Greater Yellowstone citizenship

by Rocky Barker

Greater Yellowstone is one magnificent address. It doesn't matter if you live in Wyoming, Montana or Idaho,this precious place of national and world significance is inyour back yard. Much of the 28,000 square miles known as thegreater Yellowstone ecosystem is in federal ownership. All of itis a national treasure. But the primary responsibility forprotecting it lies with the people in the three states whosurround it. We are the citizens of greater Yellowstone.

We are the people who have chosen to live in this rugged landand in a sense, as Missoula, Mont. Mayor Dan Kemmis says, it haschosen us. Just like the grizzly bear, bison, and cutthroattrout, we are tied to the habitat which best meets our needs.

``We rarely make the connection between people and the land aswe do naturally with ecosystems and other life forms,'' Kemmis says. ``I think the most meaningful politics are those thathappen when people realize they also have been claimed andshaped by a particular region.'' We are lucky to have been claimed by Greater Yellowstone. Theregion surrounding Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parksincludes the largest geothermal basin in the world, with 300geysers and 10,000 other geothermal features. It's elk herds arethe largest on earth.

The natural system on which it's life depends remains virtuallyintact. It hosts the full complement of wildlife and plants thatexisted when white men settled in the region little more than150 years.

It serves as the headwaters for three of the West's mostimportant river systems, the Yellowstone, Snake and the Green.The wild character and strict regulation provided in more than 5million acres of the region protects water quality for nearly aquarter of the continent that depends in part on the activitiesin this pristine area.

For the past 12,000 years Greater Yellowstone also has been thehome to humans, from ancient Indian cultures to modern man. Formost of history man and nature have lived in balance.

Only in the last 100 years have activities taken place thatthreaten the integrity of the natural systems that sustain lifein this rich area.

Greater Yellowstone, as always is changing.

Many of the changes are natural, such as the the feeding habitsof large mammals and the process of forest succession frompioneer to climax plant species.Some are the result of man, clearcutting of the region'sforests, damming of its rivers, alterations of plant communtiesby agriculture and pollution. Not all of these are inherentlydestructive, but too much of any of these manipulationsthreatens the life-support system on which we all depend.

Some change comes quickly, such as the great fires of 1988 andthe 1959 earthquake that formed Quake Lake near WestYellowstone. Other times changes comes slowly, such as thegeological changes of the landscape and the evolution of itsspecies.

The concept of a Greater Yellowstone also is changing. Onceviewed by many as a threat, the scientific term greaterYellowstone ecosystem, now is accepted at the highest levels ofgovernment. It is recognized as a place where hydrographic,geologic, biologic, including human, systems interact.

Almost no one argues the signficance and magnificence ofGreater Yellowstone. Determining how, where and to what extenthuman activities can take place in in this region withoutdestroying it is controversial.

Balancing the needs of the humans who live around the parkswith the natural limits of the ecosystem is not easy. And as thenumbers of people increases steadily it becomes harder.

Moreover, the lifestyles and occupations of the people in theregion are closely tied to the land. The cultural values thatunderlie natural resource industries such as ranching also mustbe preserved.

Logging, mining and ranching are already are going throughtransitions imposed as much by market conditions as limitsderived from the land. Slow growth rates, heavy cutting tosalvage bug-killed timber and environmental concerns has reduced lumber jobs in the region. Skyrocketingland values, low livestock prices and fish and wildlife issuesare forcing ranchers to sell off their places. Water quality andreclamation regulations are making mining more expensive.

Poor environmental practices in all of these areas and thepress of population has fragmented fish and wildlife habitatpiece by piece throughout Greater Yellowstone. Environmentaldegradation hurts plants, animals, scenery and eventually thevalues that attract people to Greater Yellowstone.

But greater Yellowstone won't be protected simply by outsideforces. It must be the people in the region who through goodstewardship keep Greater Yellowstone whole and sustainable.

As Kemmis says:``If we looked around us at the other people whohave been selected by the country and recognize that even thoughwe would still find many differences separating us, we wouldalso begin to discover a greater capacity to solve some of thecommon problems that inhabiting this particular piece of countrycreates for us.''