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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.

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    Thursday, November 30, 2006

    Anarchy in Yellowstone: A people’s history of Yellowstone National Park?

    Anarchy in Yellowstone: A people’s history of Yellowstone National Park?

    November 30, 2006

    by Jim Macdonald

    In this essay, let me start by professing my ignorance. While I have read many books about Yellowstone and Grand Teton history, about the parks and area in general, I cannot say that I have made a thorough analysis of the literature that is and has been out there. In some sense, this essay is a brainstorm and a hypothesis for future research that I am strongly considering pursuing. It seems to me that there is nothing analogous to Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States for Greater Yellowstone, and consequently, I have been thinking that it would be worthwhile to research whether there is one and, if there is none, why such a history has never been written. If such a history exists, it certainly is not prominent. While recent books, such as Restoring a Presence: American Indians and Yellowstone National Park by Peter Nabokov and Lawrence Loendorf, have continued the work of writing indigenous peoples back into Yellowstone’s history, most of the history of the parks is written from the standpoint of the parks’ bureaucracy as well as that of the large concessions that have managed services in the parks (see for instance Selling Yellowstone: Capitalism and the Construction of Nature by Mark Daniel Barringer for a historical interpretation focused on one concessionaire in particular).

    In A People’s History of the United States, Zinn looks at the history of the United States through the perspective of those who have largely been forgotten or marginalized in most other American history books. Writing American history viewed from the lens of Indians, women, African Americans, and especially the working class, Zinn writes about those struggles that often failed in American history but were deeply influential on the times in which they occurred. He also tells the story of how the upper classes used different strategies to ensure that these “people’s” movements ultimately failed.

    As someone who worked five summers in Yellowstone and as a person who has been engaged in radical social movements during my six and a half years in Washington, DC, it has crossed my mind whether there is anything like a people’s history that is applicable to Greater Yellowstone. We know about grassroots social movements like those waged by Buffalo Field Campaign, we know about indigenous presence in Yellowstone and how that history had been whitewashed for so many years, and we know about protests related to the struggle to make Jackson Hole part of Grand Teton National Park. We know about the “Savages” and other workers who have worked in Yellowstone either seasonally or permanently, and some effort has been taken to write about their experiences. There are plenty of stories about the people who lived in the immediate vicinity of the parks. However, what we don’t have is a comprehensive history that looks at Yellowstone distinctly from the point of view of all of these people to see whether there are common themes of oppression, especially sexism, racism, and classism, much like we find in American history at large. To my knowledge, we have no chronicle of protest movements in Yellowstone, of worker uprisings, or of the relationship between the worker and the bureaucracy. While there are plenty of stories from the perspective of the tourist and of the rangers and bureaucrats who have managed Yellowstone, we do not seem to have much from the perspective of those who are often most affected by the management decisions that have been put in place.

    For me, such a history is critical first and foremost because such stories should be told so that the rich magic that is Yellowstone is that much richer. Secondly, such a history may suggest a missing movement necessary to deal more profoundly with the issues facing Greater Yellowstone. A look at the history of Grand Teton National Park, as written in Crucible of Conservation: The Creation of Grand Teton National Park by Robert Righter, shows an alliance between the tourist industry as typified by dude ranchers, very rich men like John D. Rockefeller, the National Park Service, and large environmental organizations like the Sierra Club pitted against the National Forest Service, the livestock industry, poorer private ranchers, and those representing other private or public interests (like the hydroelectric industry). In both cases, white men of wealth and of government bureaucracies vied in a battle for control over natural resources. Ironically to some, the poorer landowners, who can hardly typify the lowest of classes, often sided against the environmentalists and waged something that looked like the shadow of a populist struggle against the almighty National Park Service and John D. Rockefeller. We see no signs of involvement from the indigenous Shoshone peoples who first inhabited the area. Anyone looking for the whole story of a people’s movement that one finds in Zinn’s book will be sorely disappointed. The great environmental wars are mostly those fought between white bureaucrats and rich white men who sometimes sided with or against each other.

    If this is the case, and if the national parks and forests of the area are essentially battlegrounds whose battles are fought among those who are the stars of most of the current history books, then one must wonder seriously whether they are the same people framing the environmental and other debates that exist today in the national parks. I believe that research will show that they are the same people; and if they are the same people, who is being left out of the discussion? Should those left out be involved, and how might they be involved? What are the solutions, and how might that change the region that so many of us love?

