Yellowstone: Paradise Lost?

Windy winter, Gallatin Range.

By now you have probably watched the hit show “Yellowstone”, going into its 4th season. Kevin Costner plays the scion of a troubled western family dealing with conflicts along the borders of their large cattle ranch. In a strange twist, this show seems to have increased interest in Yellowstone Park, even though the show has little or nothing to do with the world’s oldest national park. People actually show up in Yellowstone looking for the locations where the show is filmed (it’s filmed in Canada and western Montana).

The real Yellowstone region has its own border conflicts and troubles. Here in the real world, we are dealing with:

+ An onslaught of development coupled with a massive real estate boom in nearly every city and town in the region

+ An increasing divide between haves and have nots

+ Wrangling over preservation vs. development of public lands

+ Chronic Wasting Disease in elk and deer and moose

+ Conflicts between expanding populations of grizzly bears and people, especially now, during hunting season

+ Ever-increasing pressure on fragile national forest lands from recreationists with lots of large toys – mountain bikes, side by sides, motorcycles, snowmobiles, four wheelers, big trucks and campers

+ Right-wing militias strutting around with guns and flying Trump flags from their huge noisy trucks, turning western towns into cesspools of hatred and conflict

+ Agencies like the US Forest Service and National Park Service underfunded and pressured to perform

+ Climate change and megafires breathing down our necks

+ Mandates from the federal government to log and drill and mine our last unprotected wildlands

+ New 20 year national forest plans across the Northern Rockies rolling out a business as usual, get the cut out management strategy.

We don’t need a fictionalized Yellowstone to brew up real trouble.

In the wake of the Covid 19 pandemic, national forests, state parks national parks and other public lands in the Yellowstone region have been utterly swamped with visitors. Campgrounds have been overflowing, and dispersed camping, sometimes known as boondocking, is at record levels, with clueless campers often leaving a mess behind. Every trailhead has been packed with cars and trails have been turned to dust under a steady tramp of booted feet and bike tires.

Palace Lake Basin, Gallatin Range.

People are leaving big cities in droves to find less crowded places to live. Real estate demand and prices are off the charts in Bozeman, Big Sky, Livingston, Belgrade, Helena, and countless other towns in the Mountain West. Once here, people disperse far and wide into the backcountry, with wildlife forced to spread out and flee from their advance.

OK, so lots of people are coming here. Maybe they think they can play Kevin Costner and get a huge trophy ranch. And indeed some of the uber-rich are doing exactly that, buying up big ranches where they can John Wayne or Brad Pitt when they fly in for the weekend in their private jet.

Those of us who have been here a while know this is not the easiest place to live. It can snow a foot and get to 15 below zero in mid-October, turning roads into slicks of polished ice. Summers can be scorching, and wildfire can erupt and burn down homes before residents can hardly pack a bag. Distances between towns are long and roads can be lonely. Essential services are far away when you move to the end of s dirt road. But people are coming anyway, buying properties sight unseen and loading up the U-Haul.

People are coming here for the very things that are getting trampled – public lands and abundant wildlife, free flowing rivers, trackless forests and wild mountains. In the Yellowstone region we still have large tracts of wild land where you can enjoy a real adventure without huge numbers of potentially sick people getting in your face. We have elbow room. We have rivers where you have a chance to catch a native wild trout and let it go. There are mountains you can see from town that very few people climb. If you work for it you can still ski untracked snow on a wide open mountainside with all the world at your feet. You can still hit a trailhead a half hour from town after work and within an hour be in a place so quiet you can hear a mouse rustling in the grass. You can still experience an unexpected encounter with a large wild animal that could actually try to kill you.

It’s a Catch-22 – we have all this amazing territory and wild rivers and big open valleys and teeming wildlife. But it’s driving a gold rush of people desperate to escape the festering virus pits of New York, LA, Seattle, Boston, and Miami. If we let it all unfold unchecked, the integrity of the Yellowstone ecosystem – one of the world’s last great thriving temperate ecosystems – will unravel before we even understand its intertwined and mysterious threads.

Welcome to Paradise Lost.

We are in uncharted territory. Where are we going? What will be left? It’s time to act, time to erect safeguards to avoid the pillaging and overrunning of our wildest public lands. How do we plot a path forward that will help preserve what makes this place so special?

Our current crazed scenario- Pandemic, political insanity, hatred and greed overflowing, distrust and conspiracies on the rise, quarantine, lack of social contact – makes it clearer than ever that we must preserve what is left of the natural world, and indeed expand the protection thereof. Our incursions into nature are causing viruses to emerge and spread amongst humans and animals. The best way to retain some wild nature, at least on US public lands, is through Wilderness designation. Only Congress can do this.

Designated Wilderness provides a real and lasting buffer from development and from the onslaught of mechanized and motorized humans. Wilderness is a refuge for beleaguered wildlife, for natural processes that have been supplanted by industry and agriculture, and for overwhelmed and stressed people fleeing the ever more suffocating horde human.

The Custer Gallatin National Forest has large Wilderness areas – the Absaroka Beartooth is world class, featuring glaciers, stunning 12,000 foot peaks, hundreds of lakes and vast expanses of alpine tundra. Part of the Lee Metcalf Wilderness, showcasing the rugged and colorful peaks of the Madison Range, protects the western reaches of the forest.

But we have over 800,000 acres of potential Wilderness as well, that remains unprotected. On the national and global scale, this is some of the top wild land you would find anywhere. Much of this area enjoys the fragile protection of the 2001 Roadless Rule, barring roadbuilding or other permanent development in roadless areas. But this can be overturned or ignored by the Forest Service, Congress or the President.

To wit, President Trump just axed protection for the entire Tongass National Forest in Alaska, our largest and wildest national forest, opening over 9 million acres to logging and road building. If reelected you can be sure he will do the same with roadless areas in the lower 48.

The Custer Gallatin also houses the Hyalite Porcupine Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study area, 155,000 acres of mind blowing high country in the Gallatin Range swarming with animals and plants of all kinds, but left in limbo by Congress in 1977 and degraded by a lack of visionary management by the Forest Service.

Let’s quit pussyfooting around with compromise solutions and tradeoffs, backroom deals and favors. Enough whittling away at wildlands to leave the impression we have protected more, when in fact every compromise slices off another chunk of the ancient intact Earth and throws it on the bonfire of human consumption.

It’s time for visionary Wilderness designation here on the Custer Gallatin National Forest and all across the West, time for as much of our roadless public land as possible to be honored with Wilderness designation, before we are left staring in the rear view mirror at what it used to be like.

For wilderness bills needing support lease visit:

Phil Knight is an environmental activist in Bozeman, Montana. He is a board member of the Gallatin-Yellowstone Wilderness Alliance.