IS the world's first national park on its way to ecological collapse, threatened by resource development along its borders? Or is it healthier now than it was more than 100 years ago, when Congress first set aside this wild land of geysers, hot springs, and waterfalls ``for the benefit and enjoyment of the people''? The answer depends on whom you ask.
To Gary Cargill, Yellowstone National Park and the millions of acres of surrounding federal land ``are probably in better shape now than they've been in years.'' Mr. Cargill works for the United States Forest Service, which has come under fire by environmentalists for the way it oversees the national forests that ring the park. He also sits on a committee working to minimize potential conflicts between the Forest Service, with its pro-development mandate, and the US Park Service, with its hands-off, preservationist ethic.
Species have multiplied
``If you look at the species that were in the area back when the forest preserves were established, you have more bison, more elk, more grizzly bear, and more fish now than when the park was formed,'' Cargill says. Moreover, the improvement occurred primarily on national forest lands, rather than in the park itself, precisely because the Forest Service's management practices have provided more forage for wildlife to eat, Cargill says.
But to Bud Lilly, the problem is not bison and grizzlies - it's the tiny mayfly. Mr. Lilly, a native Montanan, has been fishing the rivers and streams in these parts for 50 years. On some waters in the areas around Yellowstone Park, the delicate mayfly has been gradually disappearing, he reports.
Lilly, a retired science teacher and sport-fishing guide now living in Bozeman, Mont., says the loss of the mayfly is ``an indicator of what's happening to the streams.'' When creeks become silted by timber harvesting, road-building, mining, and other development - the ecosystem changes and, in this case, no longer supports the mayfly. Such changes point to long-term problems, environmentalists say. They charge that slowly but surely the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem is being degraded - and eventually may be destroyed if federal agencies with jurisdiction here don't mend their ways.
The Yellowstone region ``is the last and the largest essentially intact ecosystem in the Lower 48 [states],'' says Ed Lewis, director of a national environmental organization called the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. ``There are two points we've been making. One, there's no real, meaningful coordination among the [federal] agencies in terms of managing the public lands that make up the ecosystem. And two, there's no common vision of how the ecosystem should be managed.''
Hanging in the balance are some of the world's most spectacular natural features. Yellowstone's elaborate geyser basin, which feeds the mighty spout of Old Faithful, is the last untapped geyser system on the earth. The park's herds of wild bison and elk compare with wildlife in the great game preserves of Africa. And the Greater Yellowstone area is home to animal species that are threatened or endangered in the continental United States, including the grizzly bear, the peregrine falcon, and the trumpeter swan.
Environmentalists have identified about 14 million acres they say constitute an integral biological unit, or ecosystem. Included are two national parks, seven national forests, four national wildlife refuges, federal wilderness lands, and privately owned land extending into three states. A recent report by the Congressional Research Service indicates the difficulty of managing the area. ``In virtually all agency decisionmaking,'' it states, ``the whole is subordinated to its fragments.''
Communication `pretty good'
The federal agencies, however, say the recent barrage of criticism is undeserved. Interagency cooperation has a long history here, and it is becoming more formalized as demands on the land increase, officials say. They point to groups like the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee, or cite joint agreements on land-management issues, such as firefighting.
The Forest Service and the Park Service have differing ways of collecting data, but the ``communication on the ground, on the ranger level, is pretty good,'' says Steve Frye, a district ranger at Yellowstone Park. ``I generally know when they [the Forest Service] are going to do a controlled burn near the park border, and they know when one of the park grizzlies crosses into their forests.''
The Greater Yellowstone Coordinating Committee, which includes top-level managers from the two agencies, has been operating on an informal basis for about 20 years, says the Forest Service's Cargill, committee chairman and regional forester with the agency's Rocky Mountain division.
Last summer, partly as a result of political and public pressure, the committee signed ``a formal understanding adhering to certain [management] principles,'' he says. ``With all the different jurisdictions here, there was tremendous need to ensure coordination between the various agencies.''
This summer the committee will peer into the future in an attempt to predict what the Greater Yellowstone region will look like 10 years from now. The forecast will be based on the Forest Service's new management plans for each of the national forests in the area. (In 1976 Congress passed the National Forest Management Act, requiring the Forest Service to draw up 10-year plans for each of the national forests in the US. The first plans are just now coming into effect. The law also requires that the forests serve multiple purposes, including recreation, timber sales, and wildlife protection.)
This summer's forecast will be the first time federal agencies have formally examined the effect of their individual plans on the ecosystem. The so-called ``aggregate plan'' will show, among other things, how many more acres will be logged, how many more miles of roads will be built, and how many more tourists will camp, hunt, and fish here.
Mr. Lewis and other environmentalists want Cargill's coordinating committee to use the aggregate plan to set policy for the agencies here - to determine priorities when uses conflict.
``The same old refrain of `multiple use,' with each use receiving equal weight, will simply not work here,'' Lewis says. The managers must give ``top priority'' to preserving the special natural features here ``over and above historical and extractive uses of the area,'' he adds.
From his third-floor office in the federal building in Bozeman, Bob Breazeale leans back in his chair and gives some perspective on the issue. The forest supervisor of Gallatin National Forest poses this question: What is the highest and best use of the park and forests?
``That's what the real debate is all about,'' Mr. Breazeale says; ``but that's not what the law says. The law says we're going to let it all happen.''
How three key disputes affect Yellowstone
Three of the controversies swirling around Yellowstone Park:
Tourists vs. grizzly bears
Many of the 2.5 million people who visit Yellowstone Park each year spend time at Fishing Bridge, a village on the edge of Yellowstone Lake. Besides having a general store, a gas station, and camping spaces for about 600 vehicles, the area is prime habitat for grizzly bears.
Hardly a year goes by that park officials don't destroy or otherwise remove a ``nuisance'' bear in the interest of protecting the public.
In a suit against the Park Service, the National Wildlife Federation contends that the existence of the campground at Fishing Bridge compromises the recovery of the grizzly species. The federation wants the campground closed.
Tom France, a federation attorney, says, ``This is a natural travel corridor, a place where bears will always be as long as they are in Yellowstone.''
But while some rangers concede something has to be done about Fishing Bridge, other park officials note the grizzly population is faring just fine in Yellowstone. Last year more mother bears with cubs were recorded than in any previous year in the greater Yellowstone area.
Timber sales vs. wilderness
Environmentalists are pushing to have more land in the national forests in the Yellowstone area designated as wilderness, exempt from any development. The timber industry wants forests opened up to logging.
At Brand S Corporation's sawmill in Livingston, Mont., division manager Doug Crandall says that the mill will go out of business if a Montana wilderness bill becomes law. He says the negative effects of logging can be mitigated.
Environmentalists charge the United States Forest Service with double folly - allowing the timber industry to clear-cut the mountainsides and selling them the trees at a loss. Many of the Forest Service's 10-year management plans are being challenged in court.
Private landowners vs. Park Service
When a religious group known as the Church Universal and Triumphant bought up property just north of Gardiner, Mont., few people paid much attention. But local eyebrows arched when the church announced it was moving its headquarters to Gardiner from California - along with at least 500 followers.
The National Park Service also took notice when the church drilled a well to tap a warm spring. ``We believe [the spring's] water is connected to the geyser system within our boundaries,'' says John D. Varley, chief of research at Yellowstone Park.
The church's plans are on hold pending completion of an environmental-impact statement being prepared by the Montana Bureau of Water Quality.