Create A Greater Yellowstone National Park

Old Faithful erupting, Yellowstone National Park, Wyoming. Photo George Wuerthner 

I just saw the movie Wild Life about Doug and Kris Thompkins’s efforts to protect wildlands in Patagonia.

Doug and Kris Tompkins at Renihue Chile. Photo George Wuerthner 

I am very familiar with that effort as I worked for Doug and Kris for more than ten years and made numerous visits to Patagonia. Unfortunately, with Doug’s tragic death kayaking, we lost one of the world’s most ardent supporters of wildlands.



The first Wildlands Project Meeting in 1991 at Doug Tompkin’s home in San Francisco, California. Photo George Wuerthner 

I first met Doug in 1991 when he gathered some wilderness activists and conservation biologists at his San Francisco home to discuss how to reinvigorate the conservation movement. Beyond meeting Doug, one consequence of that meeting was the formation of the Wildlands Project, which advocated for a continental vision of protected wildlands across North America using conservation biology concepts.

When I worked for Doug, we had numerous discussions about what we considered a fundamental crisis in the worldview of the environmental movement. Doug constantly reminded me that most conservation groups were too timid, too narrow in their vision, and lacked the imagination and courage to think big.

Doug used to quip: “We are always losing, no matter what, so you might try to preserve as much as possible.”

The vastness of the Maine Woods invites a bold proposal for a 3.2 million acre National Park as articulated by RESTORE. Photo George Wuerthner 

He even chided me as board president of RESTORE the North Woods because he thought our 3.2 million acre proposal for a Maine Woods National Park was too “small,” even though it was a million acres larger than Yellowstone National Park. Doug kept telling me to go bold—argue for 5 million acres.

Doug didn’t lack courage, vision, or imagination when advocating for large, protected landscapes and he continues to inspire me even after his death.


I’ve felt for years that wildlands advocates should work to expand Yellowstone National Park and preserve the entire Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem under National Park Management.

Map of Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. 

The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is the largest intact temperate ecosystem in the world. But it is suffering the cumulative impacts of a thousand cuts. Something needs to change, or we may lose our last chance to get it right.

Across the globe, large, protected areas have been shown repeatedly to be the best way to preserve evolutionary processes and biodiversity. Even where species decline is noted, the creation and maintenance of protected preserves tend to slow the losses and, in some cases, reverse the trend.

Wildlands advocates are busy fighting every abuse and insult to the ecosystem’s integrity. It is a rear-guard action. Rather than spend time trying to contain these misuses, a more proactive strategy is to put forth a positive vision to counter most of these ecological insults.

If we can’t preserve the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem here, where can we?


Yellowstone has become a model for conservation across the planet.

Yellowstone National Park sign in Gardiner, Montana. Photo George Wuerthner

Depending on how you define the borders, Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE) is anywhere from 20-23 million acres. To put that into perspective, that is roughly the acreage of Maine. The heart of the ecosystem is the 2.2-million-acre Yellowstone National Park. Surrounding the park are other parklands like Grand Teton National Park and the John D. Rockefeller Parkway.

There are seven national forests surrounding Yellowstone. Many of these forestlands are designated Wilderness, one of the most stringent land protection management categories available. Wilderness is managed primarily to enhance and preserve wildness—or “self-willed lands.”

Drill rig outside of Pinedale, Wyoming. Photo George Wuerthner

Unfortunately, these public lands outside the Wilderness are “open” for business. Mining, logging, livestock grazing, oil and gas drilling, and industrial recreation all find a favorable reception in the national forests.

Porcupine drainage in Gallatin Range, Montana. Photo George Wuerthner 

One of the most vulnerable National Forest landscapes is the Gallatin Range, which lies south of Bozeman, Montana. The Gallatin Range is currently part of a Wilderness Study Area but lacks Congressional designation as Wilderness. It is a crucial area that should be protected as Wilderness.

Pryor Mountains south of Billings, Montana. Photo George Wuerthner 

Another significant area currently without protection as Wilderness is the Pryor Range which lies on the eastern edge of the GYE. The Pryors have some of the greatest plant diversity of any mountain range in Montana. The FS, BLM, and NPS manage the range.