    Another way of putting this might be, “Is there a place for anarchy in Yellowstone?” That may not be a helpful way of putting it since so many associate the word “anarchy” with chaos and with the lack of rules. However, what it actually suggests is the struggle against all forms of social hierarchies and oppression. People’s movements, whether populist, anarchist, socialist, or otherwise, often garner strength from opposing a severe injustice. In opposing those injustices, many of those associated as radicals often come to the need to organize themselves differently than those responsible for the social ills they oppose, believing that the social ill is a symptom of something greater that is wrong with the way society manages itself. Might the problems that have lead to the various people’s movements in other parts of this country world suggest the need for the same movements in Greater Yellowstone? And, given the clearly hierarchical way in which those on every side of any dispute in the region organize themselves, perhaps it suggests that any people’s movement that arises might tend to be anarchist in nature – that is, seeking an abolition of the hierarchies that have created the condition and framed the terms of the debate.

    Now, I could be wrong about an awful lot here, and nothing I have said should constitute anything more than the hunches that begin to develop into a well-considered argument. However, it seems to me worthwhile that no matter what one thinks about the larger ideological questions at stake that a people’s history should be written about Greater Yellowstone. When I move to the area sometime hopefully in the next year, it will be that history I begin to research and write even as I continue to work within whatever social movements exist in that region. It should also be in the interest of non-anarchists, whether they be capitalists, socialists, liberals, conservatives, or anyone of any stripe to begin such a research project so that a radical such as myself does not have the final say on the matter (and I only joke slightly when I say that). All that can be done to remember the forgotten and marginalized can then only be worthwhile as a program of study; haven’t we heard enough about former Superintendent Horace Albright from the perspectives of his friends and enemies within the bureaucracy?

    For more on my passion for Yellowstone, see
    Recently, I also wrote an essay called No Radical New Wind in Yellowstone that talks about why the new Democratic Congress is irrelevant to the issues facing Yellowstone.

    Thursday, November 09, 2006

    No Radical New Wind in Yellowstone

    A new wind has blown into the town I live, Washington, D.C., but the same old wind shall likely prevail on my beloved Greater Yellowstone. The Democratic Party has won elections that will give them the reigns of both Houses of the U.S. Congress and the committee chairs that go with it. While that is likely to put some curb on those considered having an anti-environmental agenda, I fear that it will bring very little real change to Yellowstone. In fact, many of the problems in Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and the surrounding areas depend little on who is in charge and more on the economic and social systems in place that make many of the problems thoroughly unsolvable.

    Let us consider as just one example issues concerning the bison and the elk.

    Many would agree, though some would not, that Yellowstone National Park is overgrazed by both bison and by elk. The aspen trees have been in decline for decades, and there have been countless reports over the decades that the northern range of Yellowstone has been “in decline.” And, despite the reintroduction of wolves to Yellowstone, there have not been hugely significant declines in bison and elk populations. In fact, a strong case has been made that these populations are far greater than any population that has ever existed in Yellowstone during any age.

    For decades, humans have argued over what to do about this issue. Generally, humans have promoted various kinds of population control solutions, which is generally code for slaughter. However, when mass slaughter of wild animals has gone over like a lead balloon, some have argued that the Yellowstone ecosystem can regulate itself naturally and that humans should do as little as possible. They argue that as the food source is destroyed on the range, the numbers will take care of themselves, and the range will ultimately recover in time or change into something else – that is nature, and no one should require it to be stable. Of course, this solution might make sense if it did not also have an adverse effect on numerous smaller animals and plants in an ecosystem that is not intact and not ever without vast human influence. It might also make sense if elk and bison were not prone to wander outside the boundaries of Yellowstone.

    That elk and bison migrate and wander irrespective of human-imposed boundaries is the crux of the problem. If Yellowstone is supposed to be, among other things, a place where wild animals can be wild, then the imposition of National Park boundaries on them can only have the tendency to make them less so. Yet, if elk and bison are allowed to wander all over the place inside and outside of Yellowstone, the northern range might be allowed to recover as a result of elk and bison expanding their range, but then you run right into myriad other issues. The National Forests, which surround the Parks, are administered by the U.S. Department of Agriculture for all kinds of multiple economic uses. Private property dots the landscape, swirling in and out of the surrounding lands. These private boundaries are taken as sacred, almost indistinguishable from the identity of the owners themselves.

