We are in the last day, a travel day, after spending the last week in Yellowstone National Park with our 12-year-old grandson. What a fun time we have had! A few observations.
- Over the years, especially when we lived in Bozeman, my wife and I have avoided the big attractions of YNP, Old Faithful, Lower and Upper falls and the Grand Canyon, and all of the geysers and mud pots and hissers. This time we made it a point to take the grand tour. We got to see those sites through the boy’s eyes. He was enthralled, as I was at his age. Our only regret, he did not get to see Morning Glory Pool … the day was waning, the drive ahead was long, it was two miles away. He offered to run there and back, as he is hockey-conditioned, but we had to move on. He’ll see it another day.
- He wanted to see black bear, grizzly bear, bison, moose, elk. We saw them all, and added to the list mountain goats, big horn sheep, golden marmot, coyote, badger, pronghorn, osprey, peregrine falcon, spawning cutthroat trout, and of course, deer. My wife and I also noted many smaller birds, but the boy takes no note of such trifles.
- On June 21st, the first day of summer, we awoke to two inches of heavy snow on our tent. It snowed periodically our last three days. This is normal for high altitudes, but a woman we shared a breakfast table with in Cooke City, from Missoula, noted that the growing season for her flowers is now starting two weeks earlier than in the past (probably not true). She also said that in her 21 years of June visits to Yellowstone, she had never seen three days of snow. Only one. Climate change, she said. I tried to reassure her that we are fine, but could see behind her eyes despair. My god how effective and and far-reaching is this propaganda!
- Man, the portions! We don’t eat much at restaurants, and at home are light eaters, non-snackers. The way they load plates at restaurants is somewhat discouraging, as most of the people we see are suffering excess weight. At IHOP we ordered omelets, and surprise, they came with two large pancakes, which we left behind. At Log Cabin Cafe in Silvergate, we were served a burrito so big that we left half of it behind. The waitress said no one has ever finished one. Texas Roadhouse here in Casper was jam-packed, and each plate loaded with steaks, burgers, ribs and chicken and extra carbs in the form of fries, baked potatoes, chips, sweet potatoes fries. Restaurants compete to stay in business, and so have to do this, but it has a Roman orgy feel about it. As a nation, we overeat.
- We talked with an employee of Yellowstone Forever!, the not-for-profit park affiliate, about infrastructure. I asked if there are any plans to expand accommodations, as visitors are at record levels. He said no, but that the current superintendent has made it his number-one priority to improve employee housing, much of which is dated and dilapidated. He said the problems – the bear-jams, throngs of people at food service and heavily-used sites – are under discussion, but no solutions are apparent. It is public land, they cannot turn people away. Building better highways (four-lane, I suspect has been suggested) would simply make an already illusory natural experience even more so. (We live near Highway 285 in Colorado, and they solved these problems to some degree by use of acceleration and exit lanes, while keeping most of it two-lane.) In the end, he said, there might be a lottery system to limit the number of visitors.
- Most people do not understand the thinking behind public lands, which I think is well done. Starting at the top, National Parks are meant to preserve natural beauty and resources while allowing the public as much access as possible. Mining and hunting are not allowed. In fact, no resource exploitation at all is allowed except fishing (no live bait), including picking flowers or collecting rock samples. National forests are meant to provide resources and recreation opportunities along with hunting and fishing opportunities. Flower picking is allowed. Wilderness areas are meant to preserve land in its natural state, where “man himself is a visitor”, quoting the law. The mining industry had twenty years to stake mining claims after passage of the Wilderness Act of 1964, and then these areas were closed to mining forever. National monuments are almost in limbo status. The President has the power to designate an emergency monument – say for instance a mining operation stumbles on an archeological trove. The President, however, cannot “un-designate” a monument. Only Congress can do that. Eventually, most monuments become parks or lose their designation. (Bill Clinton abused his monument-making power, probably just to make Democrats appear more environment-friendly.) Bureau of Land Management land is the lowest level, and contains those lands that are not valuable enough for any other status, and are not profitable for private holdings. BLM tries its best to put it to highest and best use, usually grazing. Back during the Great Depression, a great deal of land fell from private ownership into BLM hands, which gave it an “A” (Acquired) status on its parcel number. I assume these lands were meant to make their way back to private hands, but do not know that. All of these lands, of course, are subject to power and politics, but it is remarkably difficult in this land to convert public land to private. Take heart! Only the 1872 Mining Law allows people to privatize public lands. Most of the restaurants and shops we visited on the park perimeter sit on what were once mining claims.
- We made our way down the the Brink of the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone, a 3/8th mile 600-foot descent. The trail is in rough shape, potholed, fencing broken and dilapidated. I mentioned this to the Yellowstone Forever! employee, and he said Park Service is aware of this, of everything. They cannot work in dead of winter when snow and unplowed roads make access impossible, and so must do so in summer, when four million visitors tromp through. He said they have considered just shutting the place down for a year to fix everything, but it would be a PR disaster. So they do what they can. This year the brink of the Upper Falls of the Yellowstone is closed for repairs.
- Snowpack this year is very high. We stopped yesterday at Buffalo Bill dam above Cody. We were told that the reservoir was drawn down to 50% of capacity this winter in anticipation of huge runoff, but that it was now at 100% with the flood gates wide open. It was an amazing spectacle to look down on two massive torrents of water gushing out at 70-100 mph.
- We took our kayaks. We love to put in at Island Lake in the Beartooths. It would pay to call ahead. This year it is frozen over.
PS: I anxiously watched National Geographic’s Yellowstone Live! last evening on return. I drifted off, thinking that it should be called “Millennials do YNP.” It’s not that the program lacks production values, but rather the canned and stilted presentation, the supposed “experts” (God I hate that word) in their twenties and thirties, hardly around long enough to wipe their butts properly but ‘splaining to us concepts like the Yellowstone caldera and how grizzly bears don’t respect ice chests. How much better to have Attenborough do some narration than to listen to these empty-headed chatterboxes. The staged and scripted back and forth has, in my view, no resonance, stupid people reading lines to other stupid people, all pretending to be “scientists,” a distinction that has lost its meaning in the era of “climate change,” where facts are made up and hyped for mere propaganda purposes. I think I will watch baseball instead.