YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, WYO. — MUCH of the landscape looks as if it is forested with chimney-sweep brooms: blackened lodgepole pine spoked with naked branches.
But upon closer look, you see there is life in this surreal world of soot. Lush mats of grass, flowers, and moss cover the forest floor. Elk wander through to lick the mineral-rich ash. Knee-high pine seedlings rise up with the vigor of a geyser.
Five years after the massive fires of 1988, considered the greatest ecological disaster in the history of the national parks, Yellowstone is undergoing rebirth.
The world's oldest national park has become a laboratory for one of the oldest processes of nature. New trees have begun their slow transformation into a forest of tomorrow, vegetation has returned to meadows, and wildlife is adapting - even thriving - on nutritious new growth.
"The recovery is occurring," says Marsha Karle of the National Park Service here.
In 1988 a new beginning didn't look so auspicious. The summer began with some moisture in April that didn't portend anything but a normal fire season.
But then came week after week of dry weather, hair-dryer hot winds, and lightning that flashed from the sky like strobe lights. When combined with the tinder-box conditions of the forest - aged lodgepole pine and dense underbrush - the result was one of those great burns that happen only every 200 to 400 years.
Dozens of small fires coalesced into eight major conflagrations, two of them man-made, that burned throughout the summer. By the time snow fell, one-third of the park, or 800,000 acres - a Rhode Island - had been charred.
Singed, too, was the Smokey-the-Bear-image of the National Park Service. Its policy of allowing natural fires to burn, extinguishing only man-made blazes, brought protests from a public that watched its beloved Yellowstone going up like a Molotov cocktail. It ignited a national debate on the role of fire in national parks and forests and, more fundamentally, over government stewardship of public lands.
Eventually, under pressure, the government fought all the fires. It mounted the greatest suppression effort in United States history. Looking back, one ranger says it was more intense than any firefight he had seen in Vietnam.
Today the Park Service has refined its policy. It still allows natural fires to burn. But it monitors them more closely, follows rigid guidelines on when to suppress, and coordinates better with other federal agencies.
"Even when allowing a fire to burn, we will show the world we are watching to make sure 1988 doesn't happen again," Ms. Karle says.
Still, concerns persist. It costs money to monitor fires. A General Accounting Office report found in 1990 that the Park Service received only 69 percent of the funds needed to carry out natural-fire programs, while the Forest Service got only 1 percent. The worry among environmentalists is that government agencies will be tempted to step in and suppress fires too soon, knowing they can always get emergency money for "wild" fires. "One of our concerns remains the ability to implement natural-fire program s given the low funding," says Jeanne Marie Souvigney of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition.
After the summer of infernos, the Park Service assured an alarmed public that Yellowstone would rebound. But a fierce winter killed many elk, bison, and other animals unable to find food. Rainstorms flushed mud and ash into rivers, turning them the tint of truck-stop coffee.
Five years later, the words are more prophetic. Rivers are again as clear as Steuben glass, wildflowers have turned meadows into bouquets, and bird and animal counts are up.
Visually, the park still requires some eye rubbing. The charred forests with their new lodgepole shoots give hillsides the look of porcupine quills. Yet the naked woods have also opened up new vistas.
The fires have turned Yellowstone into a petri dish to study the renewal of a forest. Others must agree: Visitation at the park has been up every year since 1988 - and is expected to hit another 3.2-million-plus record this year.