(or other places to find my writings from the mundane to the supermundane)
The Magic of Yellowstone
A sample of Jim's writings
Buffalo Allies of Bozeman
- Name: Jim Macdonald
- Location: Bozeman, MT, United States
Hi, my name is Jim Macdonald, and I have an odd assortment of interests. In no particular order, I love Yellowstone, I am an anti-authoritarian activist and organizer, and I have a background in philosophy, having taught at the college level. My blog has a lot more links to my writing and my other Web sites. In Jim's Eclectic World, I try to give a holistic view of my many interests. Often, all three passions show themselves interweaving in the very same blog. Anyhow, I think it's a little different. But, that's me. I'm not so much out there, but taken together, I'm a little unusual.
View my complete profile
Over the coming weeks, I will be producing a single or multi-part essay tentative entitled John Locke, Yellowstone, and the Dogma of the Right to Private Property
The blog where this resides, Jim's Eclectic World
, is the written product of my work in philosophy, my love for Yellowstone, and my work as an anti-authoritarian/anarchist activist and organizer. In the upcoming essay(s), I hope to fuse all three influences into the single work.
Recently, I've written a lot about class issues in Yellowstone
as well as capitalism and privatization
. However, I haven't in any of these essays gone to any of the ideological roots behind the problem. A recent report
by the Dallas private property-friendly think tank, the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA), has claimed that private property ownership is "the ultimate guarantor of individual liberty and prosperity." While not calling for outright privatization of Yellowstone due to practical realities, they certainly believe maximizing privatization of public lands is the best policy for preserving those lands. In my brief response
, I noted that the differences between what I talked about for instance in criticizing the company town mentality of private interests in Greater Yellowstone
and the NCPA report were so fundamental that nothing short of a critique on a right to private property would do.
NCPA cites philosophers like Aristotle and John Locke as recognizing the importance of private property to liberty. Indeed, it is John Locke in 1690, in Chapter V of The Second Treatise on Civil Government
, who makes the most famous rationale for property rights. In order to understand and defend an anti-classist, anti-hierarchical stance toward society, it is especially necessary to understand property, why a right to property is contradictory to an anti-classist, anti-hierarchical activism, and also why there is no such thing as a right to property. The most charitable interpretation of John Locke's defense of property must be confronted and refuted as part of that defense.
Yellowstone National Park is a political boundary that exists in its current form in large part from the influence of philosophers like Locke. The very rationale for its existence depended a great deal on acceptance of the bulk of Locke's philosophy on property. Unfortunately, this is a fact that is not greatly appreciated, and therefore many of the defenses against private intrusion are contradictory. For instance, one strategy of conservationists in Greater Yellowstone is to convince people that tourism is better for the private interests of the residents of the area than is hunting, ranching, or resource extraction. Unfortunately, the rights of private interests are still assumed to be the determining value from which to make the case. And, just as unfortunately, we have seen some of the consequences that have arisen from promoting private interests at the expense of common interests. I have pointed to some of the consequences in recent essays.
Many people like to believe that the issues related to Yellowstone are simply issues of science versus politics. The good guys are the ones who use science; the bad ones are the ones who use politics and ideology. Yet, science does not answer every question, certainly not questions related to the basic values that our science serves (see for instance my critique of Alston Chase's Playing God in Yellowstone
). Those questions are ethical questions and go to the fundamentals of our understanding of reality itself. If we want to know how to be activists and organizers in Yellowstone, we need to understand what it is we are doing and why it is we are doing it. You cannot divorce the active pragmatic questions from the theoretical and ideological questions related to our values. Since those values are often in conflict, we had either have a way of sorting through the conflict or we might as well give up the quest to do better.
Thus, what I propose to write, which may serve as the basis some day for a book, is to focus on John Locke and on his defense of property rights, to show how that philosophy is directly relevant to what Yellowstone was and is now, and then to refute it. A refutation does not equate to a defense of some other position, necessarily, but it sets the ground for it.
Of course, by taking on Locke, the refutation will have applications far outside of Yellowstone, of course. It applies to so many places, and I will not hesitate to make those connections and acknowledge those implications where they become relevant to my life. However, for me, the practical and concrete embodiment of my not so distant future activism and organizing shall be in Greater Yellowstone, whether among the homeless of Jackson, Wyoming, with the buffalo of Yellowstone and throughout the United States, or with the delicate thermophiles who are seen more and more only for their instrumental value for human society. That is why I focus on Yellowstone; it's the nexus of my eclectic world.
In the coming weeks and months, as other writings come in, look for this one. For now, I would appreciate your help and input, no matter what you happen to believe. As little use as I've ever had for John Locke's philosophy, it is no small thing to consider the thought of someone as careful and as intelligent as Mr. Locke. We must be charitable, and doing so requires a fair amount of stamina as well as patience. We must try to understand what it was about Locke's thought that is so tempting that it has had the influence it continues to have. It may seem to take us far afield from the vistas of the Hayden or the Lamar Valley, the shooting stars and moonlight over Yellowstone Lake, the sublime beauty of the Upper and Lower Falls and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, the delicate beauty of Heart Spring, and the fields of elk and bison laying along the Madison River every spring. In fact, we are far afield from it, but we pretend that we experience these things without any thought that we are succumbing to Mr. Locke's influence. Many of you may not have heard of John Locke; it will be in some ways sad to educate because the myth that Yellowstone is a mere wilderness is truly delightful. However, on top of that myth is a great deal of sadness, destruction, and genocide. The NCPA report proves that the thinking behind that is still alive and well and still deeply influential on what might happen in Yellowstone. If I am right, we must understand it, and then we must act on that knowledge accordingly.Jim Macdonald
Yesterday, I wrote an essay entitled, Projects stalled in Yellowstone - Privatization coming?
where I argued that recent events in the news are a bad omen that privatization in Yellowstone might be coming. Fittingly, a capitalist think tank, the National Center for Policy Analysis (NCPA), yesterday released a report
(pdf of full report
) where they argue that increasing privatization of national parks, forests, and other public lands (including ocean resources) is the best solution for environmentally protecting these lands.
When I first read the Executive Summary, it seemed that a critical source for the criticism of management in Yellowstone rested on Alston Chase's 1986 book Playing God in Yellowstone
(read my review
), which chronicles the history of National Park Service mismanagement of Yellowstone. To my surprise, NCPA never cites the book, but it's assuredly in the background.
It is difficult to argue against the NCPA report without going directly at its basic premise, that private property ownership is "the ultimate guarantor of individual liberty and prosperity." Many of the value judgments about protection, multiple use of forests, independent "Wilderness Endowment Boards," are never actually established or argued for. We have a sense that they believe "overuse" is a problem, that there used to be too many elk, that there are too many wolves, and that no matter what the Park Service chose to do about a situation it was wrong. Yet, the values behind the judgments are left lacking. NCPA points to private conservation exemplars like Audubon and the Nature Conservancy as having gotten it right, but we don't exactly know why it is right.
