Friday, May 24, 2013

Notes from Yellowstone and Wyoming -- Part 1

1.

The iconic Yellowstone National Park, the oldest in the US, established in 1872, is not easy to get to. If you don’t live in or close to the northeastern corner of Wyoming, you need either to drive from major cities like Denver, Salt-Lake City or Seattle – by no means a trivial drive -- or fly to two small airports, Bozeman (Montana) or Jackson (Wyoming). Despite its remote location, Yellowstone National Park gets 3.6 million visitors each year. Each day in the summer, as many as 10,000 tourists may visit the Old Faithful Visitor Center, named after the natural geyser -- one of dozens in the park -- which spews thousands of gallons of hot water every 90 minutes or so. Yellowstone is so crowded in the summer months that it can feel like a catered amusement park, rather than the genuine natural wonder it is.



For eight days in August 2012, we visited parts of the Greater Yellowstone region, shown below [map credit: yellowstonewiki.com]. Our flight departed from Hartford (Connecticut) at 7 pm; we reached Bozeman, Montana, with a stopover in Minneapolis, at 11 pm. From Bozeman, we drove to Yellowstone, where we spent two days, before leaving the national park and exploring some of the lesser known towns and regions in Wyoming.  Cody was the first stop on this route, reached through the Chief Joseph Scenic Highway that runs through the desolate Shoshone National Forest. Next, the town of Riverton and the Wind River Indian Reservation. In the last leg, we turned north to Grand Tetons, the other major national park in the area. Yellowstone is only 40 miles north of the Grand Tetons. From Yellowstone, it was a short ride back to Bozeman, Montana, through the town of West Yellowstone and Gallatin National Forest, for the return flight.

The descriptions below mostly follow the chronology of the trip.


2.

The Bozeman airport was just outside town, in Belgrade. We stayed at a Quality Inn nearby, managed by local employees. There was a Bible in the room: a reliable presence in most American hotels. But there was also, uniquely, a long note encased in a glass frame, placed on a desk. I will paraphrase the gist here: “We sincerely wish you a wonderful journey wherever you are headed in this beautiful region. We wish your presence is profitable for us; we also hope that if you are conducting business, like we are, that you have a most profitable time.” The message, brimming with cheer and goodwill, seemed a most natural merger of American evangelism and entrepreneurial zeal. It felt like a condensed version of the hyper-positive sermons the Houston evangelical preacher Joel Osteen delivers every Sunday on television.

In the morning, I had my first glimpse of the landscape around Bozeman. I’d imagined a very lush green setting, perhaps Alpine forests in close proximity. Instead, what I saw was not very different from the small towns in northern Arizona, Nevada, and New Mexico that I had traveled to as a graduate student: a mostly flat, dry and indistinct plain that stretched in all directions, allowing a very large sky, and ringed by bare brown mountains in the distance. 

Bozeman was a ten minute drive from the hotel. Naively, I had expected it to be a remote town with little to offer. Instead, Bozeman sprawled over an area that seemed large for its population of 37,000. The downtown had trendy restaurants, well-stocked bookshops, and a cooperative grocery selling local and organic food. The idea of a rugged, inhospitable West is only a decorative exterior in Bozeman. The coffee shops had plush seating and colorful interiors; and the well dressed young clientele, absorbed in their laptops, were probably students from the nearby Montana State University or urban backpackers on a break. Thinking back, I feel amused I did not spot a meditation or yoga center. But an easy google search reveals that there are in fact many in town.

There are two routes from Bozeman to Yellowstone National Park. One leads to the western entrance and the other through the northern – through Gardiner city. We took the latter. After downtown Bozeman, one could be forgiven for momentarily forgetting about the social conservatism of the region. Very soon, however, there were prominent signs on the freeway: “Life is a Beautiful Choice”. The radio shows were sympathetic to the Republican worldview. The grass had a beautiful tinge of yellow; the wildflowers by the roadside, also mostly yellow, were in full bloom. Otherwise the scenery was primary agricultural: grazing cattle and farms with mechanized equipment for irrigation, suggesting some sort of large scale ownership.

At the northern entrance to Yellowstone – commemorated by a historic old arch – a black SUV from Colorado proudly declared: “God bless our troops and especially our snipers.” How this message, aggressive in tone and spirit, could be reconciled the large cross of Christ that hung from the rearview mirror of the same car, remained a mystery.

