Looking Back at Alston Chase’s Playing God in Yellowstone
by Jim Macdonald
December 18, 2006
Philosopher Alston Chase wrote Playing God in Yellowstone: The Destruction of America’s First National Park, a book whose central thesis is that the National Park Service, aided and abetted by the budding environmental movement, is to blame for destroying Yellowstone National Park. This thesis is probably shocking to many since the Park Service has been held up as one of the most revered American institutions, and Yellowstone has often been cited as one of the great success stories under its management. Playing God in Yellowstone was first published in 1986, years before I ever set foot in the park that Chase argues had already been destroyed. I first came to Yellowstone in June 1993 and have only now read this famous work. Even with the time lag, I have found it especially provocative and even relevant for today, at least in a big picture sense. Nevertheless, Playing God in Yellowstone is ultimately disappointing, though not because it is out of date. In this essay, I will argue that while Chase’s criticisms of both the National Park Service and the environmental movement have a lot of merit, his voice from nowhere approach cloaks his own ideological—perhaps, religious—presumptions. As a result, Playing God in Yellowstone is not really of much help in shedding light on why Yellowstone is so valuable and therefore what if anything has gone wrong. If we are to have a Yellowstone ethic, we need greater clarity on what is so valuable about this Yellowstone that so many of us love.
Chase is not happy about the state of things in Yellowstone, and he is painstaking in showing us the story of how Yellowstone came to be destroyed from what it once was. For one thing, there are fewer beaver, and it turns out that the story as to why there are so few beaver is critical to understanding so much else. Fewer beaver existed because of depleted vegetation. The vegetation was depleted because there were too many elk. There were too many elk because there were not enough wolves or mountain lions. There were not enough wolves and mountain lions because the Park Service had killed them along with as many coyotes as they could wipe out as well. There are also no more Indians in Yellowstone, who had hunted elk and had also through their direct influence affected the vegetation and land. In fact, Chase argues that the numbers of elk and bison are historically way out of proportion, far outnumbering the numbers that probably ever existed in Yellowstone at any point in the history of Earth. According to Chase, the history of trying to “protect” Yellowstone while simultaneously trying to provide “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people,” thus to play God, is a tragedy of folly that played out repeatedly no matter how the focus of value among the park’s managers shifted. Sometimes, managers cared most about protecting elk and bison numbers, and to that end they instituted the policy of predator control. At other times, they cared most about visitor experience. During those times, bear feed lots and animals fenced in near the roads worked best in support of that management focus. After the 1963 Leopold Report, the wind of natural regulation blew managers in Yellowstone to a hands-off policy, one that Chase argues was still a type of playing God. Chase also notes that those supposedly hands-off policies were often inconsistently applied in respect to different wildlife. The Park Service also never abandoned previous management goals, such as in the saga that called for the dismantling of Fishing Bridge purportedly on prime grizzly habitat in favor of the new development of Grant Village even though it turned out that Grant Village was also on prime grizzly habitat. The early Yellowstone managers were forced to deal with Indian “problems,” poachers, and other issues related to the tenuous state of law enforcement in Yellowstone. Chase argues that the law enforcement mentality has remained the primary state of mind behind Park Service management of Yellowstone. As a result, according to Chase, competent science has been under funded and subject to politicization and corruption. Since the scientists in Yellowstone are under the rangers, their work, he claims, has been forced to fit the management policy.
