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Chapter 9 - Greater Yellowstone tomorrow: Charting a course for a greater Yellowstone forever

Dennis Glick

The greater Yellowstone tomorrow project
Project status


On a satellite image, Greater Yellowstone appears as a vast island of mountains and plateaus, rising up from the high plains where, except for Alaska, it forms one of the most extensive roadless tracts in the United States. The Ecosystem encompasses roughly 7, 200, 000 ha, including two national parks (Yellowstone and Grand Teton), portions of seven national forests, three National Wildlife Refuges, lands of the Bureau of Land Management, and state and private properties.

Characterized by largely pristine natural features, the region boasts the world's most extensive array of geysers and geothermal resources; some of the largest herds of elk, bison, and bighorn sheep in North America; over 300 species of birds (nearly half of the total species found in the entire United States); and several threatened or endangered plants and animals, ranging from the diminutive Yellow Spring Beauty to the majestic grizzly bear. Even more significant. Greater Yellowstone represents one of the largest essentially intact temperate-zone ecosystems on earth. It is a resource of national and international importance, and, not surprisingly, Yellowstone Park, at its core, was one of the first areas listed on the UNESCO registry of World Heritage Sites.

That Greater Yellowstone appears as an island of wildness isolated by encroaching development is cause for concern. Studies of archipelagoes cut off from the mainland by rising seas have documented the steady loss of species inevitably accompanying this fragmentation. In the western United States, investigations of the impact of the fragmentation of natural habitats found that nearly 40 populations of mammals have disappeared from several national parks. Many of these sites are being whittled away as adjacent development converts them to wilderness islands awash in a sea of development.

With this in mind, close scrutiny of the satellite image of Greater Yellowstone is disturbing. To the west, a distinguishable straight line marks the boundary between Yellowstone Park and the Targhee National Forest (Figure 1). Over a billion board feet of timber has been cut in the Targhee since the 1960s. As cutting moves into increasingly fragile habitats, environmental impacts from both logging and road building increase erosion, destroy critical wildlife and fisheries habitat, and degrade scenic vistas.

Figure 1. Aerial View Showing the Boundary Between Yellowstone Park (left) and Targhee National Forest (right) / Photo: Tim Crawford, Greater Yellowstone Coalition.

The specter of widespread oil and gas exploration and development will continue to threaten the Park. Nearly five million acres of National Forest lands are under lease or lease application for oil and gas drilling. In the Bridger-Teton National Forest, for example, most of the available non-wilderness forest lands are proposed for leasing in the Final Forest Plan. Not only can oil and gas exploration and development affect wildlife and aesthetic values, they could cause irrevocable damage to the poorly understood subterranean plumbing responsible for Yellowstone's world-renowned geothermal features. New technologies often spawn new environmental problems. The cyanide-heap-leach processing of gold has sparked a dramatic increase in hard-rock mining in the West. The often destructive nature of mining and archaic mining laws have conspired to leave scars in Greater Yellowstone that may never heal. The McLaren mine, for example, located five miles upstream from Yellowstone's North Gate, is leaching a toxic heavy-metal soup that flows into the park. Off-site mining impacts such as road construction, increased human activity, power-line corridors, and the possibility of other mining-related disturbances exacerbate on-site impacts.

A host of other disturbances, though perhaps not as obvious as a clearcut or an oil derrick, erode the environmental stability of the area. The grazing of sheep and cattle, if not well managed, can degrade critical wildlife habitat such as riparian areas and winter range, increase erosion, and reduce water quality. Nearly two and a half million acres of federal land in Greater Yellowstone are open to sheep and cattle grazing. While impacts vary from site to site, there are numerous examples of direct competition between wildlife and livestock, In addition, concerns about depredation and a fear of the spread of brucellosis from bison to cattle have resulted in both the legal and illegal killing of wildlife. And there is stiff opposition to efforts to reintroduce or expand the range of predators such as wolves or grizzly bears from some in the livestock and outfitter industries.

Recreation-related impacts are of growing concern. An increase in recreational developments, such as the construction of the massive Grant Village and the rapid expansion of winter visitation in Yellowstone Park, could stress wildlife and increase mortality. The effects of other recreational pursuits such as off-road vehicle use and, in certain areas, non-motorized travel are poorly understood and merit analysis of their short- and long-term effects.

