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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Yellowstone Development

Air Date: Week of

The nation's oldest and most spectacular national park has been a model for other nations for the preservation of wild places. But reporter Cy Musiker reports on recent mining and geothermal drilling on Yellowstone's borders which may threaten the park.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood.

One hundred and twenty years ago, Yellowstone became the first US national park, and perhaps our most famous, with Old Faithful the geyser and huge herds of buffalo and elk. Yellowstone is still one of the most spectacular wild places that is accessible to many visitors. But now, some say it's being degraded by mining and other development at its borders. From Yellowstone, Cy Musiker has our story.

(Crowd noises, walking sound)

MUSIKER: This has been a record year for tourism in Yellowstone National Park. More than three million people have already entered its borders, and the crowds come from around the world.

(More crowd noise; speaking in German, Chinese, French)

MUSIKER: Each hour during the summer and fall tourist season, a parade forms at Old Faithful Geyser. Hundreds of tourists march along paved paths to benches encircling the attraction that for so many epitomizes the wonders of the American West.

(Sound of geyser eruption; crowd reaction)

MUSIKER: As you negotiate the crowds around Old Faithful, you might think the most serious threat to Yellowstone is that it will be loved to death. It's astonishing that so many people manage to visit this isolated volcanic plateau in the Northern Rockies. Park staff worry about the impact of the crowds, but they're also worried about other pressures from outside Yellowstone.

(Sound of river)

MUSIKER: LaDuke Hot Springs tumbles down a short bank into the Yellowstone River, just seven miles north of the park's north entrance. The spring belongs to the Church Universal and Triumphant, a controversial band of Christian survivalists who established their world headquarters here in 1986.

FRANCIS: It's one of the reasons we bought this property. We're a religious community that believes in natural healing of all sorts and the medicinal properties of this geothermal water are well known. They were appropriated for that purpose.

MUSIKER: Ed Francis is vice president of the church. He's sitting in a powder-blue farmhouse, converted to church offices, about a mile downstream from LaDuke. Francis says the church wants to tap the hot spring for a swimming pool, and to heat a planned office building. About four hundred church members live here year round, four thousand during summer conferences. The church's plans have sparked opposition from a wide range of groups, including environmentalists and Yellowstone officials. They fear that drilling outside Yellowstone could affect the area's elaborate geothermal plumbing. But Francis notes that a study by the US Geological Survey concluded the well would not affect geothermal features inside the park.

FRANCIS: What this shows is that the various interest groups are attempting to create an emotional issue here, and to use our small use as some kind of Chicken-Little-the-sky-is-falling type scenario, and convince people the park will be seriously impacted because they want to achieve some legislative goals.

MUSIKER: Francis is referring to what was dubbed the Old Faithful Preservation Act, a bill that died in Congress this fall. Sponsored by the Park Service and environmentalists, the bill would have banned all geothermal drilling within fifteen miles of Yellowstone's borders. The church lobbied hard against the bill, and Francis says that if it ultimately does pass, he thinks the church is due about half a million dollars in compensation for the well's loss. At heart, the issue is one of property rights. The church and other local landowners recent the compromises they're asked to make on their private lands to accommodate Yellowstone.

FRANCIS: The crown jewels of this country are not the National Park System, as great as that may be. The crown jewels are the individual rights embodied in the constitution that we all enjoy. If we get to the point of ignoring those then we're gonna lose all the rest eventually.

MUSIKER: But Yellowstone's director of research, John Varley, thinks the resources in Yellowstone are too precious to allow any threats.

VARLEY: Three out of eleven geyser basins in the world are left pristine, and untouched. The rest have been destroyed by development, either in the geyser fields themselves or peripheral to those geyser fields. And so when various interests propose to develop these geothermal features for economic reasons, then we're going to protest.

MUSIKER: Varley acknowledges that the USGS study showed no risks to Yellowstone from tapping LaDuke Hot Spring. But he says the real danger is that the church could set a precedent, and touch off a rush of geothermal drilling. And Varley worries about other threats as well. The park, he argues, is just the central component of a greater ecosystem encompassing 18 million acres, with the most diverse set of animal species in the lower 48 states.

So Varley worries that ranchers would like him to fence in and manage the last wild herd of bison in the world, because the animals can spread disease to cattle outside the park. Varley worries about loss of grizzly bear habitat because of clearcutting in the six national forests on the park's borders. And Varley worries about population growth in cities seventy miles away.