Anyhow, nothing short of arguing against the original premise that private property ownership is the ultimate guarantor of individual liberty and prosperity will do. That essay is complicated and will require us to go back to the philosophy of John Locke and to challenge the hallowed ground that served as the rationale for the genocidal manifest destiny of yesterday as well as the neoconservativism of today. Any further response to this essay as it stands is pissing in the wind because the differences are too fundamental.
Even so, I would warn readers against one tempting interpretive response. It is often assumed that there are only two choices here; public control or private control. The reality, however, is that there is no public control over public resources even now. There are simply different kinds of private interests, those complicit with the government monopoly on public lands who profit from the relationship and those who are not complicit. An actual commons approach to public lands does not exist. Many of the criticisms of the public/private venture in Yellowstone are not only tempting to accept, they are true. Nevertheless, just because you might show that the antecedent is false does not mean that the consequent is also false. That is, just because it may be false that National Park Service control in Yellowstone may have been flawed, it does not follow that it is also false that public ownership of Yellowstone is a bad thing. Having said that, I don't only believe that this paper not only suggests a false choice, but also I believe they haven't actually identified (apart from their belief in private property) or defended the environmental values that serve as the point of the critique.
However, don't take my word for it. Please read it for yourself and comment.
From my perspective, those who believe fervently in privatizing public lands represent very wealthy interests, and so they are potentially dangerous in a society already built on class in making their wishes come true. That makes it all the more important to make public and defensible challenges at the very heart of their arguments, the sanctum of private property. That is, we must make the case, and we must use the case to mobilize resistance both against them but the system they represent. But, why do I assume that a value system based on a class structure is flawed? That is exactly where the argument needs to go. It seems abstract, but we see in the news stories that it is the blind assumption of these abstract values that lead to all kinds of policy that many of us don't like. If we are to understand the policy, we must understand its reason.
Eh, Johnny [Locke], it all comes back home.Jim Macdonald
Projects stalled in Yellowstone - Privatization coming?
by Jim Macdonald
In looking at the relationship between private interests and Yellowstone National Park, let us consider two stories that have come out in the past week in addition to one we have already looked at in relation to employee housing in Big Sky. The first came out this past weekend and was syndicated widely by the Associated Press, entitled National parks increasingly looking for private funds, while the second came out yesterday, by the Billings Gazette's Mike Stark, entitled High costs stall Yellowstone projects. All of these stories by themselves are separate, but together they suggest a bleak view of what may happen in Yellowstone.
In the story related to Big Sky, a couple has filed a complaint about housing employees in a motel where rooms will also be sold to tourists visiting this Gallatin Mountains resort area. They have objected on the grounds that property values will be diminished by doing so.
In the Associated Press article, National Park Service (NPS) director Mary Bomar has said that the NPS is currently bringing in 12 percent of its current budget from private sources and is actually seeking more private funding citing "shrinking staff, aging facilities and a diminished visitor experience."
Finally, in the Billings Gazette piece, Mike Stark notes that many current projects, including a new visitor's center at Old Faithful, improvements to the Old Faithful Inn, and a critical new wastewater management plant near Madison Junction are on hold because bids on contracts have come in significantly over the amount budgeted for them. The reason cited in the article for the high construction costs are a tight labor market as well as a booming construction market outside of Yellowstone.
I'm not sure I have to do much to connect the dots of these pieces. The booming value of property in and the development of places like Big Sky and other areas near Yellowstone has created both a labor shortage but more importantly a high price tag on the cost of construction. That cost of construction has set the market for Yellowstone. And, one can only surmise that if the price is paid for these projects, critical among them the wastewater management plant to replace one that has risked major failure at "any time" for several years, that the National Park Service will look for an increasing share of money from private sources in order to fund the projects.
This particular inter-relationship is perhaps worse than that. Private money just outside of Yellowstone National Park has driven up the cost that private money will now pay for inside of Yellowstone, which, while improving services, will at the same time further raise the price of property, and therefore further NPS dependence on finding more private money to pay for future improvements. The ultimate result if allowed to be taken to its logical extreme is the privatization of the NPS and a transfer of ownership of the lands from the public domain to the highest bidder. Scott Silver has actually argued that this has been NPS policy since the Ronald Reagan Administration.
Obviously, I don't think that privatization is a good thing. Increasing privatization probably will produce higher access and user fees because the interest of private enterprise is to make a profit, and the wealthy interests outside the park who own property want to see their property values increase. Those values are most likely to increase in Yellowstone where the view is most unspoiled, which is exactly the reason that the residents in Big Sky do not want to see their workers living anywhere near their economic assets. As visitor services become more expensive to maintain, one can only imagine that the cost to use those services will increase. This is exactly what has happened in the Global South under World Bank and IMF structural adjustment programs. Privatization leads to higher prices, and higher user fees are justified as sound policy. Yet, apart from the cost of privatization, the real scandal is that ownership of public land will officially transfer from the nominal control of you and me to control by the private industries that foot the bills. Now, while it is true that you and I actually have no say in the governance of Yellowstone, there is at least some value in the myth of such control because it suggests that people believe that Yellowstone is better unowned by this or that person as opposed to ownership by all. We have seen in previous essays, such as this one, that Yellowstone has always in some sense been a joint venture between a public industry that was in the hip pocket of the wealthy and particular private ventures that hoped to monopolize access to "public" resources, but this is certainly a step worse.
Perhaps, people are not concerned about the transfer of ownership from public to private control just so long as Yellowstone is protected, whatever that means. The high price tag of projects in Yellowstone, like bombing and shelling the East Entrance for snowmobilers, road maintenance, law enforcement, wildlife management, and a whole host of visitor services may produce a Yellowstone that is so valuable to humans with the means to control the resources that it might not be viable in the long run to expect public ownership, even in the nominal way it currently exists. Public ownership cannot cope with these dynamics, especially when you figure that public funds for Yellowstone must already compete with the devouring sinkhole of money given to the private/public partnership known as the military industrial complex. So long as the expectation for Yellowstone is to provide a particular kind of access to a particular kind of person, then only a particular kind of service will do, and that will cost a lot of money that in the capitalist's world will only be found by a rich person who may only protect Yellowstone in so far as it protects the value of his property and his own view of the geysers. Besides, any meddling leads businesses to shut down.
Again, like so many issues related to capitalism in Yellowstone, this is an issue whose ecosystem isn't closed by the boundaries of the park or even by "Greater Yellowstone." This is an issue that relates to all our choices as a society. These three stories about Yellowstone connect to much more than themselves. The linchpin seems to be that Yellowstone is valued in a particular way by a particular group of people who may have the power and means to make that happen regardless of what you or I think about that. They build their power based on our quiet assent to the economic system in place. It is taken as a given, for instance, that high property values are a good thing. It is taken as a given that visitor centers and historic hotels should be as grand as possible. It is taken for granted that Yellowstone should serve enough people so that all our feces is manageable. Some of these things may or may not be true, but they should not be taken for granted. I believe some of these things we take for granted are certainly false and contribute to injustices in the world everywhere.
