Yellowstone is both a manufactured place and a wilderness

By Randy T. Simmons and Jordan Lofthouse, August 25, 2016

The Hill


This year, during the 100th anniversary of the National Park Service (NPS), millions of Americans will travel to Yellowstone to experience the grandeur of the world’s first national park. Geysers, waterfalls and wildlife dazzle visitors, but not everybody sees Yellowstone the same way. Ask a visitor from New York City, and she might say that Yellowstone is the epitome of wilderness, with its wide-open valleys and its snowcapped peaks. Ask a visitor from rural Idaho, and he may talk about the hoards of people and the lines of cars that clog up the most popular sites.

Yellowstone, as the world’s first national park, was a new approach to how we interact with the environment. Some people have even called national parks America’s best idea. National parks are found in almost every country around the globe, based on the system started in Yellowstone. Conserving beautiful places for all of us to enjoy is an admirable goal, but the mythology of national parks has distorted our perceptions. Yellowstone will always be a special place, but we need to consider its reality: Yellowstone is a manufactured place.

People have and always will have different motives and different values. Deciding what Yellowstone, or any national park, should look like is a personal preference. Some people channel the spirit of John Muir, wanting Yellowstone to remain a wild temple to nature’s God. Other people want Yellowstone to be a natural Disneyland where they can experience the great outdoors without getting dirty. Both of these viewpoints, and any others in between, are valid. There is no scientific reason why Yellowstone should or shouldn’t be a vast wilderness or a natural Disneyland. Ecology is the field of science that tells us how ecosystems work, but it doesn’t tell us the way they should work. Deciding on the “true” or “best” state of Yellowstone is a subjective question that doesn’t have one right answer.

Humans have shaped Yellowstone for millennia and will continue to do so. Native Americans lived in Yellowstone, hunted its animals, and even set fire to the grasslands and forests to clear dense undergrowth. As the Native Americans were driven out, the way Yellowstone looked began to change. The first European-Americans tourists saw a different Yellowstone than the Native Americans had created. The forests had become much denser and the animal populations had grown larger.

Ever since the NPS was created 100 years ago this month, the way we have shaped Yellowstone has constantly changed. As our ideals and values have changed, so has the way we have managed the park. Before the environmental movement began in the 1960s, the NPS focused more on recreation. For example, the NPS allowed people to feed bears at landfills located in the park because it was exciting and fun for tourists to get a closer look. The NPS also actively exterminated wolves from the park in the first half of the 20th century because they were considered a nuisance and a liability.

After the environmental movement, the public consciousness shifted, and so did they way we managed Yellowstone. People couldn’t feed bears anymore starting in the 1970s. The NPS reintroduced wolves in 1995 when we stopped seeing them as monsters and started seeing them as cute and cuddly creatures.

As 2016 marks the 100th anniversary of the NPS, park lovers can’t forget the true history of Yellowstone. Humans have always shaped this amazing place. We have made Yellowstone a “wilderness” because that’s what we want it to be. Even if we want to think of Yellowstone as a wilderness, we can’t delude ourselves into thinking that humans haven’t affected the park.

We have shaped Yellowstone as long as humans have been around, and as our perceptions and preferences regarding Yellowstone change, so will the way that we manage it.

Simmons, Ph.D. is professor of political economy and director of the Institute of Political Economy at Utah State University. Lofthouse is a policy analyst at Strata, an energy and environment research center based in Logan, Utah.


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