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kottke.org posts about Yellowstone National Park

Some reflections on my roadtrip across the western United States

posted by Jason Kottke   Jul 16, 2018

Last week, I stood in the middle of the caldera of a supervolcano, walked on rocks billions of years old, and traveled back in time simply by driving down a mountain. I looked a bison in the eye at five yards. I witnessed the final resting place of a 12 million-year-old fossilized horse buried in volcanic ash. I saw a rainbow emerging from a mighty thundercloud — powerful with a little bit of tender. I talked civilly with red hatters in red states and found some common ground at least. I drove across the western United States, from Iowa to Oregon, over the course of 10 days. Here is some of what I saw and learned.

Biggest surprise of the trip, part 1: The Bighorn Mountains and The Bighorn National Forest. I had planned to just drive though, up and over, on my way to Yellowstone, but I ended up stopping here for quite a while. The Bighorns aren’t as spectacular as Yellowstone or some of the other park, but it’s a hell of a lot less crowded. I’d go back and spend a few days here easy.

2018 Roadtrip 01

Surprisingly, despite spending 57 hours in the car, I was not bored a single minute of my trip. I marveled at the landscape, played music, and thought. I thought a lot. I expected to listen to a bunch of audiobooks but only managed to finish one I was most of the way through and the first third of another…the landscape was just too distracting most of the time. My experience leads me to believe I might be a good candidate for a solo Mars mission (aside from the one-way thing).

Animals seen on my trip, a partial list: rabbits, prairie dogs, antelope, ducks, geese, pelicans, pheasants, a moose, a wolf, elk, bison, deer, and a bunch of birds I couldn’t identify. The prairie dogs sat near their holes peeping at each other…it was really cute. The moose was a juvenile male in Yellowstone who looked lost & confused; he trotted alongside the road for a bit, then swam across the river and took off into the woods. I was apprehensive about not seeing a bison on my trip, but I shouldn’t have worried…Yellowstone was lousy with ‘em. Pro tip: bring a good pair of binoculars, possibly left over from eclipse-watching.

Yellowstone was one of the highlights (with a caveat that I’ll get to in a second). A single park containing all these different landscapes, from volcanic wastelands to mountain peaks to verdant river valleys to evergreen forests to grasslands…it’s a geographic marvel. But here’s the but: it’s also really crowded in the summer. At times, it felt like a nature mall, with herds of consumers moving from the bison shop to the geyser store. Reminded me a bit of my experience at the Louvre, itself a wonderful place too crowded to enjoy.

2018 Roadtrip

Final roadtrip stats: 2748 miles driven in 10 days and a total of 57 hours in the car. 718 photos and videos taken. I visited seven states — Iowa, Nebraska, South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and Oregon — and spent at least one night in each save Idaho. Lowest point: 810’. Highest point: 11,070’.

Somewhere west of the Missouri River, which separates Iowa & Missouri from Nebraska & Kansas, the dominance in the eastern US of human activity & organization gives way to geology and geography. Even in the sparser areas of the Midwest, you look down from an airplane and see the Jefferson grid: square parcels of land, each with a group of buildings contained somewhere within it. Further west, hills and mountains and volcanoes and rivers and streams and forests and plains dominate the landscape and how people move within it. The West is not yet tamed, not by a long shot, and acknowledging this goes a long way toward understanding the people who live here.

Biggest surprise of the trip, part 2: High altitude wildflower meadows. When I stopped my car at a scenic overlook at 9400’ in the Bighorn Mountains and saw a path down a gentle slope through a meadow of wildflowers growing very close to the ground, I didn’t think a whole lot about it. Pretty scene, right? I grabbed my daypack from the car and as soon as I stepped down onto the path and into the meadow, this amazing smell sent me reeling. For 20 minutes, I walked in an olfactory daze to the crest of the next hill and back. OMG, what an amazing sensation…a definite high-water mark.

2018 Roadtrip

The speed limit on the freeways in South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho was 80 mph. On some rural undivided two-lane highways, the limit was still 70 mph, which I found astounding. But the lanes and the shoulders were way wider than in Vermont, the roads flatter and straighter, and traffic was few and far between most of the time. Still, even just that little extra speed really cuts down on drivers’ potential reaction times.

I had high hopes for the Badlands, and it lived up to the hype. Magnificent desolation, accessible, and not super crowded. I could (and probably should) have spent a couple of days there easy.

2018 Roadtrip

Food was not a highlight or a focus of this trip, mostly because I didn’t spend a tremendous amount of time seeking out good places to eat. I had some Thai lettuce wraps w/ bison in SD that were pretty good, some just-fine sushi in Missoula, and a delicious tostada scramble in Rhododendron, OR. Maybe the best thing I ate was a homemade breakfast burrito I bought at a gas station in Red Lodge, Montana. It was a struggle to find non-meat things to eat — I’m not a vegetarian, but man cannot subsist on burgers & hot dogs & steaks & BBQ for a week and a half w/o GI discomfort. With some notable exceptions, food in the US is more homogenous than ever…you can get anything almost anywhere.

