National Geographic : 2016 May
134 national geographic • may 2016 boundaries (which are unfenced and, throughout most of the land- scape, unmarked) but also across a wider terrain that includes Grand Teton National Park, parts of adjacent national forests, and other surrounding lands. Two years later the superintendent of Yellowstone, a percipient man named John Townsley, used that phrase during a friendly chat with Rick Reese, a young mountaineer and educator. “He told me that to treat Yellowstone Park as a box on a map, with no regard for threats to the park from neighboring national forest lands, was absurd,” Reese later wrote. The park and its animal populations, its plants, its waters, even its thermal features, would be affected by what happened outside that box. Paraphrasing Townsley, Reese wrote that the American peo- ple “must be educated about these interrelationships and must begin to think in terms of a ‘Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.’ ” Reese served as first president of a new organization, the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, an alliance of individuals and groups dedicated to conserving the broader wholeness of Yellowstone. Soon afterward, in 1984, he published a book graced with pretty photographs but made influential by serious words, titled Greater Yellowstone: The National Park and Adjacent Wildlands. For a while some of the government peo- ple resisted this new term, favoring instead “the Greater Yellowstone Area”—a pusillanimous compromise—possibly because “ecosystem” invoked an interconnectedness that ran against bureaucratic compart- mentalization and discomfited those with a jealous sense of turf. But in the years since, even they, except the most cautious, have adopted it. “ Yellowstone National Park is not an island,” Reese wrote in that 1984 book, and he was right. But it’s also important to realize that the ecosystem itself is an island in many respects—an ecological island, surrounded by a sea of human impact. It’s isolated landscape. Ravens and eagles may come and go at will, but crossing from the Greater Yel- lowstone Ecosystem to safe habitat elsewhere is far more problematic for the likes of grizzly bears, elk, and bison. When they step off the island, they generally die. Who’s in charge of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem? Everybody and nobody. There is a deliberative body, the Greater Yellowstone Co- ordinating Committee, but full membership includes representatives of only the federal agencies (the states, county officials, and private in- terests participate in subcommittees), and its powers are modest even when its consensus is firm. That’s why Hallac bemoaned the absence of transboundary management in the face of the creeping crisis. “I’m not suggesting in any way that the ecosystem is falling apart,” Hallac told me. “Because it’s not. But it has the potential to. And there are a lot of incremental changes that, I think, are beginning to negatively affect the system.” After half an hour of such conversation, someone knocked on Hallac’s door and peeked in, reminding him that he was due at his own farewell party. He invited me along, but I didn’t want to intrude, preferring to skulk away and consider what he had said. Park managers come and go, even the best of them, but the problems abide. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is an island in many respects— an ecological island, surrounded byaseaof human impact. Who’s in charge? Everybody and nobody.