If things in this picture are not bleak enough, Chase goes on to argue that the new environmental movement has contributed toward aiding National Park Service mismanagement of Yellowstone. The Leopold Report had called on the National Park Service to manage the parks so that they might be in “nearly as possible in the condition that prevailed when the area was first visited by the white man. A national park should represent a vignette of primitive America.” Managers in Yellowstone interpreted that ultimately as meaning that a hands-off approach was best, suggesting a faith in a “nature” that would take care of itself. It would solve all kinds of management issues if the invisible hand of nature was the ultimate arbiter of what did or did not happen in Yellowstone. Yet, as Chase notes, Yellowstone was hardly an intact ecosystem, that in fact there was no such thing as a closed ecosystem, and so the net result was that the elk and bison population continued to explode while being artificially contained in a range that was too sparse to support the population. In terms of bears, the natural regulation policy meant closing the feedlots, which Chase argues dramatically hurt bear populations and actually increased encounters between humans and grizzlies. It also forced bears into areas outside the park where the same dynamic played itself out over and over again as surrounding communities had to decide – or were forced to decide – what to do about bears eating their garbage. Scientists like the Craighead brothers, who advocated some feeding of bears, were ignored because it was contrary to the policy aims established by non-scientists, or ranger-controlled scientists, in management. All of this existed within the context of a sprouting environmental movement, which deeply distrusted the place of humanity in nature. Distrustful of science, according to Chase, distrustful of authority, fervently against Christianity, increasingly skeptical that humans possessed any virtue, and prone to inconsistent applications of pantheism, the environmentalists found themselves increasingly calling for the spread of “natural regulation” and ultimately for National Park Service control well outside the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park. However, prone to abstract ideologies and increasingly tainted by money and modernized gadgets, the environmentalists’ religious fervor did not have the least bit of understanding about the practical issues actually facing Yellowstone. Sometimes, Chase seems to argue that you needed to take your hands off, and sometimes you needed to put them squarely on. Only science would answer these questions for us, and the science had not yet been done. However, the fervor and influence of environmentalism fit well with the management aims of the National Park Service, but the reality of a Yellowstone that was no longer wilderness befuddled these plans. The range was still in decline, there were still too many elk and bison, and now no one who visited the park even got to see a bear because they were no longer on the roads. What’s more, bear numbers may have been in serious decline—regardless of whatever number magically came forth from the statements by the National Park Service.
All of this is an oversimplification of Chase’s rich and well-researched book. Despite rebuttals over the years by the National Park Service and others of many of the particular research claims, Chase offers a thorough indictment not merely of what the National Park Service has done in Yellowstone but its reasons for doing so. Some, including a New York Times book review that came out soon after publication, have criticized Chase for being too maniacally focused on the National Park Service’s faults without paying enough attention to the external threats to Yellowstone by encroaching development and myriad other causes. However, Chase never denies those threats; he simply denies that they have been nearly as destructive as what the National Park Service has perpetrated. Any comparative analysis of which has been more destructive, however, is neither here nor there. If the National Park Service has been as destructive in Yellowstone as Chase claims, then there is no excuse for ignoring the crimes of the demiurge simply because the devil might have done worse.
In the original manuscript published in 1986, Playing God in Yellowstone ends with that indictment, and many must have felt it to be a shortcoming because the book was re-published in 1987 with an epilogue that outlines Chase’s recommendations for change within the National Park Service. Having spent chapters railing against environmentalists for challenging the hegemony of atomistic science without any solid idea of what should replace it, Chase seemed to have done the same thing toward the Park Service when he proclaimed Yellowstone dead, its epitaph being, “Victim of an Environmental Ideal.” Yet, he left no vision of what should be done as a result; Yellowstone was already destroyed. Thinking the better of it in 1987, Chase makes recommendations for the National Park Service at large, calling for a management plan based on restorative science. In essence, he ultimately called for something akin to the goal of the Leopold Report, simply applying a different tactic to it than “natural regulation.” Instead, he calls on the Park Service to better clarify its mission, raise the rank and independence of scientists, and then use that science to tell us the extent to which we need to take a hands-on or a hands-off approach in respect to Yellowstone. Where needed, we should use science to restore lands to the condition we want them to be. If that means intentionally providing dead elk meat for bears, then so be it. He also urges that we restore Indians back into the history of Yellowstone and study their relationship with the land as part of this restorative science. In the end, we are told to accept that wilderness has already been destroyed and that we will not get it back. This is the best we can do.
