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Teaching Park Politics In Yellowstone National Park

It's difficult not to be struck by the sheer beauty of Yellowstone as you walk through the park's geyser basins. But it can be a struggle to appreciate all the politics simmering behind this park, and the entire National Park System. Grand Geyser photo by Kurt Repanshek.

Editor's note: Keen observers of the National Park Service realize that politics play a role in a surprising amount of the agency's decision-making. But just how much influence really comes to play? Robert Pahre, a professor of political science at the University of Illinois, researches and teaches the politics of the national parks. In the following guest column he sheds a little light on the power of the well-connected and well-organized.

When I tell people that I teach a summer course on the politics of Yellowstone, I always brace myself for the next question.

“What politics can there be in a national park?”

Plenty, as it turns out. I’ve been teaching the politics of national parks for most of a decade. In the last five years or so, I’ve added experiential learning to several courses. I’ve taken students on weekend field trips to Mammoth Cave and the Great Smoky Mountains, and this month I’m taking a group to Indiana Dunes. The longest of these experiences is an eight-day course on the politics of the Greater Yellowstone Area, taught on site every summer – and open to non-degree students of all sorts through the University of Illinois’ Office of Continuing Education.

An experiential course helps students understand the attractions of our national parks. When you’re there, you experience emotional reactions that you just can’t get from a book, DVD, or television. When my students drove out of Great Smoky Mountains National Park and into Gatlinburg, Tennessee, they understood immediately some of the issues surrounding gateway communities and the national parks. Seeing Gatlinburg and nearby Pigeon Forge also illustrated dramatically the importance of parks for local economic development. When my students compare cave tours at Mammoth Cave to a ride at Disney World, they make a different kind of emotional connection.

Those experiences reflect the decisions that the National Park Service has made over the years. Those decisions ultimately reflect the will of Congress — and, one hopes, the American public. The class helps students connect the dots.

The National Park Service Is Not Immune To Politics

Though they recognize that the Park Service is a federal agency, most Americans seem to think that “America’s greatest idea” is somehow immune to politics. Somehow, they think, parks set aside by Congress and managed by an agency of the Executive Branch can remain miraculously immune from politics. If you dig a little deeper, Americans generally think that the national parks are noble, and politics disgusting, so the two can’t possibly go together.

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Not even magical places such as Yellowstone are immune from politics. Thomas Moran painting of Castle Geyser.

That’s unfair to both politics and the national parks. Though many think “politics” is a dirty word, it really just means “how groups make collective decisions.”

Americans have made a lot of decisions in the national parks. Because our national parks preserve vignettes of primitive America, key moments in American history, our battlefields, monuments to past leaders, and slices of our culture, they are important - and worth disagreeing about. Politics is how we resolve those disagreements.

The Greater Yellowstone Area has presented Americans with many decisions over the years. The first decision was to set this special place aside as a national “pleasuring ground.” The railroads provided key political support for Yellowstone and the other early national parks, serving a well-to-do clientele who could afford a two-week journey out West. Those influential citizens wanted infrastructure: better hotels, restaurants, stagecoach tours, and easy access to all the sites.

That has remained one of the core political themes in the National Park System: how much access to these wonderlands, at what cost? What happens if the crowds damage the resources, or harm the experiences of other visitors?

Political Landscapes

To think about those decisions, my students learn to look critically at the developed landscape. The massive development center at Old Faithful poses the question clearly: do we need all these services? Do we need them right on top of the Upper Geyser Basin, or could they be pulled back a bit – or outside the park entirely?

The current landscape reflects the interests of railroads, concessioners, and the federal government in the late 19th century. That was a different world, with far fewer visitors. My students often react negatively to the crowds at Old Faithful, and some of them always pose a different vision. Some students will suggest that we might put the facilities farther away, and use public transportation to get people to Old Faithful.

We talk about the use of shuttles in other parks, such as Rocky Mountain, Yosemite, or Zion. We also talk about parks that don’t have lodges inside them, as well as Yosemite’s large resort complex in the valley.

To get another perspective, we also talk to representatives from Yellowstone’s major concessioner. They share with us how Xanterra Parks & Resorts addresses the trade-off between serving visitors and helping the NPS protect the natural resources that visitors come to see — while making a profit, of course.

The trade-off between tourism and environmental protection that shaped the historic landscape remains important for the politics of the Yellowstone region. The debate over snowmobiles in Yellowstone provides a contemporary example of these trade-offs. Snowmobiles and snowcoaches are popular among winter visitors. They are important for the economy of West Yellowstone, Montana. They are also noisy, affecting other visitors and some species of wildlife.

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How to manage snowmobiles and snowcoaches in Yellowstone long has been a thorny issue. Kurt Repanshek photo.

The political debates here involve differences in values as well as the economic interests of communities that depend on the park.

Technological Encroachment

Information technology has less obvious impact but it has also sparked debates over cell phone towers, webcams, and wireless access.

Many times I have heard voices from the back of our van crying, “I’ve lost my 3G service!” or “I can’t get on Facebook!” That provides a good opportunity to have a conversation about what visitors want, what visitors need, and what the NPS or concessioners should provide. The tendency has been for more information infrastructure, with both benefits and costs for the national park experience. Current management generally supports these changes.