3.

Most natural parks revolve around some startling visual feature or theme. The Grand Canyon National Park, for example, is about the wondrous shapes, depths, colors and textures that water and other natural forces have created in the brittle, dry and high Colorado Plateau. The same theme echoes, on a smaller but no less dramatic scale, through the national parks of southern and south-central Utah: Zion, Bryce, Arches, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands.

Yellowstone, however, is not just about one thing, though its active volcanic status – expressed through geysers, strange-colored (prismatic) springs, mud volcanoes, steaming vents – would be grand enough to draw crowds. There is a lot more. The Yellowstone River carves its own canyon (picture below), and provides startling and intimate views of waterfalls, sheer cliffs and rapids. And then there is the easily observed wildlife: bison, elk, bears, bighorn sheep, red foxes, pronghorn antelope, bald eagles, pelicans, ospreys, otters, trumpeter swans.  




This diverse visual bounty means that the five visitor’s centers, where the expensive lodging, dining and shopping options are, can feel like miniature cities in the summer. The large parking lots are constantly abuzz with people and cars, the constant opening and slamming of doors.

The suburban mall analogy isn’t far off the mark: for us humans, it is about shopping and consuming experiences that Nature has to offer. Whatever the cost, we are intent of capturing a slice for our own memories: by driving the 142 miles of paved roads in the park; getting too close to herds of bison or mother bears and cubs (as happened during my visit) for the petty reason that the posing tourists can be in the foreground of a photograph that can be proudly paraded on Facebook; using the expensive lodging and dining facilities, creating enormous quantities of trash in the process, a fact quickly forgotten as we bask in the glow of the odd environmentally sustainable practice that the parks and hotels promote.   

4.

During the summer, the National Park Service (NPS) hires 800 employees, who live within the boundaries of Yellowstone. The private firm, Xanterra Parks and Resorts, runs the lodging, fine dining and cafeterias for NPS, while the general stores are owned by Delaware North Companies Parks and Resort. These corporations have 3500 employees who live in inside the park, in shared dormitory-like settings. The employees, young and old, are hired from far flung states like Texas, but also abroad (Taiwan has a formal exchange program).

Xanterra claims to be an environmentally responsible corporation. It also has a presence in Grand Canyon, Death Valley, and Zion. Their 2011 sustainability report, accessible online, provides details about how they reduced absolute as well as adjusted greenhouse gas emissions over the last 10 years.

In true corporate style, the report is glossy and promotional, with scenic pictures distractingly placed next to the graphs and tables. The report essentially admits that the very idea of high end resort in a fragile natural places runs contrary to any notion of environmental protection. In this sense, it is honest. Corporations, the report says, make huge claims about sustainability to promote their public image; this fa├žade is aptly called “greenwash”.

To its credit, the report does list some specifics: waste vegetable oil to partly power Xanterra activities; building a solar power generation facility in Death Valley National Park in California; soaps that are made of organic materials; and creating a store (the first of its kind, they claim) with a sustainability scorecard, to promote awareness. The vending machines smartly adjust themselves to peak and low usage periods, switching refrigeration on and off, thus minimizing unnecessary energy use. At Zion National Park, Xanterra has stopped the use of bottled water.  

In 2008, Xanterra was bought by Philip Anschutz, a Colorado-based billionaire whose empire includes businesses ranging from petroleum to entertainment. Anschutz is a cultural and social conservative, and, according to Wikipedia, was a major supporter of the George W Bush administration and his policies. When he bought Xanterra in 2008, however, he was, as this website claims, fully in favor of its sustainability initiatives. The question however remains: Can a billionaire involved with the petroleum industry and interested in furthering economic development, really be supportive of sustainability, or is he concerned more with the impression of sustainability, so that customers who use Xanterra feel less guilty about their travels – proud, even? The impression of sustainability is good for business, but sustainability itself is a more complex matter, and raises questions that we are afraid to face. 

One of Xanterra’s high end attractions within the park is the pricey Lake Yellowstone HotelThe building is large and multistoried. Its yellow paint makes it look bland although the blandness could also be interpreted as a kind of minimalistic elegance. The lobby and lounge are spacious, have clean wood floors, small lamps attached to pillars, cushioned seating, a large piano, and a glass doors which provide a view of the Yellowstone Lake. When we got there in the afternoon, families and older couples, with drinks in their hands, were enjoying the view, as they waited for dinner.