While many of these threats relate primarily to federal lands, the accelerating development of the "ecologically" strategic private lands is of equal concern. Though comprising less than a quarter of the region, private lands harbor key elements of the Ecosystem such as winter range, migration corridors, and ecologically rich bottomlands. These areas also include important cultural and scenic values such as the farms and ranches that maintain the sense of wide-open spaces. Rampant subdividing, vacation-home construction, and other developments are cluttering these traditional landscapes and whittling away important habitats. For example, in Madison County, Montana, in the northeastern comer of the Ecosystem, over 85, 000 acres have been subdivided into parcels of 200 acres or less.

The often-cited justification for this ill-conceived squandering of resources is that it will promote economic stability. Yet this argument flies in the face of reality. The rural economies of most counties of Greater Yellowstone have gone through a sweeping transition from resource extraction (timbering, mining, oil and gas development) to one more diversified and service-oriented. And it appears that this new economic base is firmly rooted in the natural amenities of the Ecosystem: clean air and water, good hunting and fishing, outdoor recreation, spectacular scenic vistas, untrammeled wilderness.

Just as resource utilization in the Ecosystem is often characterized by an insensitivity to the long-term health of the environment, a lack of coordination among resource managers is also a problem. Over twenty-five different federal and state agencies manage pieces of the Greater Yellowstone puzzle. Many have conflicting missions and management goals. Further complicating the situation are their varied procedures for collecting and analyzing data and determining appropriate resource-management practices.

The greater Yellowstone tomorrow project

The mission of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC) is to ensure the long-term preservation of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. To achieve this ambitious goal, the organization has carried out a multifaceted conservation program. This has included environmental awareness and education activities, the organization of grass-roots conservation efforts, the close monitoring of resource management and protection, and, when necessary, direct appeals of actions and plans of resource-management agencies that are considered undesirable.

In 1989, GYC launched its Greater Yellowstone Tomorrow (GYT) project, which is proactively planning for protection of the Ecosystem. GYT was conceived when the Coalition Board of Directors discussed the idea of forging an "alternative vision" for the Greater Yellowstone based on a "solid understanding of Ecosystem functions, man's impact on these processes, and actions needed to assure long-term protection and restoration." The three principal goals of the project are:

(1) To develop a blueprint for action that clearly lays out the steps to long-term Ecosystem protection in Greater Yellowstone.

(2) To organize an informed and motivated constituency broad enough to ensure that recommended actions are carried out.

(3) To serve as a catalyst for the implementation of the blueprint by the year 2000.

Through Greater Yellowstone Tomorrow, the Coalition is designing an alternative future for the ecosystem, and identifying and implementing actions needed to make it a reality. The strategy to achieve these objectives features three major initiatives:

(1) Profiling the Ecosystem. The Environmental Profile analyzes the processes and components of Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, including the unique relationships of humans within the Ecosystem. To illustrate the possible future of the region, the profile uses a series of maps and graphics that depict proposed development based on existing plans and growth trends.

(2) Organizing a community outreach program. Information collected for the Environmental Profile was widely disseminated in the communities of the Greater Yellowstone region. These community meetings also provided an opportunity for the GYT project staff to gain a better understanding of the concerns, aspirations, and plans of regional residents for their communities and surrounding areas.

(3) Formulating a "blueprint" for action. The Greater Yellowstone Tomorrow Blueprint for Action sets a new course for the protection and sound management of Greater Yellowstone's wildland and wildlife resources, geothermal features, open spaces, and outstanding scenic qualities. This component of the project also supports community efforts to plan for economic and environmental sustainability.

Project status

(1) Profiling the Ecosystem. A requisite first step in solving the tough problems that cloud the future of Greater Yellowstone is the building of a common base of understanding of the ecosystem and the threats to its well-being. This was the goal of the Tomorrow project's "Environmental Profile of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem," which was published and widely distributed in late 1991. The Profile represents the first-ever comprehensive analysis of the ecological and socioeconomic underpinnings of the Ecosystem. Based on the peer-reviewed writings of GYC's Science Council along with information generated from numerous other sources, the Profile graphically illustrates the significance of the Ecosystem and the world-class nature of its wildland resources. The Profile also includes a series of maps illustrating existing and proposed developments that affect the character or health of the region.