One wonders, though, what values are driving Chase’s own vision for Yellowstone. Outside of the epilogue, we are left with a catalogue of what people should not be doing in Yellowstone. Don’t do too much; don’t do too little. The epilogue merely clarifies that, but what is the Yellowstone ideal that we are supposed to be promoting? Is it one with a lot of bears begging on the side of the road? Is it one where begging bears are better than starving bears that have not been fed? Is it one with more beavers and fewer elk? Is it one with more aspen and less sagebrush? In each case, Chase seems to have a preference, but he never states it except to say that what once existed was nice:
Yellowstone was not just a natural area. It was not natural to see elk grazing on the mown bluegrass lawns of the administration buildings at Mammoth, to wake in the morning at the Lake Hotel to find a bison asleep under one’s window, to meet a moose walking through the parking lot, to see a bear along the road. It was not natural, but it was nice.That this vision was “nice” is as close as we get in Playing God in Yellowstone for Chase’s rationale for damning all other approaches for park management. This is troublesome since he is especially critical of those who have any other “ideological” value system that explains their own management preferences for Yellowstone. If Yellowstone is an ecosystem, Chase argues, what is an ecosystem? If Yellowstone is part of an inter-connected universe, then what has the science of those connections told us about the practical issues related to Yellowstone? In fact, such a “science,” Chase seems to be suggesting, is largely illusory. Even if it existed, it could not be tested because the connections involved with it are so abstract as to confound measurement.
Thus, the Yellowstone that exists, the one that can be valued, is the one which is available to us, not the holistic, semi-pantheistic (minus humanity) version shared by the mystical environmentalists. It remains the one with trees, animals, and humans, and it is from this alone that we can make useful policy decisions with respect to Yellowstone. There is no universal ethic of Yellowstone; all we have is what we think is nice.
For only giving us an arbitrary view on what is so nice about what was Yellowstone, Chase minces no words in telling us that Yellowstone has been destroyed. These are severe value claims. Yet, beneath that, we do not see what is so nice about it, merely the hope that we will follow along with him for the ride. He notes that generations may not realize that the Yellowstone he knew has been so depleted, but that it has been depleted, he takes for granted.
Given the evaluative system that Chase proposes, this should come as no surprise. The pragmatism veiled in the value of what seems nice to Chase is a necessary consequence of a philosophical stance that values science as the only arbiter of practical questions. As science is generally assumed to be value neutral, it is supposed that it can definitively answer questions. Yet, as we have seen, Chase does have values about what a nice Yellowstone would look like. Given those values, science might be able to provide answers. However, Chase never acknowledges the goal for which the science is supposed to provide the answer. In fact, if he did, then he would be hesitant to talk about scientific panels that are independent from government control. The problem with Park Service control over the science in Yellowstone is that it has a value bias in favor of its own policy. Yet, don’t scientists on any panel bring their own value bias to a project, and what is supposed to constitute the proper goal for the science to answer independently?
These are also the puzzles and incoherence of a philosophy known as logical positivism, to which it might seem that Chase adheres here, an interpretation which would likely upset him. One finds support for this interpretation in the 2001 essay, “A Response To Chase’s Accusation Of Tyranny,” by Sing C. Chew, talking about Chase’s 1995 book, In a Dark Wood: The Fight Over Forests and the Rising Tyranny of Ecology. However, in a book entitled Harvard and the Unabomber: The Education of an American Terrorist, published in 2003, Chase apparently blames the influence of logical positivism for the moral disintergration of Ted Kaczynski. Either Chase has had a change of heart, or he was never a logical positivist. To understand what I am saying here, let us look briefly at logical positivism.