Biggest surprise of the trip, part 3: The hosts at the B&B I stayed at in Wyoming advised me to enter Yellowstone via the Beartooth Highway and I am so glad I took their advice. The 68-mile drive was called “the most beautiful drive in America” by former CBS correspondant Charles Kuralt and he might be right. At the top of the pass, you drive just short of 11,000’ above sea level; I climbed above the 11K mark for a stunning 360° view of the entire area. Reader, I may have done the arms-wide-on-the-bow-of-the-Titanic gesture on top of a rock at the top of the world…no apologies.

2018 Roadtrip

About 5 minutes after I checked into my B&B near Cody, WY, I looked out my window to see a rain cloud off in the distance with a rainbow coming out of it. Chuckling, I asked my host if that was a common occurence around here. “Pretty much,” he replied, “especially with climate change.” A life-long resident of the area, he went on to explain that it rains a lot more there now than “20-30 years ago”. “See all that grass out there? It’s supposed to be brown this time of year.”

Several people told me before my trip that Devils Tower was worth the effort, but as I spotted it off in the distance on my approach, I had my doubts. But as it got closer, I realized they’d all been right. Totally crazy geological thing worth seeing in the flesh.

2018 Roadtrip

At a gas station in southern South Dakota, a man noticed the Texas plates on my rental car and asked, “What’s the price of gas in Texas these days?” I explained my situation, and he said, “I’m from Texas originally and I can tell by your accent that you ain’t. What’re ya doing in this godforsaken country?”

In Wyoming, I stayed less than a mile from the Heart Mountain Relocation Center, a WWII Japanese American confinement site. From 1942 to 1945, this concentration camp held almost 14,000 people, making it the third-largest town in Wyoming at the time. The majority were American citizens and had done nothing wrong and committed no crimes…they were put there for being of Japanese heritage. I regret that my plans didn’t allow for a visit; if I’d had known beforehand that it was going to be so close, I would have made the time, given our present administration’s treatment of its Muslim citizens and asylum seekers from Central and South America. As Faulkner said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

I saw some cool thunderstorms:

2018 Roadtrip

2018 Roadtrip

If I had a time machine, I would tell myself from two weeks ago to skip Mt Rushmore, Wind Cave, and the volcanic stuff in Yellowstone. And perhaps Wall Drug. I also would have opted to fly out of Salt Lake City instead of Portland, OR to give me more time to explore Montana and Wyoming…the trip ended up having too much driving and not enough being out in nature.

You can see more photos from my trip on Instagram and in this saved Instagram Story. I feel very lucky to have had the time and resources to take this trip. It definitely took me out of my comfort zone in both good ways and bad — the journey definitely wasn’t all sunshine and lollipops, despite what my photos might indicate. To many of us, it seems like a perilous time in our nation’s history, with many debts, old and new, coming due in rapid-fire succession. Doing this roadtrip reminded me of many great things about this country & the people who live in it and gave me the time & space to ponder how I fit into the puzzle, without the din of the news and social media. If you can manage it, I encourage you all to do the same, even if it’s just visiting someplace close that you’ve never been to: get out there and see the world and visit with its people. This world is all we have, and the more we see of it, the better we can make it.

Yellowstone: how not to manage a National Park

posted by Jason Kottke   Jan 27, 2015

Related to my post last November about how the biodiversity of Yosemite Valley was mismanaged, author Michael Crichton shared a story at a 2005 talk about how the National Park Service has grossly mismanaged nature at Yellowstone National Park, resulting in less biodiversity, the disappearance of many natural species from the park, and catastrophic fires. Since this anecdote was part of a longer talk, I’ll quote the whole thing from the transcript.

Long recognized as a scene of great natural beauty, in 1872, Ulysses Grant set aside Yellowstone as the first formal nature preserve in the world. More than two million acres, larger than Delaware and Rhode Island combined. John Muir was very pleased when he visited in 1885, noting that under the care of the Department of the Interior, Yellowstone was protected from, quote, “the blind, ruthless destruction that is going on in adjoining regions.”

Theodore Roosevelt was also pleased in 1903, when as President, he went to Yellowstone for a dedication ceremony. Here he is. This was his third visit. Roosevelt saw a thousand antelope, plentiful cougar, mountain sheep, deer, coyote and many thousands of elk. He wrote at that time, “Our people should see to it that this rich heritage is preserved for their children and their children’s children forever, with its majestic beauty all unmarred.”

But in fact, Yellowstone was not preserved. On the contrary, it was altered beyond repair in a matter of years. By 1934, the Park Service acknowledged that whitetail deer, cougar, lynx, wolf, and possibly wolverine and fisher are gone from the Yellowstone.

