A crowd begins to form as people meander along a semicircular boardwalk, looking for a bench with a good view.
"The ranger said it could go any time after about five minutes to," a woman says to her husband, who looks up from under the brim of his golf cap. He adjusts his camera and tripod to catch a picture of Yellowstone National Park's most famous feature, with a sign in the foreground that reads "OLD FAITHFUL."A column of steam rises into the cool mountain air. Soon a white column of water bubbles up into the steam, rising 5 feet, 10 feet, then 25 and 30 feet, where it stays for about 45 seconds before shrinking back to the earth.
The crowd begins to dissipate as calmly as it assembled. "I've seen it do better," the woman says, while her husband and three other middle-age men strain their eyes toward the horizon near the famous seven-story Old Faithful Inn to the west. The men had hoped their pictures of the geyser would have some sign of fire on the landscape.
While they stopped to see Old Faithful, their reason for coming was to see the effects of the eight major fires on the park, burning areas in half of the park's 2.2 million acres.
"They're coming to see the new park," said Donald Despain, Yellowstone's research biologist. "And that's a good way to look at it."
Despain's outlook on the fires is shared by many in the environmental community, but there also are scores of critics who believe the National Park Service erred by initially letting the lightning-started fires burn without resistance because of a 16-year-old "let burn" policy.
The largest fires had been burning in the park and in the national forests that surround Yellowstone for one month before Interior Secretary Donald Hodel visited and announced that the Park Service would begin a vigorous firefighting effort to bring the blazes under control.
Winter will come and go before officials know exactly how many acres of the park were destroyed by the fire. While the perimeters of the fires encircled more than 1 million acres, Park Service estimates made when the most stubborn fires were being contained in early October said only 30 percent to 40 percent of the land was damaged, and only 10 percent to 15 percent was burned black.
High winds pushed the flames along so fast in some areas that only the grasses were burned while the trees were undamaged. Other fires scorched the bark on the tall lodgepole pines, leaving the trees' yellowing needles still intact.
Some of Yellowstone's scenery will be different for years to come, but even the black areas will be filled with life once the snow melts next spring, Despain said.
Crouching in a blackened meadow, Despain takes a pocket knife and cuts into a seemingly lifeless clump. A hint of green can be seen beneath the ash.
"The grasses are just like you mowed your lawn," he said. Areas that burned in July have six inches of new growth, he said. "The roots past an inch deep are still alive."
Some two tons of roots are thriving beneath each acre where aspen trees burned. A post-fire count shows between 50,000 and 100,000 seeds are strewn among the fertile ash. They will germinate and fill the blackened meadows next spring with grasses and wildflowers, Despain said.
The mosaic of green, yellow and black is readily seen from the park's main highways, and the busiest roadside parking lots are those where the entire color spectrum can be seen.
"We feel miserable about this," said Eric Wherry, a British tourist traveling with his wife and another couple. Wherry had stopped at a scenic turnout to shoot video of 16 elk grazing in a lush meadow. Trumpeter swans floated nearby on the Madison River. The landscape and wildlife in the foreground appears undisturbed, but the mountain backdrop is black and smoldering.
Yellowstone research chief John Varley said most of the park's wildlife escaped the fires unscathed. As of Oct. 3, rangers had found 50 elk killed by the fire along with the carcasses of five moose, four bison and several mule deer. "We've had a lot of people out looking for dead animals," he said.
No negative impacts have been observed in the four species of endangered animals living in the park - grizzly bears, bald eagles, whooping cranes and peregrine falcons.
Bison, displaced by fire and by drought, were probably affected the most, Varley said.
Shifting fire patterns prompted the evacuation of all of the park's visitor accommodations at least once during the fires. Roads were temporarily closed in areas where fires raged, and the entire park was closed temporarily at the height of fire activity, said Steve Tedder, vice president and general manager of TW Recreational Services, which operates the inns and restaurants inside the park.
"We're looking at being roughly 20 percent down in sales compared to the previous year," Tedder said. Visitors to TW facilities were down 30 percent to 40 percent. "Operationally, it was dramatic," he said. TW ended up releasing early 1,200 of 2,200 seasonal employees.
Most businesses just outside the park suffered also, with the exception of motels that catered to firefighters.
Jim Kemp operates the Best Western by Mammoth Hot Springs in Gardiner, Mont. Firefighters filled any rooms not already booked by tourists, and he was still taking reservations for government visitors during the first week of October.
Revenue during September was down $20,000 at the motel, but it did much better than Kemp's delicatessen and gift shop in downtown Gardiner.
Elk hunters usually bring in most of the business in October, Kemp said, but Montana officials canceled the hunt because of the fire and because of the likelihood new fires would crop up in the drought-stricken park and adjacent national forest.
The plight of businesses is also part of a fire assessment commissioned after politicians criticized everyone in the Park Service's chain of command for the way the fires were handled during the early stages.
Wyoming's two Republican senators, Alan Simpson and Malcolm Wallop, have been critical of Park Service Director William Penn Mott and Yellowstone Park Superintendent Bob Barbee for the way the let-burn policy was handled in a year when fire was primed by drought. The two senators have suggested the top officials be fired.
Sen. Jake Garn, R-Utah, was also on the bandwagon criticizing the park service policy, saying the fires have damaged a national treasure.
Congressional oversight hearings were held in both the Senate and House Sept. 29. where committees heard reports on the fire situation from park service officials, including Barbee.
Wallop wants to see more field hearings held, including hearings to assess the needs of small businesses hurt by the upset in tourism caused by the fires, said Stan Cannon, his assistant press secretary.
Wyoming Gov. Mike S. Sullivan already has asked for and received approval for low-interest loans from the Small Business Administration to help businesses in the four Wyoming counties most affected by the fires, Cannon said.
Individuals living near the park also have expressed their disdain for the fire management policy. "The purpose of a `natural park' is to preserve the natural features and beauty of an area, including wildlife, for all of posterity to enjoy," said West Yellowstone resident Robert Gosin. "The media have been spoon fed a snow job and made to think the fires are being fought with every physical and financial resource available."
Not all of the interested parties have sided against the Park Service.
"We think the call for Mott's resignation is an overreaction and simply not justified," said Terri Martin, regional representative in Salt Lake City for the National Parks and Conservation Association.
"The National Park Service policy about fires has been in place since 1972. It wasn't even established by Bill Mott, and it makes you wonder what the real agenda is for those calling for Mott's resignation."
An assessment team commissioned by the Interior and Agriculture departments is on its way to Yellowstone and will prepare a report for Hodel, due Dec. 15.