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Yellowstone: the Vision Thing

This is an excerpt from JEFFREY ST. CLAIR’s new environmental history of the American West, Born Under a Bad Sky, now available from AK Press / CounterPunch Books.

Yellowstone.  The word itself rings with wildness.  America’s first and largest park.  Home to grizzly and bison, bubbling mudpots and steaming geyser basins.  But, in fact, the high plateaus and mountains of Yellowstone Park are only a central core of a much large ecosystem.  An ecosystem that spills over into six national forests in three different regions, Grand Teton National Park, the Rockefeller Parkway, and two federal wildlife refuges.  The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem also includes hundreds of thousands of acres of state lands, private and Indian lands, and lands managed by the BLM.

The management implications of this landownership pattern are complex, convoluted, and intensely controversial.  For example bison, which carry brucillosis, a disease that sometimes causes abortions in domestic cattle, often stray out of the park onto private rangelands and grazing allotments on national forest lands.  Annual bison hunts at the park boundaries designed to cull the bison herds and stop the spread of the disease have outraged animal rights activists and some environmentalists.  Conversely, many ranchers have intensely opposed efforts to reintroduce the gray wolf to Yellowstone, because they fear the wolves will migrate out of the park and prey on sheep and cattle.

Geothermal energy developments outside the park boundaries, like those at the Church Universal and Triumphant ranch in Montana, may threaten Yellowstone’s world-famous geyser basins and other thermal features.  Clearcutting, roadbuilding, and oil and gas development on national forest lands surrounding the park have contributed to the decline in grizzly bear populations.

Forest fires sweep across all boundaries.  Indeed some of the blame for the intensity of the 1987 Yellowstone fires has been leveled at the Forest Service’s aggressive fire suppression strategy.  Others, of course, pointed fingers at the Park Service’s let-burn philosophy.  While the fires may have been good for the ecosystem, they certainly blackened the reputations of both agencies.

Commercial developments in the parks—like the Fishing Bridge complex—remain in place in prime grizzly habitat despite agreements to remove them.  Conservationists charge that Fishing Bridge and other questionable developments, such as the airport runway extension at Grand Teton Park (the only national park with its own airport), continue to proliferate throughout the region as a result of direct political interference in the management of the parks and adjacent forests.

The image of Yellowstone as wilderness or ecosystem it seems is more of an American myth than a reality.  In fact, Yellowstone is a political landscape in which ecological forces are warped and bent to serve a variety of often conflicting bureaucratic, political and economic demands.  To make matters worse, or at least more convoluted, the land itself, the 12 million acres known as Greater Yellowstone, is managed by numerous different entities with often radically different objectives—the diversity of the ecosystem is rivaled only by the diversity of its managers.

 

The Coordinating Committee

As a result of these and other conflicts, in the early 1960’s, the Park Service and Forest Service formed the Greater Yellowstone Coordinating Committee, a task force with representatives from both agencies, each of the states, the BLM, and Fish and Wildlife Service.  The GYCC was designed to provide a working relationship for the “integrated” management of the Greater Yellowstone area.

For decades, however, the GYCC was as dormant as the Yellowstone caldera.  The agencies communicated only when they had too, usually when their were problems with grizzly bears or when politicians, like Senator Alan Simpson (R-WY), wanted park roads opened to log trucks hauling timber off national forest lands.

Two events worked to raise the profile of Greater Yellowstone.  First, the forest plans for the national forest in Greater Yellowstone started to emerge in the early and mid-1980’s.  Most scheduled increased logging and roadbuilding near park borders and full-scale oil and gas develop of the Overthrust Belt.

Second, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition emerged as one of the first and most effective of the new crop of regional grassroots organizations.  Greater Yellowstone Coalition began to aggressively advance the idea that the ecological health of America’s oldest national park depended on the eight million acres of surrounding lands were managed.

Congress held hearings on Greater Yellowstone in 1985.  The Congressional Research Service (CRS) and the House Subcommittee on Public Lands and National Parks and Recreation, severely criticized the Park Service and Forest Service for the lack of coordinated planning and information on the Greater Yellowstone Area.  The CRS report said that developments on Forest Service lands were threatening “the values of the entire Yellowstone area.”

As a result of the hearings, the Greater Yellowstone Coordinating Committee began to compile the various management plans and objectives of each forest and park.

The GYCC released a 240 page report in 1987 entitled An Aggregation of National Park and Forest Service Management Plans which provided an overview of the often divergent management directions of the various forests and parks and called for a more formalized relationship between the Greater Yellowstone forests and parks.  The report also suggested that an interagency document was needed that would describe a future “vision” for the Greater Yellowstone area and how that vision could be achieved through “coordinated management goals.”

