vision for doing so. Yellowstone was set up as “pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people in order to protect for all time this outstanding natural area.” By 1916 Congress has passed legislation creating Yosemite (California), Mt. Rainier (Washington), Crater Lake (Oregon), Mesa Verde (Colorado), Glacier (Montana), and Rocky Mountain (Colorado). They saw the need for an agency to administer the park system and after considerable political wrangling between Gifford Pinchot, director of the US Forest Service and members of Congress, the National Park Service Act passed in August 1916. The National Park System Organic Act, which created the Park Service, also set the purpose of the park system:


The service thus established shall promote and regulate the use of the Federal areas known as national parks, monuments, and reservations hereinafter specified by such means and measures as conform to the fundamental purpose of the said parks, monuments, and reservations, which purpose is to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations. (NPS)


The two prong mission of the Service – conserve the resource but provide for human activities, does not do much in the way of instructing park service employees how to implement the mission or how they will be evaluated as an agency. The mission statement is, even today, subject to interpretation by superintendents across the system. Dan Wenk, the current superintendent of Yellowstone is presented with the challenge of the mission statement on a daily basis:


Balancing the two prongs of the core mission has and still involves dynamic political acrobatics as private economic factions and public interests are balanced, sometimes on a day-to-day basis. The result is that a good deal of park policy has devolved to the superintendent level in the form of a document called the Superintendent Compendium. The compendium is the de facto management document for each unit of the Park Service and lists the features of park management subject to the discretionary authority of the superintendent. Consequently, interpretation of the NPS mission is a personification of a superintendent’s experiences, biases, and personal vision for the park.

Superintendent discretion results in different policies in similar parks. High-risk sports like climbing and mountaineering are actively managed in parks like Grand Teton and Yosemite but not in Yellowstone. In Acadia National Park (Maine) and Glacier Bay (Alaska) kayaking and canoeing is encouraged as a way to experience the wilderness nature of the parks. In Yellowstone, except on one short segment of the Lewis River, river running is forbidden. Defensive pepper spray for bears is illegal in Great Smoky Mountain National Park, home to over 1700 black bears, but encouraged in Glacier and Yellowstone where grizzlies present an uncommon but very real threat. Luckily, by the time they are appointed superintendent of Yellowstone, most park managers have several decades of experience and leadership within the Park Service and historically, superintendents have largely steered clear of partisan politics that would be detrimental to the park. Until the 1988 fires, the Park Service managed to so as well. Today however, the service often finds itself at the center of political controversy especially in the large parks located in the American west and again, it comes back to wolves.

Wicked problems share traits beyond their intractableness. In some cases we are not sure exactly what the problem is except that people disagree. Is the problem with wolves a predator problem or political one? Is it steeped in danger to life and limb, or western culture? What would a resolution look like? In the case of large predators, for some the solution would be to have virtually none on the landscape, for others they represent the embodiment of nature and accommodation must be made in order for them to thrive. Is compromise possible?

goodWolfBadWolfGood wolf, bad wolf, which is it? Policy is defined by the frame or description of the problem. Frames are constructured to advocate to get a problem on the agenda, to aid in the analysis of the problem, and to provide the language or rhetoric used to discuss the issue. In this case, a simple photo of a wolf frames the animal as a noble creature of nature vs. a potential killer. How you percieve the wolf plays an important role in how you define the issue. (USFWS photos)
Because of their heated political nature, most wicked problems are easily manipulated by images and “frames” around which rhetoric and emotion are constructed. This is especially true in issues of the environment where competing narratives represent aesthetic, economic, and political wins and losses. Dramatic photos of wolf kills represent to some a loss of property and that will always supercharge the debate. For others, a hunting wolf pack represents nature at her finest. Doug Smith, the chief biologist for Yellowstone National Park helps us understand the roots of “the wolf problem” when he looks to the history of predator management in the park and what wolf reintroduction means to many resident westerners: 

Cultural “stories” or narratives are often used as a form of proof by opposing sides. These stories sometimes take the form of “barstool biology” while others have basis in fact. That said, the reality is that scientists already understand the basic ecological dynamics of predator/prey relationships on large expanses of land. The issue is not the inherent complexity of the species and its habitat. The issue for managers, politicians and residents is that living with large predators on the landscape has costs both social and financial.