Wilderness preservation provides the reverse side of tourism development. Under the Wilderness Act of 1964, Congress may designate federal lands as wilderness, places “where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain.” My students are surprised to learn that the three national parks here – Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and the John D. Rockefeller Memorial Parkway – do not have any federally-designated wildernesses. These parks have large regions that are managed as if they were designated wilderness, and large parts of Yellowstone remain a proposed wilderness.

We talk about the controversies over making that wilderness official. At the same time, the national forests and wildlife refuges that surround the parks hold ten designated wildernesses, many quite large. The politics here is somewhat complicated, producing higher levels of protection on some of the “multiple use” lands of the national forests than in the national parks with their “preservationist” mandate.

The Politics of Wildlife

Whether part of a federally designated wilderness or not, the lands of the Greater Yellowstone hold a remarkable diversity of wildlife, the largest preserved temperate zone ecosystem in the world. Even more than the geysers, the wildlife represents Yellowstone’s greatest draw for tourists, an economic resource as well as a biological one. Many of those critters are controversial.

Most people interested in the national parks know that there’s a controversy over Yellowstone’s wolves. Wolf lovers and wolf haters take very different approaches to the question of dealing with those wolves that wander outside the parks’ boundaries.

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Wolves, noble creatures to some, ruthless predators to others, often are polarizing. USFWS photo.

The three states have their own views, influenced heavily by their livestock industries.

We look for wolves in the Lamar Valley, and we generally chat with some of the wolf enthusiasts along the road. These enthusiasts are generally happy to share a view of the wolves through their high-end binoculars and gigantic camera lenses. Talking with these people, and with some anti-wolf people outside the park, gives the students a stronger understanding of the passions here.

The livestock sector also plays a key role in the politics of bison management. The colder the winter, the more bison wander to the lower-elevation areas outside Yellowstone. These bison may carry brucellosis, which they can transmit to cattle—after all, the bison historically got it from cattle. There aren’t so many cattle grazing outside the park in winter, but local ranchers are unwilling to take any chances on brucellosis reinfecting their herds.

My students have talked with people in the region with different views on the bison controversy. Elk also carry brucellosis, but local communities tend to want more of them. Locals object when the park does things that lower the elk population, such as reintroducing wolves in 1995. Those wolves probably reduce the number of elk that wander out of the park to find hunters’ scopes in the hunting season. Local attitudes toward elk add another complication to both the wolf issue and the brucellosis issue.

In all those cases, political controversies divide people who live around Yellowstone from park management and from the concerns of many tourists. Former House Speaker Tip O’Neill once said, “All politics is local.”

All national park politics is local, too.

We usually manage to see all those animals during our week in the region. To hedge our bets, we also stop by the Grizzly and Wolf Discovery Center in West Yellowstone. The staff there put on great educational programs for students of all ages. They are also well-informed about changes in law and policy on both grizzly bears and wolves, which change quickly.

Both black bears and grizzly bears have played important roles in the politics of Yellowstone. Decades ago, visitors rolled down their car windows and fed bears along the roadside. My students find it impossible to imagine wanting to feed a wild bear, but most visitors in the 1950s and 1960s thought it was the most natural thing in the world. That opens up some conversations about changing American views of wildlife and nature – not merely about bears. Those changes in public opinion probably lie behind some of the changes in national park philosophy we’ve seen in the last few decades, generally toward greater interest in what’s “natural.”

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The 1988 wildfires that blazed across the park were in many cases sparked naturally, but were nonetheless controversial. NPS photo.

Of Fire, Invasive Species, And Climate Change

The course also explores how land managers in the region deal with natural processes such as predation, insect infestations, and wildfire. The effects of wildfire are especially visible as you drive into Yellowstone on the South Entrance Road, where miles of burnt-over forest are visible on all sides. Students also see the lodgepole pines that have sprung up since these fires in 1988.

On other trails, we see the more subtle effects of smaller fires, and we visit the site of Yellowstone’s first management fire since 1988. Wildfire is a natural process, but both tourists and politicians have trouble understanding it. This makes it a good subject for talking about how the political environment shapes management in our national parks and forests.

The issue of wildfire also opens up conversations about other environmental issues where citizens and politicians struggle to understand the implications of scientific findings. Wildfire is just one of the management challenges that the Greater Yellowstone faces. Non-native species remain a problem in some places. Early settlers and the hotels brought in non-native grasses and some other plants. Others got here by themselves in one way or another.

Locals introduced mountain goats to the region in the 1940s and 1950s to establish a huntable population, and they’ve steadily worked their way into Yellowstone. Those non-native goats haven’t attracted much political controversy, but they pose challenges for managers. The goats may overgraze their alpine habitats, and they can also transmit diseases to the native bighorn sheep.

Getting rid of non-native goats in Olympic National Park has posed major management challenges and quite a bit of political controversy – we may see those debates come to the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem in a few years.