What we seemed left with is a vicious circle of privatization that will make Yellowstone even more exclusive than it already is; what exactly is the alternative, and how can the alternative come to be? While I doubt there is one or should be one answer to that question, I think the first step always is to renounce any ownership or privilege we think we have over land and resources, including Yellowstone, including my own love of Yellowstone. Nothing belongs to any of us. We need to use things in order to survive, but we are entitled to none of it, not the view, not the Inn, not a wage to work in paradise, none of it. Having said that, I can renounce everything and such a world will still not happen. The meantime is left for us to work against the forces that make this renunciation not yet possible. It is left for environmentalists to stand up for voiceless animals, plants, land, and water. It is for workers to stand with each other against the businesses who profit from their labor. It's for people who care to do anything possible to lower the value of property while at the same time not devaluing society's most oppressed. And, in respect to Mary Bomar, those who can influence the government should force it to say no to further privatization. In respect to Big Sky, those who care should work to let the workers stay in the motel. In respect to Yellowstone's projects, work to stop any project that comes at the expense of further privatization. In tandem, this can begin to make a dent where we can renounce our privilege and sense of entitlement to this much abused though still magical land. Of course, I see the same thing in the gentrification of my Petworth neighborhood in Washington, D.C., and that for the time being is where I must turn my own attention.
For more on Jim, see The Magic of Yellowstone
and recent essays on his blog, Jim's Eclectic World
The company towns of Greater Yellowstone
by Jim Macdonald
I don't know how many people noticed the January 13 story out of Big Sky in the Billings Gazette entitled Couple objects to Big Sky Resort's plan to house employees. The gist of the story is that the Big Sky Resort has purchased a motel in which it intends to house the resort's employees as well as sell rooms to tourists. Many in Big Sky object, and a local couple has filed a formal complaint. Here is the rationale for the complaint, according to the article:
Using the motel as employee housing "will decrease our property values, increase crime and decrease quality of life," [Patrick and Susan] Collins said.
I can only hope that that is true.
Many workers in Greater Yellowstone, whether you are talking about Yellowstone or Grand Teton National Parks, or the various businesses in the gateway communities and other towns like Big Sky, are not able to afford housing. In order to attract workers, many of the businesses and concessions provide employee housing and sometimes also the food and other goods at a fee that workers can afford. Such dependence on one employer for all these particular services can be dangerous, but in truth, it is not nearly as dangerous as it was for miners and other workers in the era of company towns -- like Andrew Carnegie's Homestead -- because most workers in Greater Yellowstone probably could have found work elsewhere. Thus, for the vast majority of workers, even perhaps the foreign workers who often spend upwards of $2,000 to an agent just to get to the United States in order to start work, we are not talking about oppression against labor in the same way that we see in the sweatshops throughout the world.
Nevertheless, workers in parts of Greater Yellowstone are intended to be kept fully separate from the visitors, both wealthy and middle class, that they serve. In my five summers in Grant Village during the 1990s, I lived in employee dorms provided by my employer, ate in an employee dining room provided by the same employer, and spent my money mostly in the store in which I worked. Grant Village is set up so that each concession's housing is kept separate. Some live in dormitories and cabins while others live in employee campgrounds. Concessions employees are separated from National Park Service employees. The only place all might come together is in the employee pub.
So, there is a whole physical and social world that most visitors never see, and there is a visitor world that many employees never see. I have never been to the Park Service employee area or inside a Grant Village cabin, and for the most part I've been to the campground when I stayed there as a visitor. The rules are often set up to discourage a lot of interaction between visitors and employees. My time at Hamilton Stores came with rules regulating the length of my hair, prohibiting facial hair, and telling us who we were allowed to let into the dorms, including how we may interact with workers from the other concessions. Given that most employees hated the tourist class, it was not a burdensome segregation. While there was acknowledgment that without the tourists there were no jobs, there was generally a wide cultural separation between the workers -- whether young or old -- and the tourists -- whether young or old. Many workers assumed tourists to be stupid -- giving them the name tourons -- and assumed they were more concerned with shopping for souvenirs than with the magical wonders all around them. I knew of many workers who would cheer when a tourist was gored by a bison or hurt by thermal features, happy that there was some sort of "justice" for the arrogance of most of the tourists whose money paid their wages.
Many workers, separated from each other, developed suspicions of other workers. I remember that among waiters and waitresses in the Village Grill, there were several who claimed that Park Rangers were notorious for not tipping and hated what they called their big self-important egos. There was a divide in Grant Village between the Xanterra and the Yellowstone Park Service Station employees -- who sometimes socialized because they ate in the same Employee Dining Rooms -- and those who worked for Hamilton's (now Delaware North), often based on age (Xanterra and YPSS employees tended to be younger than the general store employees) but sometimes based on class (the assumption was that Xanterra employees tended to be poorer). In any job, younger and older employees often squabbled over noise and were often separated into different parts of the dormitories. Many older employees were married and/or lived in campgrounds and so lived separately from the single employees. Married workers had nicer dormitories. Most workers were friendly with their immediate store management, but there was suspicion of the management in headquarters. At Ham's, rumors about the wealth of the Povah's (owners of Hamilton Stores) spread, and there was a general assumption that they were cheapskates who could and should pay their workers better. If a worker defended the Povah's, it was often by comparing themselves against the workers at the other concessions. On my August 2006 visit to Yellowstone, workers at Delaware North told me how disgruntled they were with the owners and at least missed the consistency of the previous regime.
Outside of Yellowstone, the story is certainly more diverse but not as drastically different as you might expect. Not all businesses provide housing, and most don't have the "company town" feel of the concessions of Yellowstone. Nevertheless, the price of housing is absolutely outrageous. Land for sale is not only scarce, it is highly desired by some of the richest people in the United States. Many of them move to the region for views of the Tetons or to live in the luxurious Big Sky area, where they can be members of the Yellowstone Club. In fact, the environmental benefit that comes from restricting private land access has been an incredible boon to the super rich. Yet, as a result, housing remains scarce for those who "clean the toilets." Many places like the Big Sky resort must provide housing for their employees, and the rights of workers in such situations is scarce to none. The only protection is the labor shortage, but in an environmet where you can't otherwise afford to live, it is small comfort to be able to work if you cannot provide for your own shelter. In some cases, workers who have lost jobs with one employer cannot find work with another. During my first summer in Yellowstone, a worker lost his job with Hamilton Stores after his former boss at TW (the predecessor of Xanterra) had talked to my boss about him. He had been hired and was doing good work for Hamilton's, but his past run-in with his employer had now cost him a chance to finish a summer in Yellowstone.
Without workers, there is no tourism in Greater Yellowstone. They should not be subjected to the humiliation and class treatment that they inevitably suffer from in the area due to various prejudices and class differences that exist in the society at large. It is a remarkable privilege that anyone at all can afford property in the paradise of Greater Yellowstone, and it is sickening that people in Big Sky would use the value of their property as a reason to keep workers from living in the motel that has been provided for them. The property values in the region are already far too high as it is, and the workers are already forced into a situation where they are at the mercy of their employers. Because workers may be more prone to certain types of crime (a stereotype that by itself deserves a column) and may as a result drive property values down is sour grapes. Why should the workers that are depended on to raise the value of the property be separated in order to raise the property value further? Class hierarchy already comes with a price, as I have already argued in my essay, Yellowstone and class. Raising property values on the backs of workers comes hand-in-hand in Greater Yellowstone with the appreciation of animals, wildlife, and features for their own sake. The value of seeing a nature that rises above human artifice is inconsistent with de-valuing the workers who make this illusion possible.
