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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 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


    Anonymous Anonymous said...

    Jim, you raise some very good points, though I would venture that improving Yellowstone's overall health will be a tad easier to accomplish with a Democratically controlled Congress than with a pro-private property rights GOP Congress.

    Key to Yellowstone's survival as a viable ecosystem, as opposed to an imperiled open-air zoo, is the ability of wildlife to intermingle with other populations in the Rockies, be they north in Glacier and Canada, to the west in central Idaho and the Cascades beyond, or even south into the Wind River Range. Of course, conservationists have been pushing the "Yellowstone to Yukon" corridor for years, though I can't say that very much has been accomplished in that arena.

    While some conservation groups have made it somewhat financially attractive for ranchers to hold onto their lands and refuse to subdivide them, unless there's a sea-change in the capitalistic attitude of private property landowners surrounding parks such as Yellowstone, Grand Teton and Glacier, it will be harder and harder to achieve the Y2Y goals.

    But at least with Democrats in control there's a small window of hope that Congress will be somewhat responsive to contributing to a solution.

    11/9/06, 4:27 PM  

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