The Past is Not Coming Back
Yesterday morning I left my friends Howard and Amy in Livingston and rode south through the Paradise Valley toward Yellowstone National Park. Traffic was pretty heavy and the bike path was old and rough, so I was glad to turn right on to the Old Yellowstone Trail. This was the original route into the Park from the north. Now it’s a gravel road that winds through farms and ranches, and could be mistaken for many remote country lanes in Montana.
But this one leads to Yellowstone, the iconic first National Park in the world. I was happy to see this landscape largely as it has been for decades - much as the parks themselves are intended to be “vignettes of America’s past.” Small houses, farms and ranches without telltale signs of being wealthy retreats or hobby farming.
The road follows the Yellowstone River, climbing over rocky ridges and eventually constricting into a tight canyon. The road was officially closed to vehicles here, and I was unsure if I could get through. Luckily a singletrack trail squeezed past the washout and threaded through a rockfall. I felt doubly blessed knowing that there would be even fewer cars on the far side.
The Old Yellowstone Trail is awesome to bike, but harder than the highway, so I was late arriving at the Yellowstone gateway town of Gardiner. My hosts Ann and Colleen know from experience what outdoor travelers need: in no time I was sitting in the shade with a tall glass of ice-water and a cold Mexican beer with limes.
My Livingston friend Howard works with Ann on GIS (Geographic Information Systems) for the Park. He arranged for us to talk because Ann is the Park lead for climate issues. She’s been working in the Park since the summer of 1988, when historic fires shook the hands-off stability-based management paradigm that had ruled Yellowstone and much of the conservation world. One third of America’s treasured first park burned that year and caused national trauma. But as the land recovered and refreshed after the fires, much of America came to a clearer understanding of the dynamic nature of nature.
The changes have not let up much during Ann’s career. Wolf reintroduction, buffalo conflicts with domestic cattle, endangered species protections for wolves and bears, big cuts in Park funding, surges of visitor numbers, etc. All of these have changed the Park and how people use and manage it.
The background to all those changes for Ann are the increasingly the clear signs of how climate change is affecting Yellowstone. in the 2000’s it seemed to her that climate change was an issue that would eventually need to be addressed. In the 2010’s Ann and many other natural resource scientists began to openly acknowledge that things are fundamentally changing. Now climate change is a defining factor for nearly everything the Park does.
The questions are myriad and complex. Ann consults with facilities staff about planning new Park housing that can withstand the coming high temperatures. She talks with civil engineers about rebuilding roads and culverts that won’t wash out in unprecedented spring floods. Wildlife managers talk with her about how Yellowstone’s iconic species will do in habitats that don’t produce foods at the time or of the kind that they used to.
These challenges confront a lodestar of our society’s approach to planning: see what the historic challenges have been and design for those conditions. If the biggest flood known in 100 years was 10 feet above normal flow, then program in a bit of a buffer over that and start building. But when floods come earlier than ever before, or later, or are 200% bigger... But on the other hand, overbuilding is wasteful of precious tax dollars.
And if anything, the ecological tipping points are even more critical in Yellowstone. A vital high-mountain tree, whitebark pine, has been eliminated from much of the region by climate-related insect attacks and diseases. Grizzly bears depend on whitebark pine-nuts to put on weight before their winter snooze. If the nuts aren’t there then the bears head to where food is - often near people who don’t take kindly to their sudden hungry appearances. That means fewer bears.
Cheatgrass is an invasive species that thrives on fire. It both carries fire easily across the landscape and beats out most native plants in recolonizing after fire. Not much of Yellowstone’s wildlife eats it. Repeat this cycle a few times and you can have in Yellowstone what we already have in much of the West: monoculture cheatgrass. And that means wildlife like bison, elk, and pronghorn suffer.
And that brings us to fire. In recent years even very young lodgepole pine have begun burning in extreme drought. Those saplings haven’t started making cones yet, and if they are burnt up before they make seeds there may not be a new generation of the forest. Projections are that 40% of Yellowstone’s forests could be gone in the coming decades if fire trends continue.
It looks like they will. The hot, dry, and windy conditions that led to the 1988 fires are happening much more often lately. 2021 was primed for another 1988-style megafire, but was stopped by a four-day rainstorm in July. Ann cites projections that fire years like this will be 1 of five soon.
Yellowstone can’t count on luck. Ann sees the need to start planning for these eventualities - so we don’t end up with a park with decimated native vegetation and few distinctive wild animals. That means considering things that Parks have shied from doing before. Like assisting migration of native species to habitats that will be better in the warmer world. Or strongly intervening in post-fire recovery so that weeds don’t take over. Or managing fires much more aggressively to limit damage to rare ecosystems.
What to do? There are capable and far-sighted people like Ann working to do good planning for an altered future climate and the value we place on Parks. That forethought and care can apply to other more humanized places as well. Parks can educate across political divides. Everyone loves these places, and seeing what must be done to maintain and adapt protected landscapes can be examples for communities and regions.
As Ann says; The past is not coming back, not acting on what we know is simply poor management, addressing climate change takes courageous leaders and sustained public support, and we are not doing nearly enough toward better outcomes now. Those lessons are true well beyond Parks.