In fact, one should hope that the complaint of these Big Sky residents is essentially correct and that the value of the property in Big Sky decreases as a result of the motel being occupied by workers. Any leveling of the property value can only have the tendency to bring to the surface the obvious class prejudices that exist between members of all social classes. Instead of workers being hidden away in the employee dormitories or the wealthy in expensive hotel rooms, or the middle class in the lodges and campgrounds, all stewing in the perceptions that exist from being segregated, it is far better in my mind that the differences be allowed to blossom. In a wild area like Yellowstone, in places like the Lamar Valley, wildlife engage each other in a battle for their own survival. Like people who enjoy gladiator battles, many come out with their cameras and spotting scopes for a peek at the battles of the natural kingdom, as though because of our civilization we are immune from it. Instead, we have tucked it away and let it build beneath the surface. In our cities, in the Homesteads and company towns of the past, these situations have exploded like powder kegs. There have been horrible riots, and many people have died in situations that only could rise in a world of class oppression. The rich of Big Sky, the rich and middle class tourists of Yellowstone, and the rich of Jackson believe they have all escaped the pollution of the cities for their own privileged wonderland, one they further convince themselves is a privilege shared by all humans. Yet, we can see that there is no escaping the fact that we all eat and urinate, get dirty, and therefore still have the remotest relationship to our animal nature no matter where we are. Even then, we hide it in sewage, in laundromats,in meatpacking plants, and on ranches and farms. In Greater Yellowstone, it takes a working class to perpetuate the illusion that we are totally separated from the National Geographic moments in the Lamar Valley. Thus, there is always a working class living in close proximity to a wealthy class. One can only hope that by bringing that relationship out in the open that the truth is exposed.
Yet, the thought that the workers of Greater Yellowstone will actually contribute to decreasing the property value for the rich in places like Big Sky, of course, is a very unlikely scenario. In fact, the workers have made the property owners of Big Sky just that much wealthier. Visitors, no matter their attitudes toward workers or vice versa, continue to flock to Yellowstone (even if workers are not always quite so eager to do the same despite the obvious benefits of such work), and the class gulf that continues to widen will most likely still only flare up where it is most acute, in the large cities.
This is very sad to me because I don't understand why a place as beautiful and as special as Greater Yellowstone must exist as a sickening and bizarre microcosm of the abuses of the larger society. Why are buffalo, wolves, and grizzlies essentially treated either as nuissance animals or as heroic curiosities? I sometimes feel the same about the Yellowstone worker, although the "heroic curiosity" label is reserved only for the rangers. You cannot imagine the sense of disappointment people get when I tell them I wasn't a ranger in Yellowstone but rather worked for a concessionaire. Just as buffalo shouldn't be penned and just as they at the same time shouldn't be put on a pedestal at the expense of other wild animals, the workers of Greater Yellowstone shouldn't be banished to the netherworlds, certainly not on the basis of someone else's property value; they are already penned enough. Much can said for the argument that the parceling of land into private property has been an extreme detriment to all that makes the area beautiful and special. So, anything that works against such a system is welcome to me.
Some argue that the tourist economy is the only thing that has protected it from mineral and agricultural development. If that is true, how pathetic. That is only a greater blight on civilized society at large and should only encourage a greater resistance against it. It suggests that we are all beholden to the company town, the one run by the tourist industry, and how we should thank our lucky stars that we are not stuck in the mining towns of old. Why should we assume that one form of oppression must exist? We have no reason to make such assumptions. And, if we did have reason, why should we feel happy with such a world? For crying out loud, let the workers in Big Sky stay at the motel; it's already ugly enough for workers as it is without this insult.
At some point, we have to challenge the right to property, the rationale on which it stands, and the million abuses that are the consequence of this prejudice. It is a prejudice that goes far beyond Greater Yellowstone and its workers. Nevertheless, in Yellowstone, we can see plainly why the prejudice is so disgusting. If you destroy the class system among people, it will be easier to see the ways in which we continue to perpetrate systems of oppression throughout existence, to plants, animals, the water, and the land. In places like Yellowstone, we still see that enlightening hope even if the picture we see is largely an illusion built on the same systems of oppression. It is time we see the irony of it and begin to do something about it. One can only hope that we can stand with workers, with the land, and with the animals against the absurdities that arise in the Yellowstone that's hidden from view. In the short term, let us hope that the workers in Big Sky are not forced to be segregated more than they already are.
For more on Jim and his relationship with Yellowstone, see the The Magic of Yellowstone
. Similar themes have also been developed in his essays: Yellowstone and class
and Anarchy in Yellowstone: A people’s history of Yellowstone National Park?tag 1 tag 2
In October 2006, the Ku Klux Klan (KKK) held a rally in Harper's Ferry, West Virginia, that was an embarrassment to those of us who hate racism. The Klan and their supporters outside their "free speech" pen outnumbered anti-racists by about 2 to 1. The KKK also received security and even rides to their rally from the National Park Service. Protesters who came out to speak against the Klan were harrassed by the authorities, and many left afraid of what might happen and disgusted that there were so many racists who would come out to support an organization that has used fearful violence to shut up people, especially people of color.
The reason I am writing about this event now is that I found myself talking about it on Kurt Repanshek's blog
on the national parks, where he wrote about controversy regarding a developer possibly breaking the law over bulldozing part of Harper's Ferry National Historic Park
. In responding to that, I found myself talking about what happened in Harper's Ferry this past October. Others have suggested that as awful as the KKK is that they have a right to free speech like everyone else.
In this essay, I am going to argue why what the KKK does is not consistent with free speech.
The principle here is that speech that at the same time is used as an act of oppression cannot be called "free speech" because the speech actually keeps others from being able to speak.
As far as the KKK goes, it's not that they are racists, that they believe in racism, that they dare to speak out racist thoughts and ideas that makes what they do so objectionable. Free Republic, for instance, is a hateful, idiotic group with oppressive ideas. I have absolutely no opposition against them using a platform in which to speak, even if I find myself opposing what they say. On the other hand, I have considered going to the Washington Convention Center this weekend to protest GlaxoSmithKline and their use of an expensive platform to speak about health because this giant corporation is one of the worst in being complicit with animal abusers. In the case of GlaxoSmithKline, they are using the megaphone and amplification their money creates in order to drown out their oppression of animals. Their speech isn't mere speech without any power behind it; it's speech that actually contributes to the oppression of those without voice.
I think the same can be said for the Klan, except in this case the issue isn't that the KKK has all this money that it spends in order to amplify its speech. Nevertheless, the KKK only uses its platform for speaking as a form of intimidation so that others who should be able to have a voice don't. Many would not come to Harper's Ferry because they were frightened by what might happen to them at a Klan rally. The white uniforms aren't mere white uniforms; they are an intentional display intended to instill fear and shut people up. They use the rally in places like Harper's Ferry not simply to bring together the faithful and assert their ideas but to put their ideas into action, creating a fearful spectacle that actually does disempower people from expressing their voice.