    Where some say that having wild, free ranging animals are sacred, others argue that private interests and public economic interests (as represented often in this case by the U.S. Department of Agriculture) are even more sacred. As a result, when bison cross the border and infringe on the perceived interests of private property owners, the Forest Service, or the states who have jurisdiction in these lands, they are often subject to various population control mechanisms. In other words, they are either forced back into Yellowstone via hazing, or they are shipped to slaughter. Occasionally, they are hunted. In the case of elk, they are also hunted, and that industry demands a large population of elk in order to protect their own economic interests, so much so that the National Elk Refuge in Wyoming continues to feed elk, though its original purpose (that of saving the elk in the area from starvation) has long since passed.

    Thus, a conflict exists between the ungulates of Yellowstone, who are prone to wander in the winters and/or when they’ve overgrazed their range, and the interests of corporate capitalism, who have parceled up lands for various purposes. More often than not, nobody is happy with the result. Some bison are slaughtered and some elk are hunted, though never enough to make the other interests happy.

    Now, how is a Democratic-controlled Congress expected to deal with something that in essence is an ideological dispute? First of all, they won’t. They have far too many other things on their agenda. However, if they happen to pay attention at all to issues related to Yellowstone, whether it be the ones I mentioned or snowmobiles, grizzly de-listing, wolf hunting, etc., there is nothing that can be done without either: 1) destroying the mission of the National Park Service so that it gives up the pretense of protecting wild animals; 2) destroying the capitalist system in place – that is, the parceling of land and resources as capital. Without dealing with this conflict, bison and elk will either continue to multiply to their detriment and the detriment of the other wild animals and plants in the ecosystem, or they will be artificially controlled to the detriment of the purpose for keeping a place like Yellowstone around.

    Yet, the implications of such a discussion are far too radical for the Democratic Party to consider given our system of government. They would either have to renounce the National Park system and therefore the funding from the wealthier brand of environmentalists that have supported them, or they would have to renounce the way of life of many people who helped send John Tester to the United States Senate, giving them the majority. That is an impossible choice, and there is no middle ground, though people like Bill Clinton often tried to pursue it, as in the case when he stopped the gold mine outside of Cooke City, MT, right outside Yellowstone’s Northeast Entrance, to the detriment of a wilderness area conveniently “somewhere else.”

    Voting for the Democratic Party and ousting people like Richard Pombo in California will stop the gutting of the Endangered Species Act, and yet I would argue that putting so much energy into electioneering on behalf of the Democratic Party is a detriment over the long run to the elk, wolves, grizzly, bison, aspen, and snow of Yellowstone National Park. It keeps people from considering the impossible ideological divide between interests, which are even more complicated than I have laid out – for just one example, consider that the Native Americans have long since been driven from Yellowstone and have been parceled onto reservations; they surely have an interest in what happens on these lands as well. When the fate of these decisions are in the hands of competing bureaucrats, lawyers, judges, politicians, and professional lobbies on both sides of things, one realize that people outside the power spectrum, and more poignantly the animals and plants themselves, have every reason to expect more of the same.

    Therefore, the elections are essentially meaningless in respect to Yellowstone, and those of us who care need to organize on a different model in order to force the ideological issues to the fore. I side with the wild Yellowstone that has not been subdivided and which allows animals to roam freely. To reach that end, it must come at the expense of the economic system now in place, and we have to be willing and brave enough to deal with the consequences of that. Yet, even if you believe in the economic system, you need to face up to the reality that that way of life is also threatened, at least in the Yellowstone area – I would argue that it goes much further than that – by a continued negligence to the true root of issues facing the Yellowstone area. We all on both sides should be fighting this out rather than pretending we can abdicate responsibility to an electoral process. No matter who is in power, this question is irresolvable until we face up to the point. And, if we do not solve it, the situation will only grow more and more complicated such that a solution none of us want will more than likely be foisted upon us.

    For those interested in pursuing grassroots organizing that puts all of this to the fore, look me up. I don’t plan on being in Washington forever; from a national political standpoint, the new wind has not cleaned up all the dirty air here.

    Jim Macdonald

    Tuesday, November 07, 2006

    Why I'm not voting today - Remember DC

    I am not voting here in the District of Columbia, and I will explain why. And, let's forget for a second that I don't believe that the voting process is in any way meaningful in our system of government. I will tell you why I'm not voting, even on the assumption I had much of anything to vote for. Nevertheless, the reason why I am not voting sheds light on why I believe that the voting process is a complete sham and actually often enough helps perpetuate the colonial status that the residents here have.