Wyoming Range, Bridger Teton National Park, Wyoming. Photo George Wuerthner 

Similarly, the Wyoming Range, Salt River Range, and Commissary Ridge on the Bridger Teton National Forest south of Jackson should also be given greater protection as Wilderness.

Although neither Yellowstone nor Grand Teton is currently covered by a wilderness overlay, for the most part, the NPS manages its lands as defacto wilderness.

The Northern Rockies Ecosystem Protection Act (NREPA)  is a bold and visionary proposal that would have made Doug Tompkins smile. NREPA would go a long way towards protecting these areas and many other roadless areas in other parts of the region. NPEPA would also finally bring wilderness designation to Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks.

Though I support wilderness designation as an overlay to federal lands, even Wilderness alone is not necessarily as good as the national park designation overlain by Wilderness.

For instance, even with Wilderness surrounding Yellowstone on nearly all sides, wolves, grizzlies, bison, and other animals are regularly killed by trappers, hunters, and sometimes agencies like Wildlife Services. Livestock grazing is permitted.

The National Park Service’s mission to preserve “unimpaired” natural values tends to preserve evolutionary processes. For example, the agency is willing to close large areas of Yellowstone to protect grizzly bears. These Bear Management Units cover as much as a quarter of the park and are designed to minimize conflicts between bears and people.

Similarly, the NPS will close areas to human use around wolf dens, eagle nesting sites, spawning streams, and other wildlife use areas to protect these animals from human intrusions.

For the most part, National Park management seeks to preserve evolutionary and ecological processes, not just species. Thus, wolves preying on elk or wildfire rejuvenating the landscape are tolerated and celebrated in national parks.


Other land management agencies fail to protect the GYE values. From the dominance of livestock grazing to promotion of logging and oil and gas development, the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, and even the Fish and Wildlife Service support resource extraction and activities that degrade the ecosystem’s ecological integrity.

Even though some national forest lands are preserved with an overlay of Wilderness, many areas outside Wilderness are vulnerable to resource extraction.

Logging on the Custer Gallatin National Forest near Bozeman, Montana. Photo George Wuerthner 

Therefore, putting the entire GYE under the jurisdiction of the National Park is the best way to ensure the long-term preservation of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

The National Park Service is the ideal agency for managing a Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem because its mission is to enhance and preserve natural processes and minimize human influences.

The NPS has a mandate to manage these lands for ALL people.

Map showing roads surrounding the core of Yellowstone. The large blue spot in the middle of this map is Yellowstone Lake. 

Only 1% of the current park is roaded or developed with parking lots, hotels, and other facilities, and nearly all human impact is limited to those few areas. While neither Yellowstone nor Grand Teton National Parks are designated Wilderness, the NPS still manages these lands as if they were designated Wilderness.

An enlarged Yellowstone National Park would protect a larger portion of migrating wildlife like bison from slaughter. Photo George Wuerthner 

Enlarging Yellowstone Park would ensure more winter range for the park’s ungulates like bison, elk, and pronghorn. It would ensure predators can roam freely over more of the landscape without fear of being trapped or shot. A bigger park would store more carbon and preserve more headwater streams from mining, grazing, and logging.


Big Sky Resort. Development on private lands is one of the greatest threats to ecosystem integrity. Photo George Wuerthner 

Private lands are also a noteworthy feature of the GYE. I do not want to imply that conservation lies only on public lands. Private lands possess many conservation values. Unfortunately, we have few mechanisms to foster consistent conservation protection on private lands.

Nevertheless, efforts to protect critical landscapes are ongoing, including measures like zoning, conservation easements, and outright acquisition of biologically critical lands. Congressional funding for critical linkage, migration corridors, and important biological hot spots should be prioritized.


Beyond the mission of the NPS, there are other reasons for creating a Greater Yellowstone National Park.