What they didn’t say was that the Park Service was solely responsible for the disappearances. Park rangers had been shooting the animals for decades, even though that was illegal since the Lacey Act of 1894. But they thought they knew best. They thought their environmental concerns trumped any mere law.

What actually happened at Yellowstone is a cascade of ego and error, but to understand it, we have to go back to the 1890s. Back then, it was believed that elk were becoming extinct, so these animals were fed and encouraged. Over the next few years, the number of elk in the park exploded. Here you can see them feeding them hand to hand.

Roosevelt had seen a few thousand animals on his visit, and he’d noticed that the elk were more numerous than in his previous visit. Nine years later, in 1912, there were 30,000 elk in Yellowstone. By 1914, there were 35,000.

Things were going very well. Rainbow trout had also been introduced, and although they crowded out the native cutthroats, nobody really worried. Fishing was great. Bears were increasing in numbers, and moose and bison as well.

By 1915, Roosevelt realized the elk had become a problem, and he urged scientific management, which meant culling. His advice was ignored. Instead, the Park Service did everything they could to increase the number of elk. The results were predictable. Antelope and deer began to decline. Overgrazing changed the flora. Aspen and willows were being eaten at a furious rate and did not regenerate. Large animals and small began to disappear from the park.

In an effort to stem the loss, the park rangers began to kill predators, which they did without public knowledge. They eliminated the wolf and the cougar, and they were well on their way to getting rid of the coyote. Then a national scandal broke out. New studies showed that it wasn’t predators that were killing the other animals. It was overgrazing from too many elk. The management policy of killing predators therefore had only made things worse.

Actually, the elk had so decimated the aspen that now, where formerly they were plentiful, now they’re quite rare. Without the aspen, the beaver, which use these trees to make dams, began to disappear from the park. Beaver were essential to the water management of Yellowstone, and without dams, the meadows dried hard in summer and still more animals vanished.

The situation worsened further. It became increasingly inconvenient that all the predators had been killed off by 1930, so in the 1960s, there was a sigh of relief when new sightings by rangers suggested that wolves were returning. Of course, there were rumors all during that time, persistent rumors that the rangers were trucking them in. But in any case, the wolves vanished soon afterward. They needed to eat beaver and other small rodents, and the beaver had gone.

Pretty soon, the Park Service initiated a PR campaign to prove that excessive elk were not responsible for the problems in the park, even though they were. The campaign went on for about a decade, during which time the bighorn sheep virtually disappeared.

Now, we’re in the 1970s, and bears were recognized as a growing problem. They used to be considered fun-loving creatures, and their close association with human beings was encouraged in the park. Here’re people coming to watch bear feedings. There’s a show at a certain hour of the day. And here’s one of my favorites. Setting the table for bears at Lake Camp in Yellowstone Park. You see they’re very well behaved.

But that didn’t actually continue-the good behavior, I mean. There were more bears, and certainly there were many more lawyers, and thus the much-increased threat of litigation, so the rangers moved the grizzlies out. The grizzlies promptly became endangered. Their formerly growing numbers shrank. The Park Service refused to let scientists study them, but once they were declared endangered, the scientists could go back in again.

And by now, we’re about ready to reap the rewards of our 40-year policy of fire suppression, Smokey the Bear and all that. The Indians used to burn forests regularly, and lightning causes natural fires every year. But when these are suppressed, branches fall from the trees to the ground and accumulate over the years to make a dense groundcover such that when there’s a fire, it is a very low, very hot fire that sterilizes the soil. In 1988, Yellowstone burned, and all 1.2 million acres were scorched, and 800,000 acres, one third of the park, burned.

Then having killed the wolves, having tried to sneak them back in, they officially brought the wolves back. And now the local ranchers screamed. The newer reports suggested the wolves seemed to be eating enough of the elk that slowly, the ecology of the park was being restored. Or so it is claimed. It’s been claimed before. And on and on.

The Park Service’s bungling efforts at conservation were covered by Alston Chase in his 1987 book, Playing God in Yellowstone. (via @jhreha)

Update: As Crichton notes above, wolves were reintroduced into Yellowstone in 1995 and their presence started what’s called a trophic cascade. From Wikipedia:

Trophic cascades occur when predators in a food web suppress the abundance or alter traits (e.g., behavior) of their prey, thereby releasing the next lower trophic level from predation (or herbivory if the intermediate trophic level is a herbivore). For example, if the abundance of large piscivorous fish is increased in a lake, the abundance of their prey, zooplanktivorous fish, should decrease, large zooplankton abundance should increase, and phytoplankton biomass should decrease. This theory has stimulated new research in many areas of ecology. Trophic cascades may also be important for understanding the effects of removing top predators from food webs, as humans have done in many places through hunting and fishing activities.

In a TED talk, George Monbiot explains the surprising effects the wolves had on Yellowstone…they even changed the courses of the rivers flowing through the park.

Fascinating. A sort of trickle down ecology. (via @gasperak and several others)