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

A Vacation That Pays Back

Air Date: Week of

Reporter Mary Boyle treks with paying vacationers who are spending their time off conducting environmental field research in Yellowstone Park. While on a working vacation, these individuals gather data as they enjoy their natural surroundings.


CURWOOD: Take pictures. Leave only footprints. That's the maxim for ecologically sensitive touring. But as crowds build in many of the eco-tourist hot spots, all those footprints are not without impact. In fact, in many US national parks, the crowds are destroying the very natural beauty that attracts so many visitors. So, what's the answer? Mary Boyle reports on a group in Yellowstone National Park that's taking a different approach to park tourism.


BOYLE: Ninety-five hundred feet in the Absoroka Bear Tooth Wilderness, hikers laden with brightly-colored backpacks, water bottles and cameras, trudge along a trail under a blue sky and billowy white clouds. Jagged peaks emerge in the distance. Rocks, mud, and animal tracks rest on the trail.

(Man: "That's so round it looks like a cat." Woman: "Yeah, it looks like a mountain lion." Man: "Yeah.")

BOYLE: But this is no ordinary high country vacation. This group is the latest research team for the Yellowstone Ecosystem Studies Alpine Lake Survey. Four staff members and 5 citizen scientists who have paid around $1,400 each are spending 2 weeks in the back country documenting the local ecosystem. Peter Karsee is the project's back country guide.

KARSEE: You know it's some reason for being here that's more than just personal, you know, recreation and fun hoggin' it. You know, we're actually contributing something.

(Running water, low murmurs of conversation)

BOYLE: During their stay in the mountains, the citizen scientists will monitor and log the birds they hear and see; map the location and habitat of the plants, small mammals, and insects they find; and also take water samples for an acid rain study.

(Woman: "This is an aqueous solution of iodine solution. Just take a - don't need much.")

PURNELL: I realize that a collection seems basic, but again it's very important data, and I knew we weren't going to be doing gas chromatograph and mass spectrometer analysis of this water out here in the field. I think volunteer support is very, very important.

BOYLE: Michael Purnell of Chatham, Illinois, is taking time off of his job as a state biologist to spend 2 weeks in the back country. The data collected on this trip is a part of a long-term project begun 2 years ago. It's very basic research; but Bob Crabtree a wildlife ecologist and the director of the program, says it's a vital supplement to the kind of narrow, short-term studies usually done by government and academic scientists.

CRABTREE: What's really needed to manage our land, our ecosystems, is a big picture, long-term ecosystem perspective. And we ask some basic questions, like: what's there, where is it, and what condition is it in?

BOYLE: But funding for this kind of research is scarce. So Crabtree set up Y.E.S. to take advantage of the current surge of public interest in the environment. He sees it as a sort of eco-tourism that gives back to nature.

CRABTREE: There is a huge potential of a research labor force, you might say, of eager minds and energetic bodies, sweating spirit to go out and help conduct some of this work. It's not a Club Med where you can go out and touch whales, although we have things, I think, as equally satisfying. People work. They really go at it hard, and I think they leave feeling they've really accomplished something.

(Footfalls on gravel)

BOYLE: And the accomplishments can be more than scientific. The participants on these trips include high school students, plumbers, insurance executives, and retirees. Many say their time in the field is an opportunity to gain perspective on their lives. Michael Purnell, the state biologist from Illinois, says his Y.E.S. project has caused him to take a serious look at his life.

PURNELL: This 2-week period, I feel strongly, is going to give me the time to think a lot about whether I want to continue in my current career, working for state government, sitting behind a desk, or maybe do something differently.

BOYLE: For 16-year-old Melissa Kravitz from California's San Fernando Valley, her Y.E.S. experience is a way of acting on her personal and generational commitment to the environment.

KRAVITZ: If our generation focuses on saving the ecosystems and saving the rainforests and saving endangered species and saving species in general, saving the planet, we'll make a tremendous impact on everything. On everybody.

(Man 1: "...filter screen you lungs. Here's an aphid, or an arachnid." Man 2: "Boy, this big arachnid, gee, that's a strange looking one." "Yeah." "That's a great one.")

BOYLE: The data collected by Kravitz and the rest of the Y.E.S. crew will help the Federal Government make more informed decisions about managing the Yellowstone area. And the citizen scientists working here will return home knowing they have taken an active role in helping preserve one of the country's most cherished regions.

(Man: "C'mon, my first beetle. Oh, what's that thing? Get it.!")

BOYLE: For Living on Earth, I'm Mary Boyle in Billings, Montana.



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