When Jim Bridger wandered into the Cache Valley a century and a half ago, he told his fellow trappers of a marvelous place to the north, a land where mystery mixed with reality.

No one believed him.Who could believe tales of boiling water erupting into the sky, of bubbling pots of mud and water, of a huge lake in the midst of the high Rockies?

Nowhere in the wide experience of the trappers and explorers had they found a Firehole River that flowed with hot water, or another that flowed to both the Atlantic and Pacific, as Bridger claimed Two-Ocean River did.

But Bridger was accurate when he described these wonders and more, and as word spread east, America slowly began to believe the unbelievable. In 1876, Yellowstone became America's first national park.

Today, the park is still one of the nation's wonders, often referred to as the "crown jewel" of the national park system. Every year millions of tourists clamber to Old Faithful and the hot springs at Mammoth. They flock with their Nikons and Insta-matics to the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone; they fish Yellowstone Lake and the many rivers and snarl traffic to watch the elk and bison.

Interest in the welfare of Yellowstone has never been higher. Recently, there has been much controversy over attempts to protect the grizzly bear and to bring gray wolves back into the park. Recent plans to develop oil and gas fields around the park have spawned lawsuits and protests in nearby communities.

The park's management is used to constant scrutiny and criticism, but it came to a head in 1988, which will go into history as the Year of the Fires.

With most of the park's forests drier than kiln-dried lumber by June, it didn't take much for the trees to erupt into flames. And from July to October, relentless fires roared across many facets of the crown jewel, reducing hundreds of thousands of acres of the park and adjoining forests to ashes.

The attention paid to Yellowstone is not limited to a few small towns that ring the park. As Utahn Rick Reese wrote in "Greater Yellowstone," more than 95 percent of the area is public land entrusted to the "stewardship of federal agencies but belonging to all Americans and of interest to the people of the world."

That interest sparked the Utah Museum of Natural History and the Northern Lights Institute, a non-profit organization based in Missoula, Mont., to jointly sponsor a series of lectures on Yellowstone and its surroundings.

The Greater Yellowstone Lecture Series, which begins Jan. 9, will bring speakers to Salt Lake City to discuss the fires, the bears, the wolves. They will discuss the philosophy of park management and the goals of preserving Yellowstone for the future.

"We wanted to make an attempt to clear up a lot of the confusion created by the fires this summer," said Marlene Lambert, assistant curator of education at the museum. That's the short term.

"We also have a more long-term goal to create an awareness and perhaps equate what is happening in the Yellowstone ecosystem to our own ecosystem in Utah," she said.

Lambert said none of the speakers will directly address Utah issues, but most will try to demonstrate how problems and solutions can apply to other areas.

"We want to show how the decisions made at Yellowstone, and the causes and effects of those decisions can be related to our decisions at home," Lambert said. "That's sort of the hidden agenda."

Speakers include John Varley, chief of research at Yellowstone, who will discuss the controversy behind the summer's fires.

Doug Peacock, who has spent years studying and living among grizzly bears, will present his film, "Peacock's War," at the Feb. 3 session. David Mech, whose research of timber wolves in Minnesota provided much of the background for the planned re-introduction of wolves to Yellowstone, will discuss the role of wolves in the park.

David Quammen, columnist for Outside Magazine, will discuss the controversial theory of island biogeography. Charles F. Wilkinson, a law professor at the University of Colorado, will discuss the conflict between economic growth and preservation. Ed Lewis, director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, will discuss the necessity of seeing Yellowstone as more than the park itself. His organization looks at the Yellowstone area as one where an entire ecological system not just the park can be preserved.