PS 199 at its best: reflections on politics of wildlife and wilderness

“America the Beautiful” is one of America’s most recognizable patriotic songs, known for its poetic descriptions of the country’s most breathtaking landscapes. It has been more than 100 years since its first publishing, and unfortunately, modern Americans can hope to see only brief glimpses of their country’s “purple mountains majesty” between highway billboards and tractors rumbling across “amber waves of grain.”

Despite continually growing commercialization and an on-going struggle over resource management, there still exists small corners of the U.S. set aside to preserve these natural monuments, and with the help of PS 199, I was fortunate enough to experience these wonders first-hand.

We expanded our knowledge of the nation’s most majestic wildlife and landscapes while widening our interests in environmental policy and law. We grew to appreciate the importance of wildlife preservation by hiking in the deep wilderness, meters away from animals, such as bison, elk, bears and wolves, with nothing to span the divide but a pair of binoculars and our deepening understanding of animal behavior. Among the many lessons that I learned in this course, the most important one draws focus away from Yellowstone and onto the entire planet.

Management and preservation of ecosystems is important not only for the scenic beauty it provides but also for the health and well being of the environment as a whole. Species “are independent (and) extinctions of keystone species can have long-range consequences,” so it is important to preserve all species, no matter how small, insignificant or uncute.

Between hikes, we were able to meet with naturalists and conservation support groups, including the Buffalo Field Campaign in their cramped shack-like headquarters located outside the park territory, who advocate for the protection of bison from slaughter by local farmers and the federal government, sometimes putting themselves in danger to defend these dignified creatures from harm.

During the winter, bison leave Yellowstone for lower-altitude feeding grounds; However, the park service hazes the bison into Yellowstone before they would naturally migrate back because ranchers believe that they compete with cattle for grass. Bison, sometimes with one-day-old calves, can be hazed as much as 14 miles into pens in the park, where they are either given a second chance at life or slaughtered. In winter 2007, the park killed 1,600 bison. Just being lucky enough to see an irresistibly adorable bison calf was enough to make me interested in supporting this formidable cause.

One of the most interesting and surprising concepts I learned in this course was about forest fires. Everyone has learned from Smokey the Bear that forest fires are bad and should be avoided at all costs. However, while Smokey’s ranger uniform gives him the appearance of authority, he was spreading misinformation! Forest fires are great for the environment, as they replenish the soil and give birth to a new and healthier ecosystems. In fact, many plants rely on forest fires to spread their seeds and develop chemical compounds to help them burn quickly.

“Decades of fire suppression by the Forest Service has resulted in hazardous accumulation of flammable fuels,” and a small lightning strike or drought can cause the forest to explode into a fire that cannot be controlled by any number of fire fighters. It is understandable why fire fighting is supported, as visitors would be hesitant to support a national park that is allowed to be swallowed up by flames, while the park service sits idly by.

However, Yellowstone National Park paid the price for many years of fire fighting in the summer of 1988, when 36 percent, or 800,000 acres of the park, broke into an uncontrollable fire following one of the park’s worst dry spells.

The fire started sometime in the summer and completely died down in September because of snow and rain. The destruction left behind from this event made it clear how important allowing natural processes such as forest fires to take place without human interference really is. It is important to always prioritize the environment above all else, even if this means that the commercial side of national parks will suffer.

Many visitors may not know that Yellowstone is one of the largest active volcanic calderas in the world! It’s last eruption was 600,000 years ago, and it is not expected to erupt again for a few more thousand years, but its last eruption covered much of the U.S. with volcanic lava and ash.

This caldera is home to countless geysers and hot springs, with most of the park’s 3 million visitors per year having the popular Old Faithful high on their to-do lists. I had high expectations for this geyser, but I have to admit that I was not all that impressed. After waiting about 90 minutes for the eruption in the heat of the sun’s rays, hot water and steam shot up to as high as 184 feet for two minutes. Most visitors left before it even finished erupting.

The amount discharged by Old Faithful paled in comparison to that of Excelsior geyser, which discharges about 4,000 gallons of water per minute. It was a very interesting experience, but I was even more amazed by the magnificence of Midway Geyser Basin, which contained fascinating prismatic hot springs of every color created by bacteria and deposits of mineral filled rocks. The springs had their own unique features, and each one was more beautiful than the last. It has been said that settlers decided to preserve the Yellowstone area after seeing the beauty of a geyser’s eruption.

I also learned the philosophy of Leave No Trace. This doctrine mandates that national park visitors “leave only footprints and take only photographs,” with the aim to minimize human effect on the environment as much as possible to preserve the areas for future enjoyment and environmental well being. While it may be hard to resist hand-feeding extremely cute and friendly marmots, feeding animals is very bad for the environment.

Several decades ago, national parks would allow this kind of behavior for all manner of animals, including bears, but it was soon found that the animals would stop hunting in the wild and rely on humans as their sole food source, becoming aggressive when tourists did not offer them food, meaning that they had to be exterminated by the park service. This led to the saying that a “fed bear is a dead bear,” and since then, animal feeding has been strictly prohibited. Following Leave No Trace principles is necessary when visiting places such as national parks to preserve the integrity of the area and the integrity of its wildlife.

I was fortunate to be able to experience the magic of Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks firsthand, while learning about the importance of wildlife management and preservation. More importantly, it has helped me gain the perspective that the possible advantages of industrial advancement pale in comparison to harm caused by eliminating areas of wilderness where floral and faunal wildlife can expand.

While there may be valuable resources lurking within this country’s national parks, they are no where near as valuable as this country’s greatest and most precious resource: the wilderness that once extended across the entire continent, from sea to shining sea.

Kelsey is a sophomore.