The way they use their speech is an aggressive use of power in order to deny voice to the oppressed. That is not consistent with free speech. Free Republic, on the other hand, only intends and actually does express hateful ideas. Their expressing those ideas does nothing to anyone except their poor, wretched souls. No one should stop them; they in fact should be pitied.
Some have said that people should be able to spend as much as they want on a political campaign and claim that that is free speech. I agree with them fully that that is speech. That, however, is contradictory to free speech, since the relative privilege of controlling the amount of speech has the effect of drowning out everyone else who doesn't have the money to spend. It disempowers others from speaking. Someone may even use those airwaves to promote justice or something we agree with, but to say that this is the same as free speech is ludicrous because the use of the speech has the tendency to disempower others from expressing themselves. In a process that purports that all votes and voices are equal, calling this free speech would be a disingenuous lie.
As much as the Klan does the same thing with the fear they intend and actually do instill through their speech (you should have seen people of color I knew outside the rally and how afraid they were - and these are hardcore activists), they should not only not be permitted to rally (and it was more than that, they were escorted, given full security, and those who opposed them who didn't have permits were harrassed by the authorities), they should be actively stopped from even trying.
In another response to this question on Kurt's blog, I said that freedom is not vacuous. If the word has any meaning at all, it only can be in the inter-connections of a community. When actions go to destroy those inter-connections, then the space where the relations of "free speech" can exist is destroyed. As a result, those actions cannot be considered consistent with free speech. Yet, like some think time and space exist in in a vacuum, some think that that is what freedom must mean. In fact, time and space arise from the relations among beings, and so too freedom, the space where action exists, only arises in a context of relationships. But, if free speech does in fact mean freedom in a vacuum, that is freedom to act no matter what aside from the relations and effects on a community, then that too should be opposed along with the Klan.
So, my distinction isn't that hateful speech shouldn't be permitted but that hateful speech used as a rod of power against others such that it prevents them from being able to have voice should never be allowed. It's why no one should be ashamed to protest restaurants that serve meat or harrass workers, protest any corporation at all that profits from another being, or on and on (it's not always the best tactic in the current reality, but it's not illegitimate). I believe that such acts are legitimate against far more than the Klan; the Klan is simply a glaring example that one would think there would be consensus around. But, as long as people confuse their pluralism with ethical vacuousness, then we won't even get consensus around that, and the happy parade of oppression will continue.
Anyhow, I hope that clarifies what I'm thinking. I wouldn't think that there should be disagreement over the principle. At most, we might disagree about whether the Klan's use of speech is actually disempowering. However, I and many others can attest firsthand that it is.
One should note also how different this is than speaking out in opposition to oppression. That speech might also be intimidating, frightening, or have the effect of shutting people up. Yet, speech which shuts up those who are actively shutting up others does not contribute to oppression. It creates a climate, if done in a way where the means and ends are consistent, where those without voice have the ability to speak out. That is why I have previously defended the use of home demonstrations
. Understanding the difference between what the KKK does and what someone fighting against oppression does is very important, and incidental similarities in tactics do nothing to hide that difference.
My Happily Unsuccessful Hike on the Mt. Washburn Spur Trail during "Christmas" Day in Yellowstone, 2006
by Jim Macdonald
So much happened to me August 25, 2006, also known to employees in Yellowstone National Park as "Christmas in Yellowstone," and I am not going to paint for you the entire picture now or even the most poignant moment of my day. Please do not be too disappointed with me. We cannot successfully make it through every trail, and sometimes we have to be content with having our way blocked. I ask for your patience and respect. Wonder all you want about what I might have shared, but please do not press me. I cannot say I have good reasons, but your way is blocked.
On August 25, 2006, most of the excitement in the Canyon area of Yellowstone had little to do with Christmas but with the grand opening of the new Canyon Visitor Education Center. Dignitaries and politicians showed up in droves to witness this historic event, the first new development of its kind in Canyon in many decades. As a student of history, you think I might have stayed. However, I see plenty of puffed up self importance in the town I live, Washington, D.C., and so I went on a hike into the backcountry instead. Later, I would go to the new center and educate myself by learning quite a bit about the Yellowstone supervolcano from geologist Bob Smith. While that was swell and while stuff left unsaid will stick with me even more, my trip into backcountry is the story I want to focus on here.
First, however, what brought me to Canyon on August 25 so that my stars would align with Yellowstone National Park, the Canyon area in particular, the opening of a brand new center, and all the oligarchs who come with that, on Christmas in Yellowstone no less?
I guess a lot of it was an accident. That is, it started with an accident. In October 2005, I broke my clavicle in a bicycle accident (head on at 20 mph with another bicycle) on the Memorial Bridge between the Lincoln Memorial and Arlington National Cemetery while trying to help organize a march in commemoration of all the dead Iraqis as well as the 2,000 dead U.S. soldiers. We were supposed to meet up with another event being held simultaneously by Cindy Sheehan, but that part of things never happened for me. This accident took me off my bike for the next 10 weeks, in essence blocking me from my main form of transportation (and a lot else besides). When I got back on the bike in January, I became obsessed with building my strength back to what it was prior to the accident. However, I had never been much of a person for self discipline. In March, a light bulb went on inside me. I asked myself whether it might be possible to take a trip to Yellowstone where I didn't bring a car and only biked and hiked. That inspired me to train like I have never trained before. Since that time, I have religiously done sit ups and push ups almost every day at increasingly growing difficulty. When I began, I could hardly do any, and the pain in my shoulder was still profound. Over time, I gained strength and now would easily score above the 100th percentile in both sit ups and push ups for any age class on the Army Physical Fitness Test. I also began biking longer and longer distances, doing so at times with all of my camping gear. In humid heat rising to the upper 90s, I once biked 98 miles with a touring bike and about 40 pounds of gear, albeit on the flatter paths of the Washington & Old Dominion bike trail in northern Virginia. This kind of training opened trails of possibility for me that had been closed by my accident. It wasn't that the accident was a direct cause of my training; it's ludicrous to say that something stuck in your path is the reason you got through something. However, in a world where the accident was a reality, it served as a point in the story that gave me focus for further inspiration.
As for the rest of it, that more or less was an accident. I chose to travel to Yellowstone in late August so that I could be there while it was still warm but at a time the crowds dramatically decreased. That allowed me no problem in finding camping spots, and it made the roads just a little less dangerous for me. During the trip, I took it relatively easy compared with my training regimen. While I ultimately biked more than 400 miles during the trip, I never biked more than 50 in a given day. I also hiked about 80 miles of trails during the period.
The mountain passes were a lot different than the meandering hills of metropolitan Washington, but I was ready for it. I was helped by a time of unusually good weather. It rarely rained during the entire trip. Luck had me in Canyon on August 25; if I had planned things differently, I might have organized it so that I could be in Grant Village for Christmas where I had worked for five summers. There, I could have maybe joined the employees as well as my old friend Jay Clayton--the only former co-worker still working in my store--for their holiday celebration. However, if I was going to see the whole park during that time while doing the kinds of hikes I wanted to do, it made more sense for me to be in the Canyon area during that stage of my trip. I did not know that a new visitor education center was going to open that day or that I'd be staring at Lee Whittlesey mere feet from me in the Canyon Lodge, a man whose histories on Yellowstone I have devoured (though I was too shy to introduce myself).
