Yellowstone and the Land of Hope

The Gallatin Range south of Bozeman deserves to be preserved as wilderness. Photo George Wuerthner

Recently I skied into a Forest Service cabin in the Gallatin Range. Looking out on a meadow with glaciated peaks beyond gave me a chance to reflect on how lucky I was to have public lands available to enjoy.

I’ve been fortunate to explore much of the West’s natural landscapes, including every national park and preserve in Alaska. Yet, none of these experiences matches my love for Yellowstone and the surrounding Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

What is amazing to contemplate is how the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is one of the last functioning temperate zone landscapes where natural evolutionary and ecological processes still dominate a portion of the landscape. Yellowstone, for instance, still has all the larger mammals, including predators that have existed in the park region for thousands of years.

It is worth noting that this did not occur by accident. It was because there was a concerted effort by citizens across the country to recognize that this landscape was extraordinary and deserved protection. I am grateful for their efforts to leave some parts of the West close to their natural condition.

The original rationale for preserving Yellowstone National Park was to protect the huge collection of thermal features like geyser basins. Photo George Wuerthner

The original reason for setting Yellowstone aside in 1872 as a national park was motivated by the amazing concentration of thermal features (about 10,000).

Think about how unique this decision was. In the 1870s, the United States was dominated by the Manifest Destiny perspective that encouraged settlement and development. As a result, we had the Homestead Act, the Timber and Stone Act, the Mining Law of 1872, Railroad Land Grants, and other legislation designed to expand human presence and exploitation of the land.

And then we created Yellowstone, where we said, at least, we accept limits. Here we will not allow the on-going rush toward domestication of the West to occur. We drew a line in the sand and said we will do things differently here.

Against this backdrop of unrestricted development, the National Park Service has done an excellent job protecting Yellowstone’s unique features.

However, any analysis of the cumulative impacts of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem integrity would conclude that there is an on-going erosion of the land’s ecological function and wildness.

Places like the Upper Green River below the Wind River Range in Wyoming sufffers from livestock grazing. Dozens of grizzlies have been killed here over the years to protect private livestock grazing on these public lands. Photo George Wuerthner 

Degradation of the landscape from logging, roading, mining, and livestock grazing on other public lands is now joined by increased development of private grounds and recreational pressures.

It is a privilege to live in the GYE, but with privilege comes responsiblity.

With this decision to live near a world-renowned ecosystem comes a responsibility to minimize personal and collective impact, or these superlative ecological values that make this area attractive will eventually become no better than everywhere else.

Land use planning and zoning is an anathema to many residents, but if you want to see elk and grizzlies into the future, we must avoid new housing tracts in THEIR backyards.

The concentration of housing in urban areas can reduce, though not eliminate, human impacts on wildlife, water, and natural processes.

We need to identify and protect corridors for the free movement of wildlife across the landscape.

The Buffalo Horn drainage in the Gallatin Range immediately north of Yellowstone’s borders is one of the many areas in the ecosystem that deserve protection as wilderness or an expanded Yellowstone National Park. Photo George Wuerthner 

To the greatest degree possible, we must preserve all the remaining natural public lands surrounding Yellowstone. Therefore, places like the Gallatin Range, Lionhead, Crazy Mountains, Pryor Mountains, Gravelly Range, and other Custer Gallatin National Forest lands should be preserved as wilderness. The Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act would accomplish this goal.

What we need is a Greater Yellowstone National Park.

One of the highest values we have collectively learned from creating national parks and other protected landscapes is that they work to preserve biodiversity, functioning ecosystems, and beauty.

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. Photo George Wuerthner

There is a less tangible benefit as well. Wilderness and parks teach restraint and respect for others besides ourselves. In preserving places like Yellowstone, we are saying humans are obligated to give some attention to the plight of grizzly bears, bison, elk, trout, and a thousand other creatures and plants with whom we share the planet.

At some point, we must adopt limits. And parks and wilderness help us to accept limitations.

Bison migrating to snow-free grounds outside of Yellowstone Park. Such evolutionary processes as wildlife migration need to preserve. Photo George Wuerthner 

The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is, in effect, the land of hope. If we can figure out a way to live here without eroding the values that draw us to this place, it will be a lesson we can transfer to the rest of the planet. And that is a lesson we desperately need.



