LIANE HANSEN, host:
For the past month, we've been exploring Yellowstone National Park. We learned about the park's history and its creation. We heard stories of people who fought the 1988 fires that burned 1.2 million acres. We took a tour of Yellowstone's Sistine Chapel, the Old Faithful Inn. And we spent time with experts who taught us about the ecology of the park's lodgepole pine forests. Today, as our series on Yellowstone concludes, we examine potential threats to the future of the park.
The roads in Yellowstone cover only one percent of the acreage of the park. They're narrow and have only two lanes, so we have to go slowly and carefully through the twists and turns along the canyons and riverbeds. As we drive from Madison Junction to Old Faithful Geyser Basin, we follow the curves of the Firehole River.
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HANSEN: The road sits on a ridge which drops off to the river below. There's not much room to pass, especially when a massive bison meanders down the center of the road. For 45 minutes, the growing line of cars stack up behind the shaggy beast. No one honks or yells. Many people aim their cameras out their car windows. In a place where humans and animals are in such close proximity, the park's many visitors know that animals have the right of way. Our slow moving friend finally moves to the side of the road, and we're able to make it to our interview appointment at the Old Faithful Geyser.
We are here to meet Paul Hansen, director of the Greater Yellowstone Program for The Nature Conservancy. Yellowstone faces at least two threats in the near future. Both involve this tension between humans and animals. Hansen emphasizes that Yellowstone's animals are some of the park's biggest attractions. Visitors snap photos of elk, bison, and if they're lucky, moose and bears. But Hansen is concerned about the fate of these animals.
Mr. PAUL HANSEN (Director, Greater Yellowstone Program, The Nature Conservancy): There's a consensus with all the natural resource professionals in the conservation community that the greatest threat to the park in the next 10 to 20 years is the loss of critical winter habitat. Simply put, the animals can't survive without this scarce habitat type, and it's disappearing rapidly. Yellowstone can recover from fires, it can recover from a lot of things. It can't recover from permanent loss of winter habitat.
HANSEN: Yellowstone's wildlife and their habitats are well-protected within the boundaries of the park. But winters in Yellowstone are long and cold, and Hansen says animals often have to migrate outside the official boundaries.
Mr. HANSEN: Only about 10 percent of the greater Yellowstone is suitable winter habitat for wildlife, and almost none in Yellowstone Park is in that category. The animals need to leave Yellowstone Park in winter. They need to go to lower elevation river valleys to survive. That habitat's rapidly being lost to development.
HANSEN: Actually, one-third of that habitat is already developed, and one-third is slated to be developed. The Nature Conservancy is advocating for the last third, about one million acres, to be protected under some kind of conservation status. Hansen hopes that the spirit of conservation that led to the creation of the park will prevail.
Mr. HANSEN: This place has inspired the best out of people since 1872, when the original explorers could have claimed this for themselves and made a bunch of money off of it, and instead decided that this needed to belong to all people, and in just two years convinced Congress to make this the nation's and the world's first national park.
HANSEN: Yellowstone now has millions of visitors each year. The sheer number of people contributes to a second threat to Yellowstone's future, protecting the park while using it.
Mr. BOB BARBIE (Former Superintendent, Yellowstone National Park): Our goal in Yellowstone was to perpetuate naturalness, and yet at the same time provide for public use and to accommodate the public.
HANSEN: That's Bob Barbie who was superintendent of Yellowstone National Park from 1983 to 1994. For him, the future of Yellowstone depends on preserving this ecosystem while allowing visitors to get the most they can from their time there.
Mr. BARBIE: There's kind of a fine line. The name of the game is going to be for future managers of Yellowstone to strike that balance between accommodating the natural system and allowing for public use.
HANSEN: Striking that balance was actually the original intent when the park was created. Lee Whittlesey is Yellowstone's official historian.
Mr. LEE WHITTLESEY (Historian, Yellowstone National Park): When the National Park Service was established, Congress told the rangers, you will conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife in the parks, and you will manage them in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for future generations. And those are the magic words to me, unimpaired for future generations.
HANSEN: Yellowstone National Park is now 136 years old. It has survived earthquakes and massive fires, like those in 1988. Paved roads have replaced stagecoach routes. Modern tourist centers grew out of the original, rustic hotels. However, much of the park remains as it was in 1872, when those first white explorers found it. But as more people visit and develop the land around the park, the need to preserve it will become even greater. That way, Yellowstone's rugged beauty, its geological wonders, and its animals will be able to capture the imaginations for generations to come.
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HANSEN: Our series producer, Laura Krantz, posted a blog entry on what Yellowstone has meant to her. We also want to hear from you. Do you have many Yellowstone stories? What are your concerns about Yellowstone's future? To share your thoughts, go to our Web site at npr.org.
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