Logical positivism is the philosophical school that taught that there are only two types of meaningful questions, empirical questions and tautological ones. Empirical questions are those available to us from our senses while tautological questions refer to deductive logical and mathematical statements. We use the truths of mathematics in order to clarify and order our experiential statements. Thus, while I do not experience math equations with my senses, I do experience elk and buffalo. However, I cannot scientifically say anything about elk or buffalo unless I can also say measurable things about them. If there are five buffalo and three leave, how many remain? This is a mathematical statement that when applied to the real experience of seeing buffalo has a meaningful and real answer. What logical positivism also says is that no other question has any meaning whatsoever. Therefore, whether a God exists, whether something is good or evil, or whether something is beautiful all amount to meaningless questions or must be translated into something else. The logical positivist A. J. Ayer said that saying that “Stealing things is wrong,” is no different than saying “Stealing things” with a disapproving tone in one’s voice. The idea of “wrong” as something outside of our sense experience is neither empirical nor tautological, and therefore it doesn’t mean anything.
The reason that it is tempting to say that Playing God in Yellowstone is consistent with logical positivism is that Chase seems to say that what is good for Yellowstone is what is verifiable by science while making no defense of the value that the science serves – except to say that it is nice. Furthermore, it is a tempting interpretation due to the heavy dose of criticism Chase levies on groups who have offered radically different value judgments generally distinct from those that might be verifiable by science. What test could be conducted to refute a pantheistic hypothesis about bison in Yellowstone, for instance?
However, this may miss Chase’s point, and we should be as charitable as possible. It could simply be that Chase takes the values he espouses to be self evident, or evident by means he has not explained, in which case he has very poorly laid his own cards on the table. What good is it to lay out an ethical critique of what has gone wrong in Yellowstone if you are not also clear about what it is that might have been right? If Chase were merely pointing out the internal inconsistency of policy, that would be one thing. However, he goes much further than this; he ultimately has his favorite sets of solutions. Chase has friends and enemies. Evil makes its way into the very subtitle of the book, and to play “God,” one probably has some idea what one means by that. In its strident moralizing, it seems very unlikely that Chase wants us to see him as a positivist. I suspect he would rather we see him as a practical, non-ideologically inclined person, with a pragmatic view of Yellowstone.
Yet, it’s that arbitrariness which is so debilitating. On what grounds are we supposed to hold up the “restored” Yellowstone as better than the elk-infested Yellowstone? Why is the Yellowstone that is defined by the larger boundaries of Greater Yellowstone, however arbitrary, less valuable than the Yellowstone National Park that currently exists? And, why is it that the Park Service management, however incoherent in its application, is any worse or better than the management of a scientific value-indifferent corps of professionals?
Whether Chase’s view lends itself to a positivistic interpretation or whether it simply is a voice from nowhere, either way an ideological value system is the starting point from which our analysis of what is best begins. What’s more, that’s the way it should be. While Chase correctly notes that the environmentalists he has considered offer no sound grasping of what sort of value “nature” is, either looked at as in essence everything, or that which is apart from humans, he should but fails to recognize that there is no sound grasping of a science apart from values. Even if those values arise from our common sense, the values should be laid on the table. If the National Park Service is expected to clarify its mission with respect to protection versus recreation, one should expect no less from Chase.
What makes Playing God in Yellowstone so frustrating is that it is a book that makes so many wonderful and challenging criticisms of the ideologies guiding policy in Yellowstone without acknowledging its own ideological bent or the rationale for it. We are left instead with the dichotomy between the ideological and the pragmatic as well as that of the religious fanatic and the scientist. These are the tired dichotomies of positivism. Yet, with religious fervor, we get hell, fire, and brimstone against the National Park Service. Perhaps, it is possible to get the same hell, fire, and brimstone against the National Park Service which at the same time resists the need to set religion against science and ideology against pragmatism. Can’t we identify what Yellowstone is, explain why it is valuable, and show how that is consistent with our science? Can’t our ideas be rooted in the particular geysers, buffalo, elk, mountains, pines, love affairs, and canyons that we find embodied in Yellowstone?