    First of all, as a resident of DC, we have no members of Congress, and so there is no congressional election here. We have a non-voting delegate of Congress, but that is not the same thing. It means that she can sit around Congress and hope for the best. Her name is Eleanor Holmes Norton, and I have been to her office. She and her staff couldn't be less responsive, but even if they were, there would be nothing they could do.

    So, the whole national debate over the two parties, or even voting for a third party, is irrelevant to me this day. There is no congressional race to vote for.

    We do have a mayoral race today, at least in theory. However, since DC is over 90% Democratic, that race was essentially decided in the primary. There is an election today, and there is also a Republican as well as a Green Party candidate. I am a registered Statehood Green Party member, and I even know the mayoral candidate very well. Of course, knowing the guy, I believe for too many sordid reasons that he would be an abysmal mayor. I could write in a perpetual joke candidate for mayor named Faith (that's her whole name), who actually has a radical platform calling for "DC secession", but she's also so completely out of it most of the time that I couldn't imagine she could serve any constituents. What if I supported Adrian Fenty, the Democrat, and someone who definitely seems interested in constituent services? He's actually my current council member, and there's no doubt he works hard for his constituents. The problem is that he also works hard for the developers as well, despite his rhetoric, supporting the continued gentrification of our Petworth neighborhood and condo development (including one just a few blocks from where I live that will ultimately drive up property values and force out more working class families from the neighborhood). I could not in any way feel confident that my voice is heard. And, even though the mayor of DC has some power, any decision that is made in DC is actually subject to approval by Congress, yes the same Congress that we residents of DC have absolutely no say in.

    We also have non-elected officials who oversee us; we vote in school Board races, though the city doesn't control the school system. There is also a system of public charter schools that seem totally renegade. There's something of a club called the Federal City Council, which wields huge influence over Congress, but is not elected and is a select club made up of some of the richest business interests in town.

    DC has among the highest, if not the highest, income and sales tax rates in the country, and on our license plates, it says "Taxation without Representation" which got snuck on our plates when Congress wasn't in session. They weren't amused but didn't take the time to stop it, since it was already too late. We have the highest AIDS rate in the country, a huge homeless population topping at least 12, 000, and one of the largest gaps of rich to poor anywhere in the country. A huge swath of the city is nowhere near a hospital since the city closed the only public hospital left in it, which served that area, saying there was no money (though plenty for a $700 million baseball stadium that is being built at the expense of small businesses and people who lived along the Anacostia River waterfront).

    So, when you vote for Congress, you vote to perpetuate a system where a city with more residents than either Wyoming or Alaska have no tangible say in how they are governed, and you vote for people who continue to support the colonial status subjigated on the poor, overwhelmingly people of color, population of the District of Columbia, who have virtually no decent choices in their own local elections, elections which again are for positions with relatively little "home rule." Remember that this is true of other U.S. colonial possessions like Puerto Rico, the U.S. Virgin Islands, Guam, and American Samoa.

    I don't believe the representative system is participatory or at all a show of any action we ourselves have control over (it's a non-action); I don't believe it empowers us to take further action. I feel that even more palpably here in DC. Please remember what you are doing to us by voting and not joining in our struggle to end colonialism here in the nation's capital. It's not enough that you vote; in fact, in some ways, it hurts us because your member of Congress will continue to wield control over us. However, I'm not sure it hurts us enough not to cast a ballot, and so go ahead. Just remember what I've said, learn for yourselves, and teach others.

    This is not democracy.

    Thursday, November 02, 2006

    Yellowstone News and the Minutemen scum - welcome to my eclectic world

    Last night, several of us protested Chris Simcox, the racist scum who founded the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps. He spoke last night at Georgetown University. We attended a protest organized by a student group, though it looked way too much like an ANSWER rally. However, Simcox's speech was interrupted by a fire alarm. Then, as he left, at least one protester was able to get into his face within inches of him before she was wrestled away. This happened after a couple of us, including me, were told to leave Georgetown, which is a private university. They don't have to give us a reason and declined to give us one several times. However, at least someone succeeded at disrupting Simcox's official escort. It wasn't as successful as students at Columbia University, who recently succeeded in preventing Minuteman Project founder Jim Gilchrist from speaking, but it was better than a lot of protests I have been to.

    Secondly, and seemingly unrelated, though much more related than most imagine, I have decided to blog my entries to my Yellowstone Newspaper. Each time I add to the newspaper, you can see what's new for the day (rather than seeing the whole paper at once - to each his own) at this blog. It also allows people to comment on articles more easily and directly.

    Okay, that's all for today.