There is abundant evidence that human exploitation and occupation of the planet are causing undue and unnecessary species extinction. Many suggest we are experiencing the Sixth Great Extinction (some argue there were more past extinctions). Whatever the number, there is no excuse for knowingly permitting millions of species to disappear without at least attempting to provide a lifeboat. Parks and Wilderness are among our best lifeboats for countering this species’ demise. Given the fundamental mission of the NPS to protect and preserve evolutionary and ecological processes, not to mention individual species, the creation of a Greater Yellowstone National Park would likely ensure that the ecosystem will continue to be a place where species have a chance of survival into the next century.

In 2002, I, and colleagues, completed of a survey of biological hot spots in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. A Greater Yellowstone National Park would contain all the biological hot spots we identified.


Whenever I spend time in Yellowstone, I am grateful that someone came up with the idea of a national park to preserve the landscape features. The prime consideration among park proponents was the protection of thermal features like geysers and hot springs, which there are more of in Yellowstone than in any other place in the world. However, since its original designation as a national park, its value for preserving wildlife and evolutionary processes has grown. Yellowstone prompts gratitude in my heart for its role in expanding the concept of “natural rights”, where Nature and all life have a right to exist beyond the economic or exploitive value to humans.


Yellowstone’s NPS management mandate to leave lands “unimpaired” tends to fosters a biocentric perspective.

Wildland preservation is not about humans but acknowledging that other life has a fundamental right to existence. Parks and Wilderness foster humility and are an antidote to domination and human arrogance.

Keeping wild places wild  is an expansion of “rights” to other creatures. It fosters an attitude of self-control and personal responsibility—both essential elements of any society.

However, this view is under increasing attack from social justice advocates who tend to view everything from a human perspective. Nevertheless, if Yellowstone persists as a conservation model, biocentric attitudes will likely continue to be valued.

Preservation of wildlife among wildlands splendor is one of the underrated values of Yellowstone National Park. Photo George Wuerthner


It may seem unimportant, but parks preserve beauty. Beauty stimulates human appreciation and positive interactions. Studies have shown that immersion in nature demonstrates that people are just nicer to each other in a natural setting.

Preserving beauty is one of the values park designations seeks to maintain. Aesthetic value is often associated with natural landscapes. Beauty is not just a luxury but a fundamental human right. Wildlands preserve beauty not found in the humanized urban or even pastoral landscape.


For many humans, wild landscapes have always been places for spiritual connection. Some see “God” in the natural world. John Muir, Henry David Thoreau, Rachel Carson,  to more recent scholars like Wallace Stegner, asserted, “Wilderness was the Geography of Hope. “Few find spiritual comfort in city streets, among factories, much less clearcuts, oil fields, and mines. Native Americans regularly claim that natural areas are essential to their spiritual traditions, as have many wildlands advocates. We should democratize this concept by preserving the Greater Yellowstone National Park, where everyone can discover their spiritual renewal.


Predation is an important factor in genetic diversity and preservation of wildness. Photo George Wuerthner 

Greater Yellowstone National Park would increase the overall population size of most species protected from human manipulation, such as hunting/trapping or “thinning” of forests, and so forth. A larger metapopulation is the best insurance for preserving genetic integrity. In addition, since national parks generally keep and encourage ecological and evolutionary processes, such as predation, wildfire, floods, hurricanes, and other factors that select for genetic responses fundamental to genetic integrity, a large, protected area is our best bet for ensuring a reasonable chance of preserving genetic integrity.


One of the essential values of conservation biology is preserving core populations and migration corridors. Placing the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem under NPS management would likely enhance the prospect of sufficient representation of biological hot spots and critical corridors.


Currently, management responsibility of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is fragmented among different administrators, including the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Wildlife Service, state lands departments, and state Fish and Game agencies with variable missions. Consolidatinng the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem under one agency like the NPS would ensure equal and consistent ecosystem management.


Given climate change, one concern that is increasingly important is using natural landscapes for carbon storage. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, as a unit, has tremendous potential for preserving carbon in soils, trees, and other vegetation.


Parks serve as “role models” of how people should interact with wildlife. Photo George Wuerthner 

National Parks consistently promote non-intrusive behaviors among visitors. Whether that is advising visitors to keep some distance from wildlife or even something as simple as not picking wildflowers. Leaving the landscape and wildlife unimpaired for future generations is a core value of NPS management. On a larger scale, wildland preservation is an expansion of justice beyond humans.