The findings of the Profile reinforced the position that Greater Yellowstone is unique in many ways, but that in particular it is of global importance for the essentially intact nature of its ecological components and processes. The Profile also underscores GYC's concern that if current development trends continue, we will see a steady erosion of the region's wild qualities, with direct effects on both the wild and the human inhabitants of the region.

A significant trend noted in the study is the regional transition from an economy based on the extraction of resources to one increasingly dependent on the protection of watersheds, scenery, and wildlife and wildland values. However, this new economy brings with it a new set of problems that must be anticipated and incorporated into the conservation efforts of both governmental and nongovernmental entities.

Finally, the Profile notes that throughout the Greater Yellowstone region, efforts are under way at the local, state, and federal levels to bridge the gap between conservation and development. These actions, through seldom coordinated, are nevertheless planting the seeds of sustainability.

The full Profile document was supplemented by an Executive Summary that crystallizes the major points of the report and several slide-show versions custom-tailored to different key audiences (see Community Outreach Program discussion below). A special issue of the Journal of Conservation Biology featured ten of the GYC Science Council's papers related to Greater Yellowstone. This was the first time that the Journal had published a series of articles taking a comprehensive (including socioeconomic) look at a geographic region.

County-specific socioeconomic profiles were developed for the twenty Greater Yellowstone counties. These are being used to help regional residents better understand their county-specific reality in regard to economic and demographic changes. They are proving useful to organizations within the region that are involved in economic and environmental sustainability. These profiles have also helped the Coalition to gain a better understanding of regional economic development issues.

The publication and dissemination of the complete Profile has laid the foundation for the drafting of a shared Blueprint for Ecosystem Protection by raising GYC's understanding of the ecological and economic underpinnings of the region, and the threats to their well-being. It has also provided a wealth of educational materials necessary for the nurturing of an informed constituency broad enough to ensure that Blueprint recommendations become a reality. Building this constituency and facilitating its involvement in creating the blueprint is the primary goal of the Tomorrow project's Community Outreach Program.

(2) The Community Outreach Program. The Community Outreach Program has attempted to raise the regional level of understanding and concern for the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, to stimulate local efforts to plan for environmental and economic sustainability, to incorporate the best thinking of regional residents into the development of the Blueprint, and to facilitate the creation of a community-generated vision for the future of the region.

The Community Outreach Program has taken the information gathered in the Environmental Profile to dozens of governmental and nongovernmental entities throughout Greater Yellowstone. These programs have provided an opportunity for GYC and a broad array of organizations to discuss their views and knowledge of the region. Indeed, this has been a two-way flow of information and understanding.

Some 27 different communities have been visited by Tomorrow project staff (Figure 2). Participants in Outreach Program activities have ranged from Chambers of Commerce to Conservation Districts, environmental groups to county commissioners, Rotary Clubs, state legislators, grazing associations, federal agencies, lumber-mill operators, and many others. The presentations have stimulated lively discussions on the future of the region. There has been a marked increase in grass-roots efforts to plan for community and county economic development and environmental protection. While it is difficult to prove whether the Community Outreach Program has been the catalyst for this activity, it has without doubt complemented this encouraging trend.

A questionnaire soliciting residents' desires and ideas on future economic development and environmental protection has been widely distributed. The information gleaned from these surveys was analyzed in an effort to determine whether there is some regional consensus on a desired future for Greater Yellowstone. The results of this and other similar surveys seem to indicate that there is indeed a broad appreciation for the wild character of the area and a strong desire to maintain this quality. If this assessment is correct, a major building block for crafting a shared vision for the future is already in place.

The GYT Outreach Program also served as a catalyst for a number of local efforts to create community-generated visions for the future. GYT staff introduced local residents to the "Successful Communities" process, which is organized by the Sonoran Institute of Tucson, Arizona. This consists of workshops that help towns to identify the natural and cultural amenities they most value and draft a shared strategy for protecting these values. The Sonoran Institute has organized a number of these workshops around the country and is generally perceived as an unbiased, neutral facilitator (in contrast to GYC, which is well known as an environmental advocacy group). Five communities in Greater Yellowstone participated in the Successful Communities program. In all cases a broad diversity of community residents were able to formulate development and conservation goals. The actual implementation of these plans has varied from town to town. But the program did demonstrate that even in the highly polarized environment of the Northern Rockies, finding common ground on environmental and development issues is possible.

