As the town meeting in the high school auditorium dragged into its third hour, with townspeople shifting on their metal folding chairs, a biologist droning on about the effects of forest fires on endangered species in Yellowstone National Park was curtly interrupted.
"I think the people here are primarily interested in another endangered species - the local businessman," boomed Ken Dixon. "We are also in a survival situation ourselves."In Gardiner, perched just yards from the gateway to Yellowstone, the lucrative summer season has disappeared in a cloud of forest-fire smoke. Stores offered end-of-the-season sales and switched to winter hours before Labor Day. Hotels have lost guests. Workers have lost wages. In all, merchants reckon they'll lose millions.
But townspeople like Dixon, the owner of Cecil's Restaurant, don't blame the gigantic fires. They blame the National Park Service, which let the fires burn naturally until they got out of control.
"They've killed our business," said Donald Laubach, whose son owns the Town Cafe and Motel.
"We all feel anger toward the park service," added cashier Jackie Thompson.
When lightning touched off wildfires in June, Yellowstone's management followed National Park policy and let them burn. Firefighting efforts were launched immediately on man-made fires, but blazes started by lightning strikes were considered part of the natural ecosystem and beneficial to the overgrown forest.
By mid-July, with fires burning in all corners of Yellowstone, all-out containment efforts began, park officials say. By the end of August, nearly one-quarter of Yellowstone's 2.2 million acres had been engulfed. At least one of the fires charring Yellowstone was believed started by chainsaw sparks outside park boundaries, but it has defied efforts at control.
The fires - the worst in more than 200 years - fed on drought-dried timber and scattered on record-breaking winds. Today, they threaten towns, buildings and even the Old Faithful geyser.
Long after heavy rains or early snows smother the infernos, debate over the "let it burn" policy will rage, townspeople and park officials agree.
Congressional hearings are expected, and application of the policy will be re-evaluated, said Yellowstone Superintendent Robert Barbee, the official at whom Dixon and others in the region have directed their attacks.
It is shaping up as a classic confrontation, a clash between businessmen and nature, with its roots sunk deep in the very mission of national parks, which officials insist are intended to preserve nature, not cater to tourists.
"Where do you draw the line?" Barbee asked in an interview with The Associated Press. "We say when push comes to shove, nature wins in the national parks. But it isn't pure and simple."
Forestry officials say the fires prompt rebirth in the wilderness, clearing away the old, dead and overgrown while making way for new vegetation and new wildlife habitats.
National parks, they say, are intended to be laboratories of nature, not "tree museums."
"Are we to promote these lovely pastoral scenes people are used to seeing on postcards and in coffee table books? Or is a national park a repository for naturalness?" Barbee asked. "Everything doesn't have to be picture postcard scenes. That's not what we're trying to accomplish."
To Ronnie Wright, the national park fire policy is good in theory, but poor in practice. Like others living on the edge of the nation's oldest national park, Wright makes his living from nature. His company, Beartooth Plateau Outfitters, offers tours and hunting trips.
But the only guiding he did in August was getting firefighters through the forest. His horses carried firefighting gear, not tourists. When Cooke City, Mont., was under an evacuation warning, Wright packed up his animals, including his pet bear, and shipped them out.
"They definitely made a mistake. Of course, that's easy to say with hindsight," Wright said. "The trouble with their policy is there's no common sense involved. It's so darn dry here, the fires should have been doused right away.
"Their theory is right, but when they've got the means to control it, they should use their heads a little bit."
Barbee says experts studied the fires closely as the early decisions were made. They relied on 16 years' experience with the policy, he said, and 100 years of weather data.
Over the past decade, 140 fires have been allowed to burn.