National Geographic has now given Greater Yellowstone its greatest captive audience ever.

In the yellow magazine’s May 2016 edition — a special issue devoted entirely to Yellowstone National Park and environs — science writer David Quammen calls attention to the natural amenity that distinguishes our region from almost every other on Earth.

That amenity: a still largely intact and functioning ecosystem, supporting not only abundant populations of wildlife but, in terms of megafauna, every major species that was here prior to the arrival of Europeans on the continent, including grizzlies and wolves.

It’s a swath of terra firma still holding geothermal phenomena that haven’t been ruined by reckless human development. A sweep of the northern Rockies still containing unfragmented landscapes that accommodate long-distance elk, deer and pronghorn migrations. Wild rivers that haven’t been destroyed by water diversion and pollution. An expanse of mostly public land covering 22.5 million acres that miraculously escaped the wreckage and taming of Manifest Destiny.

The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem stands alone and apart. Thriving by protecting nature, it’s a paradoxical hard-won feat Quammen celebrates, and yet he touches upon a third-rail issue almost no one wants to talk about.

Certainly federal and state land managers don’t, nor business leaders, nor elected officials in the 20 counties composing Greater Yellowstone (now among the fastest growing rural areas in America), nor conservation groups, recreationists, hunters, anglers and private property owners nor, quite frankly, most of us who live here.

The NatGeo May issue already ranks among the hottest selling editions of the magazine in years, but it is, in many ways, a shot across the bow of our own denial. Precisely what makes it an opportunity to ignite a regional discussion that may never come around again.

The sobering, almost stupefying truth is that we don’t want to confront the very reality staring us in the face: Unless we think and behave differently, unless we force ourselves to embrace self-restraint, personal sacrifice in how we live and play, and adopt regional transboundary strategies for land management and growth, much of what defines Greater Yellowstone today will be lost.

Greater Yellowstone, as we know it, cannot withstand rising population pressure, being exerted in the form of record visitation to the national parks and unprecedented waves of migrants moving to the region.

Although the public landscape is vast, the health of wildlife populations depends upon habitat provided by a few million acres of private land.

Some leadership ostensibly is supposed to come from the Greater Yellowstone Coordinating Committee, composed of senior managers from the main federal land agencies in the region — national park superintendents, Forest Service supervisors and senior officials with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and Bureau of Land Management.

Confidentially, GYCC members past and present tell me GYCC lacks both the spine and vision to spearhead the kind of ecosystem-minded conversation that needs to occur. Instead it is dominated by short-term thinking bureaucrats who are either incapable or unwilling to broker serious discussions with state agencies, city and county commissions.

Critics believe the GYCC is a waste of money and should be disbanded, forced to start over. Similarly, there is a serious lack of leadership among the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem’s national, regional and local conservation organizations.

There is no regional dialogue occurring about wildlife diseases and the root causes of them; no strategy for confronting the impacts of population growth; no strategy for dealing with the effects of rapidly expanding outdoor recreation on wildlife and habitat; no strategy for addressing energy development and expansions of road and powerline grids; no strategy for thinking regionally about the effects of climate change on water availability, rangeland and forest health, and rising incidence of wildfire.

In the absence of coordinated strategies informed by science and smart people, landscapes will unravel. Scattershot development will continue to whittle away at the fabric of wildness that defines the region.

We may very well be enjoying the Golden Age of Greater Yellowstone. In his story, Quammen interviewed David Hallac, Yellowstone’s former chief scientist, who spoke to the dangers of apathy: “I think we’re losing this place. Slowly. Incrementally. In a cumulative fashion. I call it sort of a creeping crisis.”

Now that it’s visible, how can it be stopped?

Columnist Todd Wilkinson is author of “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek,” featuring photos by Jackson Hole photographer Tom Mangelsen. Contact him via Columns expressly represent the views of the author.

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(5) comments

Chad guenter

Both instances, foreign visitors!

Jay Westemeier

I'm glad that I was fortunate enough to have experienced the area back in the late 70's and early 80's, just at the start of the commercial boom. At that time, Jackson had a fast growing population of 4,500. Cody was starting to grow fast with around 6,000. Those two towns were the main hubs for tourism, but nothing like they are now. The smaller outcroppings in Jackson Hole and the Teton Valley were just tiny burgs that were pretty much agricultural and offered very little in the way of residential or commercial development. Gardiner, MT had just one hotel and was an afterthought to tourists who passed through YNP. That was a time when commercial investors were starting to line up to grab a piece of the pie while these towns were battling to somehow keep them out. Greed was starting to overtake the private land owners and towns until many finally gave in to it. That greed has spread like mold and it continues today. The vast commercial growth has supported increased visitation and more people want to actually live in the area that at one time, they could only pass through on a vacation. The landscape has changed drastically along the highway 191 & 22 corridors south and west of Jackson. The foresight and fears of the city leaders back in the day have eroded and come true to the point that the boom will be nearly impossible to stop. Whether or not today's leaders are able to curtail or slow development, and private land owners are able to somehow resist the temptation of selling to the highest bidder will have a big bearing on the future of the parks, forests and wildlife in the area. J.D. Rockefeller had the right idea, but I doubt anyone with that kind of financial standing today would have the same foresight.

Chad guenter

"Record visitation" is very easily reduced.

Limit the number of tour buses and foreign visitors.

Scott Costello

Encourage more tour busses and less people driving their own vehicles.

Chad guenter

"Their own vehicles"..... another way to limit visitor.

No rental cars allowed.

Someone wants to see the parks they're going to have to work for it, the way everyone else has for generations. Auto tour, it's not easy and it takes time.

Yellowstone is not Yosemite Valley. It is not a one destination (the valley) park with MILLIONS within a couple hours drive.

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