 

Initial Visions

In 1988, the Greater Yellowstone Coordinating Committee, which was co-chaired by Lorraine Mintzmayer, regional director of the National Park Service for the Rocky Mountain Region and Gary Carghill, regional forester for the Forest Service’s Rocky Mountain Region, began work on what was to become known as the Yellowstone Vision Statement.

“The Yellowstone vision document was not simply to be a regional plan or decision document—it was intended to be a study of the conditions of the areas involved and a formalization of coordinated, guiding principles,” Mintzmeyer said.  “It was to be a model for interagency cooperation in this area and a model for other areas, well into the next century.”

When the seventy page draft report was released in August 1990, it was hailed by the agencies and some environmentalists as the first ecosystem approach to public land management in the country.  The Vision Statement provided three overriding goals for the management of the Greater Yellowstone Area:

Conserve a sense of naturalness and maintain ecosystem integrity throughout Greater Yellowstone;  Encourage opportunities that are biologically and economically sustainable; Improve coordination and inter-agency cooperation in Greater Yellowstone.

The Vision statement subdivided these goals into some fairly specific objectives.  For example, the goal to conserve a “sense of naturalness” throughout the area included mechanisms to protect geothermal features, fish and wildlife, air and water quality, biological diversity, and cultural resources.

The sustainable development goal outlined ways to reform range and timber management practices on national forest lands and offered proposals for working with local communities to help diversify their economies.  It also established a formalized process for consultation and coordinated planning between the agencies.

While the philosophy of the Vision may learn more toward the “natural management” paradigm of the Park Service, the document reads like a forest plan.  It is general and obtuse, filled with loopholes and tendentious language.

Still, the document provided a pathway for change, perhaps the only way Forest Service could be dragged through the process.  Even so there were indications early on that the Forest Service was not exactly eager to have its plans reviewed by the Park Service.  Afterall, from the Forest Service’s point of view it seemed a one-way street—there wasn’t much chance that the Forest Service was going to change the Park Service’s management of Yellowstone or Grand Teton.

James Caswell, supervisor of eastern Idaho’s Targhee National Forest, was apparently one of those who thought the Vision was too restrictive, that it imposed too much of the Park Service’s philosophy on the Forest Service.

Shortly after the release of the draft Vision, Caswell said: “This is by no means the final product.  I was on the team wrote it and my copy’s full of red ink.”

The Firestorm

While some agency officials and conservationists praised the Vision statement as a revolutionary document, others noted that much of the language in the report was vague and non-binding.

“The Vision report was non-binding, a kind of sweeping, but vague policy agenda that outlined how the various land management agencies can cooperate to protect the region’s wildlife and biological diversity,” said Scott Garland, public lands director for the Jackson Hole Alliance.

The Vision report was unilaterally condemned by members of the Wyoming, Idaho and Montana congressional delegations.  Rep. Ron Marlenee and Senator Conrad Burns attacked the report as “a blueprint” for preservation.  Burns said that he believed the Park Service was attempting to extend its management philosophy onto national forests lands.  “There planning on creating a 12 million acre park,” Burns said.

The Wyoming Heritage Foundation, a coalition of industry groups, and People for the West, led most of the opposition to the Vision report.  “Yellowstone National Park is not endangered,” the group charged after the release of the draft report.  “Common sense tells you that.  Jobs and local economies will be endangered if the Vision policies are approved.”

The most vocal opponents of the Vision statement were private landowners within the Greater Yellowstone Area who contended that the report would place restrictions on private developments in the Yellowstone area.

From Vision to Framework

The final version of the report, which no longer contained the word “Vision” in its title, was released on September 11.  The new report, now called “A Framework for Coordination of National Parks and National Forests in the Greater Yellowstone Area” and sliced from 70 pages to 11 pages in length, eliminates all references to biological diversity, ecosystem management, and the preservation of a sense of naturalness that high-lighted the Vision statement.

The “Framework” calls for a balance between the preservation of natural values and resource development.  “Resource protection and resource use are not inherently mutually exclusive,” the report concludes.

Lorraine Mintzmayer, who received her directed reassignment shortly before the release of the new Yellowstone report, alleged in her testimony before the House Civil Service Subcommittee that While House Chief of Staff John Sununu considered the original Vision statement a complete “disaster” from a political perspective and ordered that it be completely rewritten.