I had a hike planned, and so little was going to keep me from going on the hike. And, Whittlesey aside, I was not really impressed. It truly is what I can see on any day of the week. Tonight, George W. Bush is going to give a speech where he is expected to increase troop levels in Iraq. Outside of the White House, some protester friends of mine will be trying to create a disruption, especially with the mainstream media who will camp themselves outside the White House--though inside the gates--to give their impressions. Their noise may make it into your house like it did another time. A dozen of us sounded like 50 to NBC anchor Brian Williams, which became 500 in a report about the reporting by Washington Post style guru Tom Shales. What was happening in Canyon was much like the world of Washington I was already pretty disillusioned with, and so that was not going to stop me from going on my hike.
My hike, as the title suggests, was on the Mt. Washburn spur trail. Mt. Washburn is 10,243 feet high. Most people climb it on a relatively easy trail from the top of Dunraven Pass, and I had done so on at least three other occasions, once in the middle of the night. However, I had never taken the spur trail, which is much longer but passes by a number of backcountry thermals. The mountain was named after Montana Surveyor General Henry Dana Washburn, who was the leader of the famous 1870 Washburn Expedition that was the precursor to the Hayden Expedition of the next year, which led to the founding of Yellowstone National Park. From the top of Mt. Washburn, it feels like you can see forever. Even the Tetons over 70 miles away (in some cases further) are plainly visible on a clear day. Through the binoculars on top of Mt. Washburn, it looks like the forests of the Tetons are painted on the lens.
All of that description of Mt. Washburn is all well and good except I never made it anywhere near the top of Mt. Washburn on this day; I still left happy.
The first part of the trail for me began by the Glacial Boulder near Inspiration Point on the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. The previous day, I had also hiked along this trail as part of the Seven Mile Hole trail down to the bottom of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River. That was an astonishing hike that I'll never forget, slipping and sliding down the canyon where at one point only my catching a small lodgepole pine on my way down protected me from total disaster. However, I should describe that hike another time. This hike was far more subtle, and while I was on it, relatively flat. Exhausted from previous hikes, bike rides, and fighting with rocks all night under my tent, I chose to conserve energy as much as possible during the early part of the hike knowing that a climb up a mountain awaited me. It was a pleasant walk in the forest, with occasional views of the canyon and the 1,000 plus foot Silver Cord cascading into the canyon.
I was the only person on the trail.
The hike meanders along going up and down until finally breaking with the Seven Mile Hole trail near a secluded little meadow. The only thing that would break the silence of the trip was the extremely annoying sound of two fighter jets flying really low across the sky above me. These two jets had done the same thing the day before, a reminder that however isolated I felt in the wilds of Yellowstone, the world I had thought I left was still all too close. I refrained from flipping off the jets like I had the day before, but you can bet that I had some choice things to scream in those woods. And, who knows, maybe they were heard.
The sky became increasingly cloudy, not a good sign for a trip up a mountain known mostly for its view. The days before, the sky over Canyon had been very smoky. Smoke from nearby forest fires had blown miles over us, blocking out the sky while keeping the temperature relatively cool. However, today was different. The sky was not cloudy from smoke; it was just plain old cloudy. Nevertheless, weather changes quickly in Yellowstone, and I knew that it might just as well be sunny again in a matter of moments. In fact, at times, the sun would peak out through the clouds. While the extremes of the weather are always omnipresent in Yellowstone, the extremes are so erratic and unpredictable that I never make my plans based on what it looks like it might do. On sunny, hot days I carried rain gear. On days that threatened rain, I continued as though nothing interesting was going on. You get burned more often than not in Yellowstone, and I was definitely burnt as it was from the intensity of the sun in the thin mountain air.
Eventually, I began to walk by puddles of water, only they weren't puddles. The ground was alive with thermal activity. People are becoming more and more aware that Yellowstone sits on top of a magma chamber of one of the world's largest volcanoes, one that could destroy much of North America as we know it. This supervolcano, which was the subject of Bob Smith's lecture later that evening, sits under an area in the mountains that is rife with earthquakes. These mountains are right at a spot which is the source of many of the major rivers of both the eastern and western United States. It is perhaps the coldest spot in the United States outside of Alaska. The ice, the water, the earthquakes, and the heat produce the thermal wonders of Yellowstone, which houses more than 10,000 such features, more than half of the thermal features that exist on Earth. Millions of people every year see Old Faithful; however, Yellowstone has thermal features that are nestled throughout its backcountry. Some never get seen. Others get seen by an adventurous few. The thermals I was seeing on the Mt. Washburn spur trail are probably seen by a couple thousand people each year, and as I already mentioned, I was the only person on the trail this day.
These thermals are known as the Washburn Hot Springs. Wow, they sure are acidic and violent. I was stunned and even a little scared to be standing next to them. Acidic thermal features will bubble and belch at temperatures much lower than boiling, but they are hot nonetheless. The backcountry trails through these thermal areas is not always well defined. You do not have a boardwalk here, but that does not mean the crust of the earth is any more stable. At times, you have to ford a small stream of water from thermal run off. The thermals were not necessarily photogenic, but they stunned me all the same. The color of the water in many places was black. In the quiet hills, meadows, and woods nearby, except for those fighter jets, one would not have imagined a world of such violence so near at hand. Moments before I had faced one of my fears by crossing a river with a log strewn over it (having fallen off such a log as a child in cold November waters), but that was nothing compared with this. If the hike were to end now, I was happy that I had seen these thermals. My past trips up Mt. Washburn had not been quite so amazing. Going up Mt. Washburn from Dunraven Pass is no special feat; the trail is an old road wide enough for many people to walk side-by-side. Back in 1993, I had no idea that there were these peculiar thermals nestled in the nearby woods. You can catch a glimpse of some of the thermals from the Dunraven Pass road, but a glimpse does not really make for an experience. As has been often the case in Yellowstone, I felt uniquely fortunate.
After a short while, I continued on with my hike believing that I was soon to start climbing. Not far from the thermals, I noticed what looked like a giant horse hoof print in the dirt. I thought that that was strange because I had not remembered seeing any evidence of horses prior to that. I was hoping I would not come up on any horses, but I did not think much of it beyond that. Not more than a minute later, I was stunned to see in front of me about 15 yards away not a horse but a cow moose standing right on the trail.
In 1993, I probably would have kept walking, not thinking anything of it, happy to see a moose. However, in 2006, I knew better. I became quite frightened. Whenever I go to Yellowstone, someone inevitably annoys me by telling me to watch out for bears. Bear incidents are rare anymore and were never nearly as bad as anyone made them out to be. Yet, a moose is something else altogether. The first night of my trip I had been playing hackeysack with some guys in Jackson, and they were relating hiking experiences. All of them unanimously expressed their fear of moose on the trail.
