On the Move

“I assended to the high Country and from an eminance I had a view of the plains for a great distance. From this eminance I had a view of a greater number of buffalow than I had ever seen before at one time. I must have seen near 20,000 of those animals feeding on this plain.”

Meriwether Lewis

That was in 1806. By that time the bison were already in decline in the East. Within 75 years they were driven to extinction. 30 million bison may have roamed the prairies 200 years ago. That habitat is gone and has been replaced by farm land and urban environments.

Public domain photograph from the 1870s of a pile of American bison skulls waiting to be ground for fertilizer.

It is estimated that about 5000 bison currently roam Yellowstone National Park. Every year hundreds of bison are culled from the park (slaughtered, out of public sight) or killed by hunters, when the bison migrate out of the park during winter time in search of food. What a shame. We can’t provide enough space for a species that is considered an American icon?

By court order the National Park Service has been put into a tight spot. The State of Montana sued the Park in 1995 to control the number of bison wandering across park boundaries. The state claimed bison may transfer brucellosis to cows. Not a single incidence of such a transfer has been documented. To the contrary, it was non-native domestic cattle that gave bison initially. The claim also meant, that bison could not simply be captured and transferred. They had to be killed. Since 2000 more than 5000 bison have been eliminated from the Park based on that agreement.

Since most of this happens away from public view, this goes on mostly unnoticed. Advocates, locals, reporters, rangers, and politicians know about it. I assume, most visitors of the Park do not.

The bison is the one and only species depicted on the emblem of the National Park Service. Bison, grizzlies, and geysers are the main draw of Yellowstone National Park. Yet, in the surrounding communities there is little love for this iconic animal. Maybe national parks are just zoos with a little larger enclosure. Let’s keep the wildlife inside! Outside? Not in my backyard.

Go figure.


One Man's Paradise

Happy birthday!

“Only by going alone in silence,
without baggage,
can one truly

get into the heart of the wilderness.
All other travel is mere dust

and hotels and baggage and chatter.”

John Muir

Those are the words of John Muir, who was a loud and clear voice in the creation of the national park system in the United States. His travels in and writings about the wilderness of North America had an influence on many, including Theodore Roosevelt. Interestingly, John Muir was opposed to the government running the national park system, as he considered many politicians as being incompetent, to put it politely. He wanted the US Army to run the park system. John Muir died 2 years before the National Park Service was instituted by Congress in 1916.

Today we celebrate the 100th birthday of the National Park Service.

The Organic Act of 1916 states the mission and goal of the National Park Service, which is “…to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”

Many voices and powers have formed the NPS into its current shape. Already at it’s 75th birthday it was recognized that “…the Service faces challenges greater than at any time in its history. The parks, many buffered by rural or wilderness surroundings in years past, are increasingly besieged by development. What goes on outside their boundaries can affect their air, their water, their wildlife, their natural and historic ambience, as profoundly as what goes on within. Natural and cultural landmarks outside the parks face similar threats, prompting pressures to include them in the park system.”


Denali National Park, Alaska

 My feelings about the national parks are ambivalent. The idea to preserve wilderness and history for future generations is commendable. However, what we consider wilderness and how we access and manage wilderness is contentious. I am with Edward Abbey, who suggested parks with limited access by automobile. I know this is not a very popular proposition, but it is the only way to experience real wilderness, as described by John Muir. Thanks to their remoteness, size, and administration some parks in Alaska come very close to John Muir’s idea. Access to Denali, Wrangell-St.Elias, Glacier Bay, and other parks in the state is limited due to their remote location and their sheer size. Those are the places that appeal to me.

In the 80’s I spent many days and nights in Yosemite Valley. Above the valley floor it is strikingly beautiful, but I never understood, why we had 1-hour film processing and other unnecessary amenities in the valley. There was a time when private traffic was banned in the valley, which I thought was a great idea. Today, up to 21,000 visitors find their way into the valley on a peak day! Campsites are hard to get without advance reservation. The Park Service has the difficult task to balance conservation and visitation. In 1917 there were 11,000 visitors in the park all year!

I think it is worthwhile, especially on a day like this, to reflect on our views of wilderness and conservation. Do we really need to drive our vehicles into parks and expect to see wildlife and pristine landscapes from the comfort of our cars?

I think wilderness is something that cannot be experienced from a vehicle. It requires effort, sweat, patience, and time…

It is not available on demand.

It is an experience that you cannot buy.

It is priceless.

Without it our planet is a cold, dead place.

To the next 100 years!