VARLEY: Because if you drew a line around the greater Yellowstone ecosystem and called it a state, it would have the fastest rate of growth in the lower 48 states and that's just an extraordinary figure. And it's the encroachment of civilization to this park's boundaries that will eventually be its undoing.

(Sound of heavy equipment)

MUSIKER: On Yellowstone's northeast border, the Canadian based Noranda Company is planning to dig for gold and copper at ten thousand feet in the Absaroka Range. The noise is a hydraulic excavator, a house-sized machine that cuts roads onto these steep slopes. Allan Kirk, supervising engineer for the New World Mine, is showing a visitor around the site.

KIRK: This big mountain over here is called Mount Abundance, and this is Wolverine Pass here, and the northeast corner of Yellowstone Park sits just over there, just over the divide in that pass. And so we're about two miles from Yellowstone Park boundaries and about a mile and a half or two miles from the wilderness boundary here.

MUSIKER: Allan Kirk says Noranda is aware that the mine is controversial because it's so close to Yellowstone. That's why the company's promised to revegetate the mine site when it's played out and to reclaim hundreds of acres of abandoned open pit mines which scar nearby hillsides and leach sulfuric acid into local streams. But Kirk admits it might be a hundred years or more after the mine is closed before restoration is complete, and the mine could bring a thousand new residents to the tiny community at the park's northeast entrance. Kirk thinks these are necessary compromises.

KIRK: If people don't want to read newspapers and if people don't want to live in wooden houses, then we can stop logging in this country. If people don't want to use copper wiring in their houses any more, or they don't want to use gold for the electronic portions in their computers, that's fine, but right now it's a supply and demand type system, and it's the society itself that's putting the pressure on the companies to meet a need.

MUSIKER: The conflicting demands in the borderlands around Yellowstone were the subject last year of a lengthy study by all the US agencies that administer the area. The Park Service, US Fish and Wildlife, and the Forest Service, plus state and local agencies, conceived a set of goals for managing the greater Yellowstone ecosystem. "The Vision Document" called for severe limits on development around Yellowstone. But park officials who prepared the plan claim it was sabotaged by top officials at the Department of the Interior, after intense lobbying from ranching, timber and mining interests. In its absence, environmentalists in the area have stepped up their fight to save the park.

LEWIS: Yellowstone, greater Yellowstone is truly under siege.

MUSIKER: Ed Lewis is executive director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, an environmental group based in Bozeman, Montana.

LEWIS: This is where the concept of public lands, these very critical national parks and national forests, this is where this idea began , and what happens in Yellowstone always has been a bellwether for what happens in wildland areas and to wildlife populations all over the country and indeed all over the world. Everyone from all over the world keeps coming back to Yellowstone to see how it's doing, and if we can't protect and preserve Yellowstone, there's a very strong sense and feeling that we can't do it anywhere.

MUSIKER: The coalition has embraced a series of recent economic studies which suggest that protecting the Yellowstone ecosystem isn't just good ecology, it's the best way to protect local jobs. While logging and mining may once have driven the local economy, studies show that retirement income, tourism and self-employment in the service sector now provide the most jobs.

LEWIS: The future of the economy here is dependent upon protecting the natural environment. What is bringing millions and millions of visitors here each year, what is attracting people to come to the communities and to set up business and to thrive economically here, what's doing that is the wildland ecosystem magnet.

MUSIKER: Bill Clinton's victory in the presidential election means changes in the Department of the Interior, and a chance that his administration will do more to protect the environment around Yellowstone and other national parks. The Old Faithful Preservation Act will likely be reintroduced in the new Congress, and environmentalists and many local residents say they'll push for changes in mining and other laws to protect other park resources.

Back inside Yellowstone, director of research John Varley is standing at the open window of his office. He points to a bull elk bugling its mating call on the lawn outside. Soon, Varley notes, the bull may well be herding his harem of cow elk onto winter range outside the park, not far from the Church Universal and Triumphant's ranch. It's a reminder, he says, of how arbitrary the borders of the park are for its wildlife, and how Yellowstone as we know it won't survive if it becomes an island surrounded by development.

VARLEY: It will be society's choice, whether to preserve this place, or to turn it into some giant family fun farm. We can do that. We can make this the Disneyland of the Rocky Mountains. I would argue that its greater value is to preserve it in much the same way that it's been preserved for the last 120 years.

MUSIKER: For Living on Earth, I'm Cy Musiker in Yellowstone National Park.



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