My own critique comes from a standpoint of rationalism. I believe in the old dictum of Hegel that the “real is the rational, and the rational is the real.” I also believe, however, that in our experience, we do not always have much insight into that reality or its rational place in the universe. Like Chase, I do not think we have an adequate grasp of the whole, merely that it is one and that it is interconnected. So, what is Yellowstone, in such a world, and what makes it valuable? Why is that dancing light on Thumb Bay so magical, and why is that better than an oil spill and the colors of those waters? I’m afraid that science will not give us an answer to that question, and yet it matters all the same. We had better be able to say more than its being nice, and if we can’t say more, what then does that mean for our Yellowstone ethic? Who can say, but the questions are not asked enough. And, so long as we make value-laden criticisms of the way others have made value-laden decisions about Yellowstone without defending the basis upon which those criticisms rest, we will not have made any advances on a Yellowstone ethic.
Now, why is that so? Why should we take a rationalist stance toward this question? I believe that is self evident. We say that we should only do that which actually makes sense to us, whether we have good or bad reasons. You may convince me of something on a set of bad reasons, but even then, it is the value of reason that we hold to be paramount in respect to the truth. Even if we are suspicious of the ability of humans to grasp reason, we still hold it as the value, since by reason one means that which is sufficient for us to accept as true. To deny the value of reason, it would be like saying that what makes something true is not as valuable to its being true as something else. That is incoherent since the something else that would convince us would by definition be a reason.
So, on rationalist grounds, I have a solid basis on which to criticize Chase for failing to abide by those grounds in Playing God in Yellowstone. He has tried to convince us that Yellowstone has been destroyed without laying out what is so valuable about what has been destroyed. Therefore, his entire mode of criticism must be called into question. Perhaps, though, the criticisms themselves still stand. I think, quite probably, we will find something irrational about the way that Yellowstone National Park has been managed. Whether it has been destroyed is another question, but if we look at Yellowstone through the prism of whether the National Park Service has failed to have sound reason to act as it has toward wildlife, vegetation, land, and people, then we may be able to give Chase his due for noticing what so few before him have dared to notice.
Why were Indians wiped from Yellowstone? Was there reason? Why were predators wiped out? Why was Grant Village built? Why were bears first fed and then suddenly forced to fend on their own? On what basis did natural regulation exist as a policy? On what grounds should Yellowstone be managed by the National Park Service as a bioregion? If we update the story, why were wolves reintroduced? Why is bioprospecting now being considered, and why are snowmobiles managed the way they are? What is the guiding reason, and what guiding reason should we use for our assessments?
These are important questions, which are both ideological and practical. They will require our devotion to them not unlike that of a religious zealot, but we must have the patience to pursue and measure our results like the very best of scientists. These are the questions we must ask, and we must be very careful always to lay our own value judgments out on the table. These are the seeds of our reasons, and we need to know the basis, if any, upon which these grow.
As I conclude, I want to note one sneaking suspicion. I suspect, as we look into Yellowstone, we will find it infinitely more complicated than any of us have ever imagined. We will identify all kinds of Yellowstones, all of them real, none of them identical with each other. I suspect that we suffer from an illusion that we can fully identify Yellowstone and therefore control it in a way that is consistent and sound. I doubt that that is possible, but I also believe that those doubts spring the hot waters of a new hope in figuring out what it is we should be doing. Humans live with the vanity of pretending to know even though we are continually humbled by how little in fact we do know about the stuff of our experience. Our only possible wisdom is small, that we should not claim to know more than we actually do. Freeing ourselves from the illusion of knowing more (or less – as in the case of the positivists) than we know is more rational and therefore better. It also comes with all kinds of consequences. It would do us well, if investigation shows my suspicions true, for us to deal directly with those consequences. In any respect, I have high hopes that there is more than enough space for a lifetime of action in a Yellowstone that acknowledges its infinite forms and our inability to get at very much of it.
Chase, Alston. Playing God in Yellowstone: The Destruction of America’s First National Park. (San Diego: Harcourt Brace & Company, 1987).
For more on Jim, see also The Magic of Yellowstone.