Much of the political pressure apparently came from Wyoming Senator Alan Simpson, who convened a meeting with assistant secretary of agriculture James Moseley, Gary Carghill, and Scott Sewell then the Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary for Fish, Wildlife.

Mintzmayer, who was in Washington D.C. at the time, was intentionally not invited to the meeting, where Simpson outlined his objections to the report and requested that it be substantially altered.

Soon after this meeting, apparently Simpson, who Ed Lewis, executive director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, describes as having “a deep personal desire to micromanage Yellowstone Park,” contacted White House Chief John Sununu to complain about the Vision report and Mintzmeyer’s leadership.

Mintzmayer recounted a meeting she had with Scott Sewell, and Parks for the Department of Interior on October 5, 1990 where Sewell said that “significant political contacts and pressure had been made to the White House and the Secretacy regarding the Vision document.”

Sewell blamed Mintzmayer personally for the political problems caused by the draft Vision statement and informed her that he had been “delegated by the Department” to personally rewrite the Yellowstone report.

Mintzmayer said the Yellowstone Vision statement had been sheared down to a mere “brochure” that had little or no basis in scientific research and had little utility or credibility for professional land managers.

Both the White House and the Department of the Interior have flatly denied that Sununu discussed the Yellowstone Vision statement with Sewell.  The Interior Department also claimed that Mintzmayer’s removal was unrelated to her role in the preparation of the draft Yellowstone report.

Marlenee denied charges by conservationists that he had used political influence to have the report altered or that he played a role in the directed reassignements of Mintzmayer and John Mumma.  However, his office confirmed that he helped arrange and provide transportation for ranchers and loggers to the contentious hearings in Montana on the Yellowstone Vision report.

“They’ve considerably scoped down the Yellowstone report and have met some of our concerns, but we’re still not entirely pleased with its direction,” Marlenee said.

“The final document completely fails to establish a set of principles to ensure ecological sensitivity and coordinated management of greater Yellowstone,” charged Ed Lewis.  “Political interference, apparently directed from the highest levels of government, has led to the complete abandonment of the concept of ecosystem management which was featured in the draft.”

Saving Face

The new “Framework” was publicly defended by several forest supervisions in the greater Yellowstone area.  Brian Stout, supervisor of the Bridger-Teton National Forest, said that criticism of the report’s elimination of the words “naturalness” and biodiversity” were overstated.

“What we’re talking about is maintaining scenic values,” Stout said.  “It was never about limiting timber harvesting, grazing or oil and gas leasing.  The goal was to continue multiple-use activities in a way that preserves other values.”

Privately, several forest supervisors and deputies said that they were disappointed that the report had been “gutted” and were concerned that the manner in which the report was altered indicated a troubling trend toward politicization of natural management decisions.

“It appears that any significant decision we make will be subjected to a kind of political litmus test,” one supervisor said.  “And if you stand up you better be prepared to take a hit.”

Park Service officials expressed similar concerns.  “Any major decision, whether it deals with concessionaires, outfitters, or restrictions on overgrazing, now appears to be lifted out of the hands of professional managers and into the hands of politicians and political appointees,” said a Park Service official.  “It seems that even the director of the park service and Secretary Lujan are often out of the loop on these decisions.”

The official supported Mintzmayer’s allegation that officials in the White House had worked directly with the deputy secretary of Interior for Fish, Wildlife and Parks on the redrafting of the Yellowstone document and other matters relating to development in the national parks.

The Yellowstone Vision document is dead.  And among the causalities are one of the best regional Park Service directors and perhaps, the Forest Service’s best regional forester.  Other reformers inside both agencies are laying low.  But perhaps there is a more fundamental casualty, the idea espoused by Gifford Pinchot, and other public land managers, that scientifically trained managers paid by the public would automatically act in the public interest.

It should now be obvious that even when high-level agency officials develop innovative ecosystem management scenarios, ideas that invariably conflict with the dominant political paradigm, politics will prevail—often with disastrous consequences.

Until environmentalists begin attacking corporate subsidies with the same vigor they pursue wilderness designations, politicians are going to continue to run roughshod over even the best ecosystems of the American West.

JEFFREY ST. CLAIR is the author of Been Brown So Long It Looked Like Green to Me: the Politics of Nature and Grand Theft Pentagon. His newest book, Born Under a Bad Sky, is just out from AK Press / CounterPunch books. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net.

 

 

 

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Jeffrey St. Clair is editor of CounterPunch. His new book is Bernie and the Sandernistas: Field Notes From a Failed Revolution. He can be reached at: sitka@comcast.net or on Twitter  @JSCCounterPunch

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