The great Yellowstone caldera, home to Old Faithful and Mammoth Hot Springs, last exploded some 600,000 years ago. With a power more than one thousand times greater than Mt. St. Helen’s, it threw boulders the size of Greyhound buses nearly to Kansas. Pressure is building up again. The Yellowstone caldera is bulging in preparation for another explosion, which will probably occur sometime between tomorrow and fifty thousand years from now.
In the meantime, we have the task of repairing damage of another sort—that brought about by an agency of the United States government, the Forest Service, in the western boundary area of Yellowstone Park. Restoration ecology provides the tools.
The Island Park caldera area of Fremont County, Idaho, has trophy trout rivers and spectacular views of the Grand Tetons. Unfortunately, the natural beauty of this area is being despoiled at taxpayer expense. Americans are subsidizing the destruction of an increasingly cherished environment.
Beginning in 1961, increasing in the 70’s, and accelerating to unsustainable levels during the 80’s, the Forest Service liquidated the timber resources of Island Park. Their justification was a pine bark beetle infestation. The Forest Service deviated from a stated policy of sustained yields and increased timber harvest levels to upwards of 76 million board feet of timber per year—levels far in excess of what the area can grow on a sustained basis. And as clear-cut areas grew, the micro-climate of the area changed.
The trees of the entire Island Park area east of the Snake River and up to the Yellowstone Park boundary have been liquidated. One result has been a great decline in the wildlife population. Fremont County once had the longest continuous elk hunting season in Idaho. For a hundred years this elk hunt was characterized by trophy bulls and healthy cows. As clearcutting swept the area, the season was shortened. Then, as logging continued, the harvesting of cow elk was prohibited. What had been a 44-day hunting season in the 1960’s has become a five-day hunt for bulls only, with a disproportionate share of those bulls being less than breeding age. As logging draws to a close, even these restrictions may be inadequate. The bull-to-cow ratio, which measures overall population health, continues to decline. There are, essentially, no resident herds in the Island Park area. The elk being shot are migrants from Yellowstone Park.
Trees grow best in warm, moist places with low elevations and long growing seasons. Island Park, however, is at a high elevation characterized by hot, dry, short summers and long cold winters. There is little that can be done to stimulate the low timber productivity of the Targhee National Forest, or, for that matter, of any forest in the Yellowstone region.
The excessive timber harvest in Island Park has severely depressed the ecological values of the whole area. While it provided a short-term boost in timber jobs, the long-term economic base of many of the county’s residents has been harmed. The artificial twenty-million-dollar-per-year timber industry now faces collapse. By accessing increasingly marginal timber and accepting greater environmental damage. Island Park’s two major mills can remain in operation for a few more years. The stud mill in St. Anthony, which consumed lodgepole pine at a voracious rate to make 2×4’s, is likely to close within the year. The major dimension lumber mill in Rexburg, 15 miles farther south, has only a few more years to go. Likewise, continued emphasis on large mills could doom the far more labor intensive house log industry and smaller mills of the area.
If the region is to prosper, other economic activities must be pursued. Fortunately, the expanding interest Americans have in high quality natural environments and outdoor recreation provides a potential economic opportunity. Nearby West Yellowstone, Montana, has a history similar to Island Park’s, but enjoys prosperity based upon the natural environment. This success story provides both hope and a model for applying restoration ecology.
Starting just after World War II and through the late 1960’s, West Yellowstone’s economy was dominated by timber. Unprocessed logs were shipped as far as the upper Midwest to be made into paper. But as in the Island Park area, the extensive timber harvests could not be sustained. When a local mill was consumed by fire, the company decided against rebuilding, at least partially because of the inadequacy of the longterm timber supply.
Today, West Yellowstone has largely abandoned timber as a base for its economy. The community has found it can prosper by emphasizing resource protection, rather than resource extraction.
West Yellowstone has become a successful gateway community to Yellowstone Park as well as a recreational center in its own right. The area has capitalized on the growing enthusiasm of Americans for wild trout by becoming a world-class center for fly-fishing. Recently the North American Trout Foundation moved its headquarters to West Yellowstone, drawing thousands of anglers to its annual convention. In the winter thousands more visit the area to go snowmobiling and cross-country skiing. The American Dog Derby races held in Ashton from 1921 through the late 1940’s have moved to West Yellowstone. These activities have given it one of the most robust economies in the region.
Therein lies the economic opportunity for Island Park and adjacent areas. The rapidly changing cultural and economic trends in America that have helped West Yellowstone can also help southern Idaho. As Americans become increasingly concerned about the quality of their environment, their appreciation grows for places where the natural environment is healthy and intact. Eastern Idaho offers numerous opportunities to meet this growing interest. But the ecological restoration of Island Park is critical to its transition to a sustainable and environmentally protective economy.
To be effective, environmental restoration efforts must link ecological concerns with appropriate incentives. The bifurcated management of the Forest Service and the National Park Service has threatened both the environment and the economic health of the region. In addition, federal land management allows little meaningful local involvement in decisions affecting both the ecological and the economic health of the region.
Current federal land management is based upon political calculations decoupled from any long-term considerations. We need new institutional arrangements providing strong incentives to act responsibly towards the environment while pursuing economic interests. Businesses that depend upon scenic beauty, wildlife, and clean air and water are more likely to consider the short- and the long-term effects on the region’s ecological resources than are federal agencies that depend upon congressional appropriations.
With the proper type of stewardship arrangements, even mining, extraction, energy, and timber harvests can be made compatible with the long-term maintenance of environmental quality. Such a stewardship must recognize that decisions made in a political arena far removed from the region tend to be made in accord with political expedience and perceived acceptability. Thus political decisions fail to consider either the ecological or economic considerations critical to long-term vitality of a region. We must remove management decisions from the realm of special interest politics, with its inherent bias toward the short term.
One such management solution for the Island Park area is the creation of the Island Park Ecological Endowment Board. The proposed Ecological Endowment Board is a public, nonprofit corporation with a trustee responsibility for restoration of the area. It would have the obligation to manage in a manner that enhances the ecological integrity of the area while providing opportunities for sustainable businesses.
Think of this board as a public interest foundation representing both local and national interests. It would build on more than eight hundred years of common law experience with trust relationships involving colleges, hospitals, and museums, extending this well-established framework into a new ecological arena. (Local and national land trusts such as the Nature Conservancy have already provided a model for restoring abused ecosystems like Island Park.) This new management would operate under a congressional directive. It would combine elements of the new federalism embodied in the Northwest Power Planning Act, and a board of trustees such as that responsible for overseeing the Smithsonian Museum and Colonial Williamsburg.
America’s Founding Fathers and our first foreign chronicler, Alexis de Tocqueville, well understood that no single set of institutional arrangements is appropriate for all tasks. Profit and loss oriented corporations, by their very nature, give their managers incentives to discount costs and benefits not immediately reflected on the balance sheet. Elected politicians and governmental bureaucrats are notoriously shortsighted and provincial in their outlook, discounting results beyond the next election and impacts outside their jurisdiction. But the nonprofit public interest corporation we propose, the Island Park Ecological Endowment Board, can be carefully designed to avoid incentives that give rise to the above pathologies and to maximize the restoration of Yellowstone’s ecological heritage.