Perhaps the biggest political challenge is climate change. The managers in Yellowstone can’t really do anything about the causes of climate change, so they concentrate their efforts on how it affects the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

Some of those problems require working with other agencies and stakeholders outside the park. Historically, Yellowstone hasn’t played well with others. It has preferred to focus on what happens inside its boundaries and ignore the outside world. Fortunately, the NPS and its historic bureaucratic rivals, the U.S. Forest Service, are learning to work better together. They have an organization, the Greater Yellowstone Coordinating Committee, that keeps them talking to each other.

Dealing with Indian tribes has been another traditional weakness of the park. Almost three dozen tribes claim an affiliation with Yellowstone. The NPS has tended not to work with them to help tell Yellowstone’s stories or to manage its resources. The park has seen little archaeological research, so it is surprisingly ill-informed about how indigenous peoples used the region and its resources.

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Wickiups at Wigwam Creek, now called Wickiup Creek, Gallatin Mountain Range. Photo by Harlan Kredit, 1973.

The park has begun to reach out to affiliated tribes in the last decade or so. My students see some of the results on the second floor of the Canyon Visitor Center, part of which features tribes’ historic connections to Yellowstone’s resources.

More can be done.

The park also has to work with the three surrounding states to manage resources that cross boundaries. The livestock industry and hunting enthusiasts of Idaho, Montana and Wyoming have decided opinions about wolves, elk, bison, and other species.

Advocacy groups such as the Buffalo Field Campaign have strong views on the other side. Still others, such as the Yellowstone Association, focus their activities in the park itself. We try to meet with a sampling of these groups during our time in the region.

National parks are often called America’s great outdoors classroom. People who say this usually think of the scientific lessons that the parks can teach. But there’s a lot of politics in the park as well. The politics here can teach us about who we Americans are, and how we relate to the natural world and to each other.

Robert Pahre is a professor of political science at the University of Illinois, where he researches and teaches the politics of the national parks. You can learn more about his Yellowstone course on this site


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Having lived on the periphery of Yellowstone for 26 years I can attest - yes there is politics in Yellowstone. With the politics also comes the posturing, grandstanding, lying and and incisive, inflammatory, hyperbole that has made us all love politics so.

During the fires of 1988 Yellowstone honored the unofficial wilderness of Yellowstone by not allowing mechanized equipment in them to fight the giant fire. If the made it an official wilderness it wouldn't change a thing.

Thanks for an interesting - and very timely - article!

You're clearly very well-informed on the subject, so I hope you're correct about one statement: "Though many think “politics” is a dirty word, it really just means “how groups make collective decisions.”

We seem to be in a time when "groups" have become more narrowly focused and polarized (i.e. Democrats vs. Republicans, and even segments within those two parties). As a result, the willingness for compromise necessary to achieve consensus and actually make collective decisions has been in short supply lately.

There have always been differences between political parties on almost any issue, including the park-related subjects you describe in your article, and that's a good thing. Differences of opinion should allow for thoughtful examination of the pros and cons on any issue, with the goal of eventually reaching a collective decision.

Regrettably, "thoughtful" and "discussion" are both terms that are often hard to find in politics today.

It sounds like the country would be better off if all our national elected officials were required to successfully complete one of your classes :-)

While politics can play into some questions, I think many of the issues noted here are apolitical. Is it conservative or liberal to want wolf introductions? Is fighting fires or letting them burn really a political issue? The introduction of technology? I think not. My guess is the polling on these issues would not conform to political affiliations. just because people disagree doesn't make it political.

The issues themselves may be apolitical, but when anyone stands to lose or gain something, then it too often becomes very political.

Watch for the political pressures, wheelings and dealings that will surely accompany the plans for redevelopment of the Mariposa Grove in Yosemite that was discussed in another Traveler article today.

but when anyone stands to lose or gain something, then it too often becomes very political.

Your certainly have a much broader definition of "political" than I.

Yup. To me it seems to be synonymous with "money."

Which reminds me. At the risk of touching off another civil war, I tracked down the source of the "So." I asked some friends and a couple of them recalled the same TV ad I had seen during the 2004 election. It was one of those funded by a PAC with anonymous dollars and shady intentions. Must have been a liberal PAC because it showed the first part of Martha Radditz's interview when she asks the question, but it cut off just after Cheney said, "So?" It didn't continue for the rest of his reply.

Right there is a good example of the blatant dishonesty and influence of big money that is distorting our political process these day. I have to admit, I got snookered by that one.

I agree Lee. That is how politics starts, with an issue of contrary opinions or wishes or interests.

I also have to say, a headline like this one is certain to attract discussion!

Lee, you don't need a PAC campaign ad. Its easy to google the interview. Cheney indeed said "So" but it was not to a comment or question about 3000/4000 deaths. Radditz made the statement:

"recent polls that show about two-thirds of Americans say the fight in Iraq is not worth it"

It was to this statement he responded "So" His point was that it isn't the President's job to hold up his finger and make policy based on public opinion.

In my opinion, the problem isn't big money going in, its the lack of little money. As long as people have no money stake in the game, the are going to vote for the gimmies.

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