Wilderness and parks, while not immune from human influences (climate warming is a good example), still provide a reasonable control where we can compare the manipulation of the landscape outside of these protected areas with places where human impact is reduced.


Protecting large landscapes by limiting and reducing human intrusions and exploitation is one way that all of us can pay our obligation to the planet that has sustained us. Setting aside landscapes like the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem as a conservation model promotes a worldview that sees the Earth as more than a “cookie jar” for human consumption.


Parks have not created social equity any more than the Civil Rights Act did, but both are a step toward that goal. Parks are among our most democratic institutions. They are even better than other institutions because they recognize more life forms than humans as having value worthy of “rights.”


The GYE is not the Nation’s woodbox, feedlot, or oil patch. It’s real economic values are what I call the three Ws–wildlands, watersheds and wildlife. For instance, the annual combined economic value of Yellowstone and Grand Teton to surrounding communities and states is $1.2 billion, and it is also linked to about 15,000 jobs. An enlarged Greater Yellowstone National Park would invariably enhance local economies.


The first step in any political conservation concept is to lay out the vision. Only then can one begin to strategize how to implement it.

A national monument could be established on lands outside the existing national park boundaries, encompassing the entire ecosystem. National Monuments can be created by Presidential decree. Many national monuments are later codified by Congressional action as national parks.

However, independent of these west-wide proposals, legislation is the most secure way to expand Yellowstone’s borders to encapsulate Greater Yellowstone.

This change will not happen overnight. In the 1930s, Bob Marshall proposed that everything north of the Yukon River in Alaska should be preserved as one great wilderness national park. Marshall’s vision has not yet been fully realized. However, a review of a map of Alaska north of the Yukon River will show that most of the landscape is now in some protected category. We have the Koyukuk NWR, Selawik NWR, Kobuk Valley NP, Cape Krusenstern NM, Yukon Flats NWR, Kanuti NWR, Gates of the Arctic NP, Arctic Wildlife Refuge, Noatak Preserve, among other designations.

If we add up the acreage of the Noatak Preserve, Gates of the Arctic National Park, and Arctic Wildlife Refuge, the combined total is approximately 33 million acres. Only protected areas of that size can reasonably ensure long term ecosystem protection.  We need a similar preserve in the lower 48 states, and the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is the best candidate for such a preserve.

The first step in any campaign is to articulate the idea. That is what I have tried to do here.


Write your Congressional Representatives to support NREPA. Passage of this legislation would be a significant step towards preserving the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and the entire Northern Rockies.

Write Sec. of Interior Haaland and urge her and the Biden Administration to support the Greater Yellowstone Preservation Campaign. Biden could declare part of the GYE  a national monument under NPS management.Though a National Monument could be helpful in Montana and Idaho, national monuments are prohibited in Wyoming–an agreement reached after Jackson Hole Monument (later Grand Teton NP) was created.

Nevertheless, a National Monument declaration on a portion of the ecosystem would go a long way towards helping his administration reach its 30 x 30 goals. Perhaps if Biden were to designate the Montana and Idaho parts of the ecosystem as a  national monument, it might prompt Congress to override the prohibition on national monument status in Wyoming.

We should leave the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem more intact than we found it, and we have an obligation to ensure that future Generations and the lands’ wildlife and plant life are enhanced and increased.

Given the multitude of superlatives of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, if we can’t protect the landscape’s ecological integrity here than where can we?


  1. Mike Higgins Avatar
    Mike Higgins

    THANK YOU, George, on behalf of my kids, grandkids and great-grandkids! Voices like yours are absolutely essential in the drive to protect what’s left of this beautiful, fully-functional planet.

  2. Jeff Hoffman Avatar
    Jeff Hoffman

    Protecting as much land as possible as a National Park is obviously a good thing. Ultimately, humans should live naturally enough and in low enough numbers that the land and the life there don’t need any protection from us. But until that day comes, the more protection, the better.

  3. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    A dream come true if they would! I’ll write and do whatever I can. A big and wonderful preservation to our country and planet.


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