The Appreciation of Greater Yellowstone

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The Appreciation of Greater Yellowstone

By: Jerry Johnson, D.A. John A. Baden, Ph.D.
Posted on August 25, 2017 FREE Insights

Bozeman’s Montana State University created the Wonderlust program for adults interested in exploring intriguing topics. While open to all, the majority of “students” are accomplished retirees with intellectual and historical interests. Retired professor John Baden is offering a Wonderlust course, “Yellowstone and the Second Century of Our National Parks,” beginning September 12th. It will meet each Tuesday at 3:30-5:30 from September 12th to October 3rd at Hope Lutheran Church, 2152 Graf St, Bozeman. 


This FREE Insight, “The Appreciation of Greater Yellowstone”, complements the course and introduces its philosophic and economic perspective. This is the underlying theme: Throughout the Rocky Mountain West, and in safe areas worldwide, high quality landscapes and waterways are economic and social magnets of prosperity. Greater Yellowstone, the Park and 18 million surrounding acres, is a premier example. Not only parks and wildlands, but also farm and ranch vistas contribute greatly to landscapes that attract high human capital.  And this demographic asset fosters health, wealth, culture, and a sense of security.  This explains the boom we expereience, enjoy, and fear.

The Appreciation of Greater Yellowstone

Communities up and down the Rocky Mountains are rapidly transitioning from places where the economies are based on exploitation to ones grounded in appreciation of environmental quality. Increasingly, our Main Streets are filled with businesses selling amenities, vacation home getaways, and high value services. Disappearing are those selling saddles, farm implements, mining machinery, and chain saws. Nowhere are these changes more evident than the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem – a region of roughly 20 million acres.


In the Greater Yellowstone the foundation of this transition is found in the early conservation efforts that restored populations of large charismatic animals like the grizzly bear and grey wolf. The larger impact is that substantial expanses of high quality landscapes and waterways have been preserved and now act as economic and social magnets of prosperity.  Farm and ranch vistas contribute greatly to this landscape.


In the modern global economy almost everything that creates wealth is mobile. This simple statement has profound implications. It suggests that rural locations are no longer a barrier for owning a successful business or living a rich, social and cultural life. Intact public lands and the private properties that link them are directly related to this new reality. Here is an example.


Conservation of large charismatic animals requires space. The more space, the more species the land will attract and hold. Robert Macarthur and E.O. Wilson demonstrated this simple biological fact of island biogeography in 1967. It is the basis of successful conservation worldwide. Conservation of the Yellowstone Grizzly bear set public lands agencies on the path of creating an organizational culture where the basics of traditional extractive activities were questioned and undeveloped landscape highly valued. In the Greater Yellowstone subsidized below cost timber sales on the national forests have all but disappeared. President Clinton, in 1996, signed a deal on behalf of several public lands agencies to prevent mining on the border of the park thereby protecting land and water from development and pollution. Land swaps between the state of Montana, the US Forest Service, and private individuals consolidated landownership in favor of wildlife management. The result is clean water, open spaces, healthy populations of native species, and all the attendant ecological linkages that accompany large scale conservation.


When we think about the “jobs vs environment” tradeoff offered up by political leaders and economic development experts we need to think about the differences between "romance" and "sludge". West of the 100th meridian we are dealing mainly with romance lands. The rain forests of the Pacific Northwest, the public lands of the desert southwest, the iconic national parks of Yellowstone and Yosemite, and the wilderness of Idaho hold wildlife and habitat on par with the Serengeti or the Amazon. For westerners, these lands are our home territory; they provide the context and substance of our lives. For some of us, they define our cultural heritage. These lands and the wildlife they contain are unambiguously linked to our prosperity. In the Rocky Mountain west the traditional models of economic development for Detroit do not apply in Boise. For some, (especially people with high human capital) living in close proximity to romance lands confers advantages that higher wages in large urban centers can not match.


Multiple institutional actors can be credited for the rural turnaround. The federal Endangered Species Act, often maligned by political opportunists, has in fact helped foster prosperity in the west. The conservation of grizzly bears, American bald eagles, and Grey wolves has resulted in landscapes that are good for wildlife and good for people. The law was a catalyst for human prosperity. States have managed their wildlife endowments responsibly so that most herds are larger today than they were fifty years ago. Nonprofits and industry have supported these changes by investment and expenditures of social capital.


The story of the restoration of the Yellowstone Grizzly and resultant human prosperity has not been told in a coherent narrative. It is complex and nuanced in many ways but the conclusion is unequivocal – conservation of landscapes has been good for humans, nature, and the communities in which they reside. The Bear Prosperity Project will document this story through the use of the historical record, a breadth of ecological and social peer reviewed science and, through the use of personal observations of those who were on the ground during the transition.


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