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Can Yellowstone Survive?

by JOHN HOLT

After reading Teewinot: Climbing and Contemplating the Teton Range, I was looking forward to taking on Jack Turner’s latest effort – Travels in the Greater Yellowstone. Unfortunately this book was a letdown. Where Teewinot  was filled with energy and unique observation obviously gleaned from years of often tough personal experience,  Travels in the Greater Yellowstone came across as flat, one dimensional and often lifeless.

The book focuses on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem that is comprised of two national parks, portions of six national forests and eleven wilderness areas and is perhaps the national park with the highest name recognition. This is a natural system that is under tremendous pressure from a variety of threats including mineral exploration, timber, water usage, housing developments and tourism. Turner’s book attempts to deal with all of this with mixed results.

About four chapters into the book I was overcome by the feeling that I’d read all of this in similar form in many different magazines often several times before. Page after page proved to be a relentless litany of environmental problems that are doing in or about to finish off this ecosystem. Only minor hope for solutions to all of these catastrophes are offered.

Hell, it’s no big secret that what’s left of good country is under seize and is probably history, and that this enormous loss could be a game ender as far as life on earth is concerned, the Yellowstone region being no exception. But after 100 pages of Turner’s book I felt like practicing sailor dives from the roof of my house or maybe grabbing one of my rifles, walking down to the Yellowstone and start taking pot shots at out-of-state anglers as they drifted by in McKenzie driftboats. I felt like I was reading a sequel to Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

Some examples of this are:

“The sound of the highway is lost to the wind. The same cannot be said of the noise from airplanes. Beneath us lies the most conspicuous artifact in Jackson Hole, the Jackson Hole Airport, infamous for being the only airport in the nation located entirely in a national park. More than sixty thousand planes land in Grand Teton Park every year, at least seven thousand of them private jets.” Chapter 1 – The View From Blacktail Butte.

“The reasons for killing seem endless as the killings. Outside of the park, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service – the agency charged with reintroducing the wolf to the Northern Rockies – is killing wolves. In Rocky Mountain National Park, the park service has hired professional hunters to kill elk, at night, with silencers and night-scoped equipped riffles. The State of Oregon recently decided to kill 40 percent of its cougars.” Chapter 3 – Modern Wolves.

“Westslope cutthroat are the most seriously imperiled trout in Greater Yellowstone, occupying – it is worth repeating – less than 2.5 percent of their historical habitat…finding genetically pure westslope cutthroats in Greater Yellowstone is not a simple matter. After talking to guides and fisheries biologists I realized that most of the westslope cutts I had caught in Greater Yellowstone were in fact populations of westslope/rainbow hybrids.” Chapter 9 – Chasing Cutts.

And on and on. I’ve never been accused of being a wildly optimistic writer, but one thing I finally learned is to at least leave the poor bastards that plunk $25.95 of their often hard-earned money with a smile or even a laugh. Nonstop doom and gloom is not productive. If I want that I’ll watch the talking heads on TV blather away about the pros and cons of the three major and mediocre individuals (and I don’t mean the definition “having marked individuality”) running for president in this country.

Turner has spent his life in the wild and is the president of Exum Mountain Guides and School of American Mountaineering in Grand Teton National Park. He’s led treks in Bhutan, China, India, Pakistan, Peru and Tibet. He is a Visiting Scholar at the University of Utah. He lives in Grand Teton National Park.

A friend of mine once said “Beware of people who refer to wildlife as critters.” To some extent I agree and I have never before heard of trout referred to as “critters” until I read this book – “…plus remnant populations of Colorado cutthroat trout, a gorgeous critter that has lost 95 percent of its habitat.” Still more positive information.

Another negative is a lack of solid proof reading – not Turner’s fault, but something that disrupts reading.

Finally, I disagree with Turner’s way of looking at country. He quotes John Stilgoe from Shallow Water Dictionary: A Grounding in Estuary English, “Landscape –  or seascape – that lacks vocabulary cannot be seen, cannot be accurately, usefully visited.” Turner agrees and adds “Without vocabulary the world is like a gestalt drawing we see and do not see until – there it is! – the old woman’s face appears, the duck, the rabbit.”

I take exception to this, which may appear odd and to some extent hypocritical, but such is life. Recently I came upon something said nine centuries ago by Yuan-Wu that said “People are often hindered by words, that’s why they don’t understand.”

I’m with Yuan-Wu on this one.

JOHN HOLT lives in Montana. His book, Yellowstone Drift: Floating the Past in Real Time will be published by AK Press / CounterPunch Books next winter. He can be reached at hunted@wispwest.net.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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