The Yellowstone ecosystem survived the fires of 1988, but the greater Yellowstone area is threatened by fragmented management and other political and ecological problems, believes a conservation leader.
Ed Lewis, executive director of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, said the 10 million acres of public land in and around Yellowstone National Park constitutes one of the largest intact ecosystems in the temperate regions of the world."Yellowstone has survived (the fires) just fine," he told a gathering of people at East High School Monday evening, "It is a fire-adaptive and fire-dependent ecosystem."
But the fires illustrate how the managers of the two national parks, seven national forests, three wildlife refuges and thousands of acres of Bureau of Land Management territory in the ecosystem need to better communicate with each other and develop single-minded objectives that will protect the unique ecosystem, which Lewis called the "land of superlatives."
There have been attempts at better agency management, he said. "Indeed, the agencies had listed fire management and a comprehensive fire policy as one of the first issues they wanted to work on in terms of developing some coordinated management of the ecosystem. Unfortunately they did not get to it before the fires of '88."
Lewis said threats to the delicate environmental balance run the gamut: timber cut and sold at a loss to the federal treasury of $23 million annually; geothermal drilling; proposals for dams on pristine, blue-ribbon fishing streams; oil and gas exploration leases in place on half of the 10-million-acre greater Yellowstone area; drought; fires; loss of wildlife habitat; global warming; and acid rain.
Responding to the environmental challenges with the several management policies of the National Park Service, National Forest Service, Soil Conservation Service and Bureau of Land Management will lead to changes in the ecosystem that have partially unknown consequences.
"The fire is an excellent example of why these ecosystem issues must be addressed on a system-wide basis," Lewis said. The fire aptly demonstrated how Yellowstone National Park and the surrounding ecosystem wildlands are inextricably connected and interdependent.
During the fires, some news media reports would lead you to believe Yellowstone was black, sterile or that the park no longer existed, he said. But without a change in course and better coordination of land management, "then someday the prophecy of the media of the past summer may in fact be fulfilled, and Yellowstone as we now know it may be gone."
Lewis spoke at the second lecture in The Greater Yellowstone Lecture Series, which was held in the East High School auditorium and sponsored by the Utah Museum of Natural History. Lewis' lecture will be followed Monday by John Varley, chief of research, Yellowstone National Park, whose lecture is titled "The Burning of Yellowstone National Park: A Blaze of Controversy."