Why are moose so scary? Moose do not think twice about charging and beating you with their hooves. Unlike elk or deer, they are not likely to run away. Unlike bears, they are not necessarily likely to back off if you start backing off. While a moose is not likely to kill you, a moose can seriously hurt you. On a day when I was hiking in the woods by myself on a trail that had no one else on it, one could not be so sure whether the injury from this moose might not have been fatal.
While frightened, I did not panic and even managed to let out a small laugh at my predicament. What I did was step off the trail, while continuing to look at the moose, moving behind one of many nearby trees. Later, I discovered that that was exactly the right thing to do. Since moose have somewhat awkward bodies, they are not especially agile at cutting around corners. The tree gave me some hope of escaping a charging moose. For the next five minutes, I continued my stare off with the moose, wondering if she would leave the trail.
Then, I got really scared because out of the woods what looked like an adolescent moose came to join his/her mother. The young moose made a very endearing sound and rubbed up against the mother who continued to stare at me. I knew that I was in potential trouble now. Not only did the two moose not move, I was now upon a mother protecting her young. My hike was definitely over; my trail was blocked. Later on the trip I would learn that the young moose was probably no more than 2 months old even though she/he had grown so much. This was still a baby. Gradually, stepping backward and protected by trees, I made my way back to Washburn Hot Springs. I stopped to notice the hoof print from before. That was the print of a moose for sure. I retreated to the Washburn Hot Springs for awhile and was quite happy about my experience.
It made me feel good to know that I could go on a hike, not have it go according to plan, not reach my goal, and yet still find myself quite content with the outcome. I had very little reason to be on that trail; for the two moose, it was a matter of survival. To have come out of the experience safe and refreshed was more than enough. Having seen the Washburn Hot Springs was plenty astonishing for a day. Thus, while the trail beyond might have been more impressive, I felt wonderful knowing that I didn't need to find out. When I first went up Mt. Washburn in 1993, I came back down taking switchbacks, thus helping to erode a mountainside that had already suffered enough abuse. Now, in 2006, in a moment that tested my own sense of right and wrong, I was not only able to turn back when the moose stopped my hike, but also I felt like my hike was perhaps more worthwhile because of it.
Back in Washington, D.C., in October 2003, during a time my life where just about everything possible went wrong, I was mugged about 6 blocks from my home in the Capitol Hill area, ironically seconds after reading a chapter of Ray Bradbury's Dandelion Wine where a woman was afraid she was being followed. During that experience, I did not panic. Those who mugged me did not hurt me, took some meaningless things from me, and ran off never to be caught. However, that night they failed to take away what had been a rare nice evening during a very difficult time. I felt empowered by my reaction to that event and felt a sense of pity toward the two men who robbed me. I hope like the moose needed the trail that they needed what they got more than I did. Perhaps, that night was preparation. And, while in some sense on this trail, I was the invader, my experience was no less empowering because I did not feel a need to assert my domination over the situation. Empowerment is not always squelched by our obstacles. It sounds like a particularly stupid bit of advice that people often give, but I think we still often forget it. Things go wrong; some of those things can't be ignored. We should not pretend that they are somehow good things or expect people to be positive about experiences which are often very detrimental. I simply had my trail blocked by a moose; I got mugged but wasn't hurt. Others are raped, beaten, and murdered. Others have their countries destroyed first by mad dictators and then by forces like the United States military that claim they are only coming in to help. People get AIDS, die of cancer, live hungry and without shelter on the streets of our cities. Others suffer the humiliation of racial discrimination. Others have to live with all kinds of disabilities. What I'm talking about is truly small, extremely small. It would be presumptuous of anyone to say that people should just turn back and feel good about their situation based on a couple incidents where I was able to do so. Nevertheless, in the worst of situations, some others have found strength to be empowered, and I must imagine those people happier as a result. Whether we are in a position to do something positive in a situation with a great roadblock is deeply personal and dependent on the situation, but if we in any way can do something satisfying in the face of an obstacle, we should. It does not mean we should or can always remove the obstacle; it does not mean that the obstacle was somehow always as good a thing as moose on a trail are; but it does not also always mean that we have reached the end of our exploration just because one trail is closed for us.
As it turned out, I probably missed little by turning back. As soon as I returned back to my bike by the Glacial Boulder, I endured one of the very few rains I would encounter on the entire trip. There would have been no view from Mt. Washburn. It would rain for the next couple of hours. It also set the stage for the rest of my day, some of which will remain blocked from your view. At least in this particular tale, it will. One day, I may make it up Mt. Washburn via the spur trail, and on another day, you may get the rest of the story.
That takes us part way along the path of my "Christmas" in Yellowstone. I don't know if it is very satisfying; my life is hardly as astonishing as the Washburn Hot Springs. However, I'm also just as sure I haven't wasted enough of your time so that you couldn't recover.
For more on Jim and Yellowstone, including political essays and news, see The Magic of Yellowstone.
by Jim Macdonald
The irony of working five summers in Yellowstone National Park was in being paid to spend months in paradise whereas others much wealthier than me spent a small fortune to spend very little time. If you are poor and single, it has never been particularly hard to gain access into places like Yellowstone. However, poor and single people tended to be young, college-aged white people. These days, they tend to be foreign students from Europe, Asia, and South America who rumor has it are used as tax right offs for the concessionaires who hire them. So, while it was ironic that I could make money to live in Yellowstone as a relatively poor boy, at the same time I was hardly representative of the lower class.
In a place of spectacular grandeur, it may be hard to notice the interesting ways class hierarchy exists in Yellowstone. Where people come for a natural wilderness experience, in fact, the experience is much more like being on the various levels of the Titanic, with first, second, and third class passengers. Protection of Yellowstone is among other things, protection of a class system; however, that hardly squares with our values of what Yellowstone is supposed to be.
Yellowstone National Park was established on March 1, 1872, “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people,” but in fact it was set up for the Northern Pacific Railroad so that it might profit from those who would enjoy it. Not only did the Northern Pacific Railroad most likely first suggest the idea of Yellowstone as a national park, but also it dominated the concessions in Yellowstone for the first 50 years of Yellowstone’s existence. The railroad helped finance the great hotels of Yellowstone, including the Old Faithful Inn and the Lake Hotel, in the hopes that wealthy travelers might ride the Northern Pacific to Gardiner, MT, and then take the railroad-dominated concession’s stagecoaches on a grand tour of the park while staying at its luxurious hotels. Yellowstone was created for the benefit and enjoyment of rich people for the profit of other wealthy people.
Yet, in all eras of the park, labor was needed to staff the hotels, maintain the roads, and work in the park. These staff took on the derogatory name “Savages,” and these were the lucky few poor and working class who managed to make money for long stretches while the wealthy poured out their pockets to the concessions. Of course, the actual Indians, long called “savages” by Euroamericans, who had lived or migrated through Yellowstone, had been kicked out. However, who were these new “Savages”? To what extent were they a working class, or to what extent were they like the Yellowstone workers of today? Were they foreign workers like much of today’s force? Were they college-aged students much like the recently deceased Gerald Ford, who served as a seasonal ranger in 1936? How did this change over time? And, if these people were a poorer working class, what made it possible for them to work seasons in Yellowstone? Was it the fortunate experience it was for me?