An LCD television on a wall near the lobby provided a map and details of the local farms the food was sourced from. It was good to see this, but I wondered whether the benefits of local were incomparably overwhelmed by visitors like me, who had flown or driven from far flung places in the world.

5.
Driving north from Lake Yellowstone, you pass through Hayden Valley. The wide meadows and rolling hills here looked grand, and I felt it was principally because of the striking green and yellow hue of the grass, this last phase of the summer. Bison grazed in the valley along the winding path of the Yellowstone River. Occasionally there were clouds of dust as they indulged in mud baths, vigorously twisting their upside-down bodies, their legs flailing. Roads were routinely blocked by herds leisurely making their way across the road, from one meadow to another (these traffic halts have a name: bisonjams). Unlike elk, deer, bears, foxes, coyotes, and pronghorn antelopes, which are alert to the slightest movement, sensitive to the presence of people around them and therefore harder to see up close, bison seem to display a Zen-like dispassion to the flow of people or cars. This dispassion is an illusion of course: a roused bison can move fast and finish off a pesky, intrusive tourist with little fuss.

Indeed, bison are so easy to spot within the confines of Yellowstone that weary tourists, who have been in the park for a few days, declare with a touch of annoyance: “Oh, it’s only a bison.” 

How quickly one gets used to extraordinary sights! It’s easy to forget that this magnificient animal almost went extinct. In fact, it is not to be found in other wilderness areas in the country. Bison are raised in farms for their meat, but such herds cannot be considered wild. In all, there are about 4000 bison in Yellowstone. Once millions of them roamed the Great Plains. As America expanded westward, Plains tribes lost their lands; and new settlers hunted bison with rapacity and abandon. Their numbers at Yellowstone came down to an astonishing 23 – yes 23! -- at the end of the 19th century. By pure chance, the thermally active region around Yellowstone did not lend itself easily to agriculture, and so was spared direct colonization by settlers. That did not stop poachers, however. The decline in numbers would have continued had it not been for a concerted, government backed effort at protecting bison and its habitat.   

6.

The somewhat less crowded Lamar Valley is in the northeast of Yellowstone. The landscape, dominated by scrub vegetation, is more rugged, and the silences mysterious. Bison herds are even more extensive, and are spread for miles and miles along the banks of Lamar River. Now and then, I spotted elusive pronghorn antelope grazing with bison. At trailheads, park rangers warned of recent bear activity.

Lamar is also where one is likely to see wolves. If the Bison’s near-extinction story is tragic, the Wolf’s is even more so: wolves were completely eliminated in Yellowstone, primarily due to their adversarial relationship with farmers. Efficient, large-scale agriculture is opposed to species diversity: anything that kills, directly or indirectly, what we eat (cattle or crops) must be eliminated to improve yields. Wolves kill cattle and therefore are on the wrong side of human interests. So, even as bison were protected in Yellowstone, wolves continued to be hunted. Unlike bison, wolves were not threatened on a global scale: there were other habitats where they still thrived. But in Greater Yellowstone, by the mid nineteenth century, they had disappeared.

In 1995, wolf packs were controversially reintroduced to Lamar Valley and Greater Yellowstone. They have a healthy presence in the region now. Their reinstatement provides a fascinating opportunity to quantify the impact a major predator’s absence or presence creates in the food chain.

This is what has been hypothesized: With wolves missing, elk numbers rose through the last century. Coyotes, rivals of wolves, also prospered. But streamside vegetation – willows, aspen – that elk consumed declined. Beavers, which depended on these plants, also declined. When the wolves returned, elk numbers reduced by half, coyote numbers are down as well. But beaver populations are back to healthy levels. Bears, meanwhile, have benefitted, since they can scavenge wolf kills easily. Scavenging birds – ravens, eagles, and magpies – have also more wolf-kill carcasses to feed on.

Whether observed increases and decreases in numbers of other species are chance correlations or whether the reintroduction of the wolf was indeed the principal cause is difficult to say with certainty. Nature is far too complex:  there exist plenty of other changes that happened in the same timeframe for the reintroduction experiment to have neat conclusions. Yet it is fascinating preliminary evidence on the interconnectedness of everything.