  1. Maggie Frazier Avatar
    Maggie Frazier

    “Wilderness and parks teach restraint and respect for others besides ourselves.”
    Indeed – wish that were actually the case.
    The current attitude towards “individualism” makes that a bit doubtful.

    1. Ralph Maughan Avatar
      Ralph Maughan

      I think the biggest threat to not just our wildlife in general and our wild places, is today’s Republican Party. I speak not just about that party’s officials, but its base of voters too. Such an anti-science, anti-environment, base of religious reactionaries and conspiracy believers is very unusual in American politics. I think these people are a flat out menace to our country’s democracy, peace and freedom, prosperity, natural heritage and national security — a menace that needs to be put down by any means.

      1. Chris Zinda Avatar
        Chris Zinda

        As a poli Sci guy myself, IMV there is nothing unusual, this period akin to the early Progressive era, the question now which direction the realignment ends. We’ve always been genocidal, ecocidal, capitalist and increasingly fascist.

        However, unlike the Progressive era, we have few social movements, particularly labor, and our political system is far more entrenched into two party rule, a constitutional problem with winner take all vs modern parliamentary. That entrenched two party rule of today was also a response of those two parties to the Progressive threat they never wanted repeated. The Powell Memorandum was the end of anything Progressive, a direct response to FDR/LBJ/Great Society, combating labor, education, healthcare, civil rights, environment (ie private property rights), defining what American means, an example theocon networks like Benson/Skousen/Smith assisting in their own ways.

        Frankly, what is unusual IMV is the lack of a “radical” response from labor, education or environmentalist, tying property to human/rights of nature, perhaps relative affluence to blame.

        Guess I have time on my hands today….

        1. Chris Zinda Avatar
          Chris Zinda

          Adding because I’m proud, our 8th grade daughter came home excited yesterday, winning 3rd place in a regional VFW “Patriot Pen” competition.

          Eat that, Cliven or spawn.

  2. Brian L. Horejsi Avatar
    Brian L. Horejsi

    Very well said, George; This is one case where “more” would actually be better.

  3. Ed Loosli Avatar
    Ed Loosli

    Thank you George once again for your visionary outlook toward mending our beleaguered western United States. Question: Are there any conservation groups or politicians promoting an expanded “Greater Yellowstone National Park”, that will preserve the specific areas you mention in this article??

  4. Chris Zinda Avatar
    Chris Zinda

    GW continues to say preservation yet promotes conservation- the two as ingruent as starting a piece by saying he skied into a cabin, omitting his drive expending carbon for his 100th trip and that winter wreckreation is one of the greatest impacts to wildlife.

    There’s a persistent disconnect in the so-called environmental movement.

  5. Deane Rimerman Avatar
    Deane Rimerman

    I think how you worded it is how we need to re-define our objective for the future of the American West, which still has potential to massively expand protected areas, or as you say:

    “…landscapes where natural evolutionary and ecological processes still dominate a portion of the landscape.”

    If this became the dominant objective of government-owned land in the west and there was hundreds of billions to buy out private inholdings and small towns to expand protected areas far beyond what we have now we could inspire the world.

    But this need to happen in the context of #landback for indigenous peoples to allow them to renew the life giving/nurturing parts of their traditional relationship with their land again. This also mean not allowing destructive and degenerative activities in the process.

    With a plan like that we could lay down a meaningful trail of ecological renewal for future generations to travel on.

  6. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    It’s a wonderful place, and where it was our first National Park, where the value of these places first was acknowledged and protected, it truly is a place of hope.

    Thank you!

  7. Jannett Heckert Avatar
    Jannett Heckert

    Protection of our national parks is failing as the Theodore Roosevelt National Park wants to eliminate one of it’s precious animals from the ecosystem in the Badlands of North Dakota. How can our government, President Joe Biden and Secretary Haaland stand by and say this is the right thing? To preserve an ecosystem is to allow all the animals live as part of our history for future generation!

    1. Ida Lupine Avatar
      Ida Lupine

      They’re only marginally better than the Republicans, and even then I have to try really hard to give that much credit. 🙁

      I wish there was a third party to keep them all honest.


George Wuerthner is an ecologist and writer who has published 38 books on various topics related to environmental and natural history. He has visited over 400 designated wilderness areas and over 200 national park units.

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George Wuerthner