(3) Development of the GYT Blueprint for Ecosystem Protection. The ultimate goal of the Tomorrow project is to chart a course for the long-term protection of the Ecosystem and to begin the process of carrying out these activities. The Blueprint is both articulating the route that needs to be followed and illustrating what the destination will look like once it is reached. The Blueprint represents the first comprehensive "game plan" for the overall protection of Greater Yellowstone that has been formulated with the input of regional residents. An effort by the federal agencies to develop their "vision" for the future of the region's national parks and forests failed primarily because of the lack of local support.

The Blueprint begins where the Profile ended--a description of the significance of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. The bulk of the Blueprint articulates what needs to be done at the local, state, and national levels in order to maintain and in some cases enhance the significant features. Recommendations are being formulated on administration, policy, law, on-the-ground management activities, research, education, economic and tax incentives, and other strategies. Some of these recommended actions will be illustrated with case studies (identified by the Community Outreach Program) to demonstrate their feasibility.

Figure 2. One of the 27 Different Communities Visited by Project Staff as Part of its Community Outreach Program / Photo: Tom Murphy

For each of the key resources of Greater Yellowstone--geothermal features, biodiversity, water resources, open space and scenic values, forests and range, wildlands--the following information is being developed:

a. State of the resource (based on the Profile and additional research)

b. Guiding principles (general overarching guidelines that should be taken into account when resource development or protection plans are being formulated)

c. Recommendations (specific proposals for resource management and protection)

d. Case studies (preferably from the region, to illustrate the types of activities that are being recommended)

e. Implementation strategy (as a reality check, ideas for putting these recommendations into practice)

The Blueprint is being developed by GYC staff, with relevant information gathered from the communities, and from resource users and managers, information and advice gleaned from an advisory committee representing a broad range of perspectives and expertise, the GYC Science Council and Board, and many others. This research is uncovering many of the less obvious underlying causes of inappropriate resource-management activities in the region. It is also underscoring the broad range of perspectives on how these resources should be administered. A major challenge facing GYC on this aspect of the project has been coming to an internal consensus on the specific recommendations,

The Blueprint is expected to be published before the end of 1993. It will be widely distributed at both the regional and the national level. Plans call for a return to many of the communities visited during the Community Outreach Program. These meetings will provide a forum to discuss Blueprint recommendations, identify where community input was incorporated into the document, and launch collaborative efforts to implement recommended actions that address issues of common concern.


The Greater Yellowstone Tomorrow project achieved its dual goal of articulating a vision for the future of Greater Yellowstone and developing a Blueprint for Ecosystem Protection. Whether it will also raise the regional level of Ecosystem awareness and stimulated support for the implementation of Blueprint recommendations is yet to be determined.

More than just a plan or a strategy, the Tomorrow project is meant to be a vehicle for sociopolitical and economic change that is as dynamic and alive as Greater Yellowstone itself. The Tomorrow project has embodied the ecological makeup of this land, with varied components all interacting and making up a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

In a sense, the process being used to formulate the Blueprint is as important as the document itself. More than just awakening broad interest in the fate of the Ecosystem, GYT is attempting to stimulate a strong desire to follow through with the actions needed to guarantee that Greater Yellowstone Tomorrow's goals are fully achieved.

While directed by the Coalition, GYT has involved the participation of numerous individuals and organizations-undoubtedly one of the more important measurable outcomes of this planning process which will pay "dividends" far into the future as stakeholders are convinced of the value of their input into management decisions. Efforts are being made to ensure that the project is as interactive as possible; that is, an honest sharing of views and information involving numerous individuals and agencies--something easier said than done. While GYC is striving to produce a truly visionary blueprint, we want this to be a vision shared by many. Whether this goal will be fully achieved is impossible to predict at this time. But the blossoming of similar efforts at the local level throughout Greater Yellowstone is an encouraging sign. There is now nearly unanimous agreement that we need to plan proactively for the future. The GYT project is attempting to harness this energy.

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