Yellowstone - our nation's first national park. Growing up in Bozeman, I didn't realize how unique this corner of the world is until I lived in other places. I had no idea the Greater Yellowstone is the largest intact temperate ecosystem on the planet. This little fact BLOWS MY MIND.
I now understand and appreciate how the forethought expressed in legislation like National Parks and wilderness areas made it possible for the Greater Yellowstone to be the expansive ecosystem it is today.
Bozeman doubled in size between the time I graduated high school and when I returned here nearly a decade later. The Greater Yellowstone experiences more traffic than ever before, putting stress on flora and fauna. Development pushes against the National Forest boundaries. The diversity of recreational pursuits in and around the mountains creates conflict between competing needs and interests.
But I'm not here to bemoan these challenges we face. They're complicated, yes. And they require proactive measures.
That's where organizations like the Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC) step in. With so many players involved when it comes to land management--from developers to outdoor recreationalists to the forest service--decision making can become a live Jerry Springer show real quick like.
I swung into GYC's headquarters near downtown Bozeman last week to learn more about their efforts. Here's what I learned.
About the Greater Yellowstone Coalition
The GYC works in all three states the ecosystem exists within: Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho. As their website will tell you, the coalition works to "protect the land, water, and wildlife" of the Greater Yellowstone. But that word--"protect"--was nebulous to me.
What did it mean to protect something?
I walked down the long hallway leading to Darcie Warden's office in the GYC building. Darcie works as the Montana Conservation Coordinator. We sat at a table layered with reports from the Forest Service and articles from academic journals.
"A really important part of our work is the relationships we build," Darcie explained. "We collaborate with ranchers, recreationalists, and local decision makers. Our job it to find out what people really care about. We facilitate dialogue about how to keep this place special.
"And we don't draw lines in the sand," she stressed.
Conservation efforts don't always work this way. Sometimes an advocacy group demands land to be wilderness without considering the potential negative affects this could have on other people. That's often because a conversation never took place between people with different wants and needs.
"We're part detective, part mediator," Darcie continued. "We gather all the information we can and then put our best proposal forward to the decision maker."
For example, the Gallatin-Custer range, home to the beloved Hyalite Canyon, is the last unprotected mountain range bordering Yellowstone National Park. Right now the Forest Service is looking at whether or not the forest has qualities that would qualify it for protection under the 1964 Wilderness Act. This "wilderness inventory" includes the Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn Wilderness Study Area (WSA) found within the Gallatin-Custer range.
This is where things get tricky. The Hyalite-Porcupine-Buffalo Horn WSA is home to grizzly bear recovery zones. It also includes a popular snowmobile trail just north of the park borders, and there's mountain biking trails, such as Blackmore Peak, that would be off-limits if the entire proposed area would be deemed wilderness.
Darcie pointed at the map, explaining where the areas of conflict exist. "If we want to keep our experience a certain way, we're gonna have to make some tough decisions," she said.
Darcie moved here from Alaska, where she worked with tribes as an environmental technician. "I hunt and process wild game. And I know what it is like to own a snow machine and depend on it. I'm not anti-motorized." She recognizes that an all-or-nothing strategy isn't the way forward. "There's no healthy environment without heathy communities," she emphasized.
Building a healthy community takes listening, and it takes compromise. In the case of the Gallatin-Custer National Forest, preserving the mountain range will require hearing the various parties invested in the land and making sure decisions reached include input from everyone.
Needless to say, this is no easy task. Darcie and her colleagues work long hours so the GYC can live up to its name as a coalition: that is, as a union of voices.
No matter our differences, I think it's fair to assume most people share a love for the Greater Yellowstone's wildness. Through collaboration, we can hopefully work towards preserving it so future generations can love it too.