Yellowstone opened to the automobile in 1915, and with it came a sea change in the Yellowstone tourist. Now, Yellowstone was accessible to a large American middle class, at least an upper middle class who could afford to travel and a somewhat poorer middle class who lived closer to Yellowstone. Many of them also chose to camp rather than stay in the lush hotels. With this growing new set of people, a whole new class of people joined the rich and the class of working poor in Yellowstone.
In many respects, Yellowstone has not changed a whole lot since then. You still have large hotels for the rich, and winter is a special fiefdom for rich travelers. There are cabins and lodges for those with slightly less. Others travel by RV or sleep in tents. And, you still have an employee class who spends a season in Yellowstone. While Indians have an increasingly growing say in Yellowstone, they still are on the fringes of Yellowstone society. At least, they are showing up in the history books again.
Most years, 3 – 4 million people visit Yellowstone National Park, paying for the gasoline, wear and tear on vehicles, entrance fees, souvenirs, food, fishing licenses, and lodging. They visit places run mostly by a few major concessions operated by Xanterra and/or Delaware North, or by the National Park Service itself, or the bookstores of the Yellowstone Association. Yellowstone began as a corporate and government venture; little has changed. The relative monopoly on access, management, and services lends itself very well to a stratified society, a feudal fiefdom in the woods.
On the other hand, what a beautiful woods in which to work as a serf! When I worked in Yellowstone during the mid-1990s, our room and board was provided by the concessionaire, which in my case was Hamilton Stores (now operated by Delaware North as the Yellowstone General Stores), for $8.50 a day. We were paid minimum wage, though on each successive year we received a five cent an hour raise, and we worked anywhere from 35 to 37.5 hours per week on split shifts, never receiving overtime. If you were lucky enough to wait tables, you could receive tips as well, which would essentially double the wages. It was not a terrible deal, to live and eat for $260 a month. Yet, only a specific type of person could afford to work in Yellowstone. Either you were retired and supplementing your income, or you were young, or you made a living migrating from tourist area to tourist area working seasonally. Very few people worked in Yellowstone year round because there are very few year round jobs within the park.
The point is that Yellowstone may have people from every class, but the working class in Yellowstone is a special working class. Most poor never see a place like Yellowstone and have no opportunity to do so. Most poor have families cannot afford the poor job security that comes with seasonal work, and many could not afford the journey to Yellowstone to get to the job. Notice that I do not even suggest that most poor could possibly consider a vacation to Yellowstone!
The other point is that benefit and enjoyment in Yellowstone is specific to the class to which one belongs. While the working poor in Yellowstone in some respects have it best because they can spend a long time in Yellowstone, I also do not know of too many who have ever stayed in the Old Faithful Inn, either!
Protection of Yellowstone in some respect seems to mean protection of the system in place as it is managed along class lines. While there is no doubt that protection is on the one hand about protecting landmarks, geological features, and wildlife (albeit imperfectly due to the conflicts that arise in creating so many visitor services), it is on the other also about protecting access to those landmarks, geological features, and wildlife. In essence, Yellowstone is a political boundary with legal and economic boundaries within. If you destroy the boundaries, you also threaten the class ecosystem in Yellowstone.
For instance, consider this. Can workers create their own economic cooperative in Yellowstone or essentially run the concession? In theory, it would be possible, but they would have to win the concession lease from the National Park Service in a competitive bidding that is rigged against anyone that is not in the game. Could workers organize labor unions? I do not even know the answer to that question; I fail to see why they couldn’t. Yet, if they did, what good is a union of seasonal employees who change from year to year? The middle class has exerted its influence by paying membership into large non-governmental organizations (NGOs), either recreational associations or environmental organizations, in order to assert their influence over park policy. In truth, they fund another upper class to make decisions for them, but such inconsistency has always been a hallmark of middle class organizing, a class with too much at stake within the system to ruffle too many feathers.
Protection of Yellowstone is a protection of class inequality. That does not bother that many Americans, but perhaps it should. Why is a place like Yellowstone valuable? That is a huge question, but one thing that there has been a general consensus on is that it is valuable for its unique features and wildlife. Yellowstone is a special place ostensibly because we value things that normally in the history of the world have been given a fourth class place in the world. Yellowstone is set up as an exception to that hierarchy. We lift up something that humans have not made and the things within it that are not human. It is a buffer against our general tendency, a place that is a benefit and enjoyment to us because it is what it is rather than what it might otherwise do for us. And yet, we do not seem to understand that point when we simultaneously set up a Yellowstone that is and has been set up along class lines and manage the kind of access specific to the particular classes who can benefit from and obtain enjoyment of it. Instead of creating a Yellowstone that is a special exception, Yellowstone is the place where we set up something called “natural” and determine access to it based on one’s relative class position in the larger society. That inequity ultimately lends itself to an inequity toward the land and animals themselves because of the conflict that exists between the privileges of class and the land itself.
So, we have those who believe they have a right to snowmobile in Yellowstone, for instance. Since Yellowstone was set up for the benefit and enjoyment of the people, why not allow all to access it through the means available to them? If the rich can enjoy Yellowstone by paying for guides, why can’t I as a private citizen do the same without a guide? That dispute comes about because there are class distinctions inherent in Yellowstone. Yet, when one group asserts itself against the injustices of the class distinctions that exist, then it is often the land and the wildlife that lose out. Snowmobiling for all may seem more equitable when compared with paying for a private tour, but it is hardly equitable for the land and wildlife that suffer under the scourge of snowmobiles. Those who then fight against snowmobiles, however, end up serving the interests of the most privileged classes. It is as though the “nature” of Yellowstone was the one preserved only for the few original passengers of the Northern Pacific Railroad. And, of course, below this, the poor do not own snowmobiles, cannot afford to come to a Yellowstone with snowmobiles, and the populist rhetoric of an organized segment of the middle class means nothing to them.
Class manifests itself in Yellowstone like it does in every part of our society, and class hierarchy is contrary to the values that have driven our special adoration of Yellowstone. Solutions related to class obviously cannot be restricted to Yellowstone because they involve an entire social and economic system over and beyond anything that happens in the park. Yet, as a wedge against class in Yellowstone, I would suggest that one of the first steps is for us who care to encourage an environment where workers can organize for their own benefit much the way that the wealthy classes can manipulate government and the way the middle classes can use NGOs. Another step is for the people who live in the gateway communities of Yellowstone to do the same. All the rest of us who care about Yellowstone should start by understanding the means in which class hierarchy exists in Yellowstone and how that squares with the values we hold about the park.
That is one reason I intend to research and write a people’s history of Yellowstone, if such a history exists. I believe this takes precedent over more funding for Yellowstone. Our funding goes to protect the land and the wildlife, but it also goes to protect a class system that will ultimately destroy the land and the wildlife. If we want to make a dramatic difference for the place we love, we have to reassess where we put our energy, time, and resources.
For more on Jim, also see The Magic of Yellowstone tag tag2