Land based apex predators are large, charismatic, dangerous, and rare. In most parts of the world, they are often the targets of government sanctioned extermination programs, illegal poaching for profit, and are frequently perceived to be a threat to private property. At best, many people find them difficult to live with. Hiking or hunting in grizzly country adds a dimension of excitement and trepidation when an encounter is potentially fatal. For many however, that sense of the unknown is why they visit wild places in the first place.

Others find them intolerable. Raising livestock in the presence of wolves and bears requires time and vigilance. The reason is that humans, especially those who make a living off the land, share habitat with creatures that can, and do, kill and maim private property. They force us to live differently simply because they exist. Area residents incur the costs of living with such neighbors each and every day and, even though the effects may be small, they add up over time. No matter the level of support one has for these large animals, one must admit they demand our attention in order to coexist peacefully.

The other reason we need predators is to ensure the health of the environment in which we live. Ecosystem health is well understood to be both bottom up – soil nutrients, grasses, and plants feed grazers who feed predators and, top down – predators in turn influence grazer behavior and so influence plant growth, etc. What was missing in Yellowstone up until the 1970s was the top down role of apex predators like bears and wolves and as a result, some think the system was overpopulated and overgrazed.

4.3 gbear swanlake 960Grizzly bear near Swan Lake, YNP (YNP photo)

Both grizzly bears and grey wolves, along with other threatened and endangered species are managed by a complex bureaucratic structure that lend to their wicked nature. Near the top of the administrative food chain is the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) – part of the Department of the Interior and administrator of the Endangered Species Act (ESA). The ESA was signed into law by President Nixon in 1973. The purpose of the Act was to “protect and recover imperiled species and the ecosystems upon which they depend”. The ESA makes provision for two protective classifications: threatened and endangered. A threatened species is one that is “likely to become endangered within the foreseeable future throughout all or a significant portion of its range." The Act defines "endangered” as "any species which is in danger of extinction throughout all or a significant portion of its range." Within the provisions of the Act, threatened status provides for slightly more flexibility and agency discretion than endangered status.

eagleThe recovery of the American Bald Eagle under the Endangered Species Act began over forty years ago. In 1963 there were only 487 nesting pairs remaining. Today, over 10,000 nesting pairs live in the lower 48 states. (USFWS photo)Each species listed for protection under the ESA is subject to a recovery plan that describes the steps needed to restore a species to ecological health. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologists write and implement these plans with the assistance of species experts, other land management agencies, NGOs, and researchers. In the case of both the grizzly and the wolf, it was determined that Yellowstone National Park was so crucial to the recovery plan that the National Park Service would share the lead role with the USFWS. Central to ESA protections is the identification and preservation of critical habitat essential for the long-term survival of the listed species. Once critical habitat is identified, a plan is designed to recover the population. Recovery plans may include collaboration with private landowners, trans locating populations to formerly occupied habitat, captive breeding programs, and land acquisition for use as habitat. All have been used with success to both delist species and to prevent extinction.

The Act allows for some discretion for management of listed species. Under section 4(d), threatened (not endangered) species may be managed under restrictions for Distinct Population Segments in order to reduce conflicts between people and the protections; a 4(d) rule would be used in a situation where social conflicts would adversely affect recovery. Central to the recovery of listed species is the concept of “take” – harming or killing a listed species. Under section 9, a take permit can be issued to exempt private landowners to kill a member of a listed species on private property. In the case of wolves in Minnesota and Yellowstone that prey on domestic animals, the 4(d) rule was applied to avoid large numbers of wolves being killed by private citizens who might otherwise take wolf control into their own hands.

Section 10(j) rules allow for designation of an Experimental Nonessential Population. In this case, an experimental population is geographically isolated from other existing populations of the species - as Yellowstone wolves are from Alaskan wolves. Members of the experimental population are considered to be threatened under the ESA but often have special regulations written for them under section 4(d). If the experimental population is determined to be "nonessential" to the survival of the species, it is treated like a species that is proposed for listing but is not given the full protections of the ESA. Conservation efforts of the two apex predators in Yellowstone – the Yellowstone grizzly bear and the grey wolf, are case studies in the efficacy of the ESA and how protection efforts are influenced by the variables that define the nature of wicked problems.

Resolution of the so-called “wolf problem” is in the future but, the recovery of the Yellowstone Grizzly bear is a model that gives some hope for progress.

Next Chapter