Lessons From Yellowstone

As we ponder the future of public lands in Montana, including what areas deserve protection as wilderness, it is worthwhile to look back in history to see how past protective measures were viewed.

In 1872, with the establishment of Yellowstone National Park many Montana citizens were outraged. For example, the Helena Gazette opined: “We regard the passage of the act as a great blow to the prosperity of the towns of Bozeman and Virginia City.”

In 1910, the Kalispell Chamber of Commerce opposed the creation of Glacier National Park suggesting the park would be a waste of trees that could logged.

Upon the establishment of Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming, the local paper predicted that Jackson would soon be a “ghost town.” Has anyone been to Jackson lately? There are more than 16,000 “ghosts” living there.

I go through this litany of responses to protected landscapes to demonstrate how wrong the local perspective has always been about the economic impact of protecting lands.

Unfortunately, logging, mining, livestock grazing, and industrial tourist development has compromised much of Montana’s wild country. A modest amount of this was necessary to create communities.

However, we are way out of balance. Montana only has 3.4% ‎(3.4 million acres) of its 94 million acre landscape protected as designated wilderness under the 1964 Wilderness Act.

Despite all this historical evidence, we find many local politicians, including Sen. Steve Daines and Rep. Greg Gianforte as well as many in the Montana Legislature advocating for eliminating protections for Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management Wilderness Study Areas as well as opening up more public lands for resource extraction by timber and oil and gas industries.

In a sense, the widespread opposition to protecting lands based on the presumption that it impedes economic prosperity is no different the wrong-headed opinion of the Helena Gazette about the creation of Yellowstone National Park back in 1872.

In a 1948 speech before Parliament, Prime Minister Winston Churchhill warned: “Those who don’t know history are doomed to repeat it.” Are we going to repeat the same mistakes of the past with regards to our wildlands?


George Wuerthner has published 36 books including Wildfire: A Century of Failed Forest Policy