Protecting the wild flora and fauna of the United States has never been more important as global climate change has its effect on the land. Native Americans have long understood the need for respect of the land, especially the sacred ground that is Yellowstone, but the government has been more than a little slow to understand its importance. After the 4.8 magnitude earthquake on Sunday, Yellowstone National Park is providing another lesson on the nature of conservation as issues surrounding the park are once again being discussed.
The Weather Channel broke the news of the earthquake, noting that it was the biggest earthquake the park has experienced in 26 years. Scientists studying the supervolcano that is located in the park boundaries have been assuring people that there is no worry that it will erupt, but much can still be learned by studying the Yellowstone Caldera and the earthquakes. In trying to understand how the earth works, Yellowstone is a treasure trove of untapped information existing below the earth’s surface. Sunday’s earthquake is just another learning opportunity.
The Yellowstone Caldera’s relationship to earthquakes and other geological events give scientists a unique opportunity to study ecological change in the entire world. The hydrothermal system of the volcano causes the ground to change and swell rapidly, including a section of the park that has apparently risen in height by over an inch in only a few months. While this causes concern for some who do not completely understand the processes involved, the people who study these instances of change say there is no cause for worry. In fact, the hydrothermal system, which includes the famous geysers in the park, is one of the main tourist attractions and brings in billions of dollars in economic benefit every year.
Tourism is, in fact, the main job of Yellowstone National Park. Every years, millions of people from around the world come to admire attractions like Old Faithful, Morning Glory Pool, and Obsidian Cliff where they have a good chance of finding an authentic Indian arrowhead. According to a report, over three million people to visit the park and surrounding areas spent over 400 million dollars that went to supporting the park and the communities around it. This is important as it supports jobs for people living in that area, jobs which might not exist otherwise.
Even as tourists are visiting Yellowstone National Park and seeing why conservation of nature is important, Native Americans have a vested interest in protecting their sacred land and the lessons it has to teach everyone. Their history with the land has always been one of the utmost respect and a reciprocity that no longer exists today. Numerous separate tribes lived on the land, all of them holding it to be sacred, and they still have that same respect for it that they did.
When the park was formed, however, the indigenous people who lived there were moved off the land in the most heartless way. Not only were they forcibly removed, but the lie was spread that they were actually afraid of the natural wonders of the park and would not go anywhere near it. Their primitive savagery and fear was apparently the justification for making the tribes leave the area, though it contained no shred of truth whatsoever.
Removing the native people who used to care for the land created a problem of vandalism after Americans began to tour there. People would tear up the area looking for souvenirs and geological specimens which were believed to be up for the picking. Tree trunks were even thrown into the geysers so people could see them shot into the air. These instances of vandalism could have caused serious damage if allowed to continue and Congress had to pass the Yellowstone Act of 1872 to ensure they did not damage or even destroy the land.
Unlike the Native Americans who had an innate respect and conservationist care for the land they held sacred, conservation has had to be legislated for everyone else. The problem continues today with debates over bison conservation and paddling restrictions on the water within the park. It seems that Americans in general have yet to learn all the lessons that Yellowstone National Park has to teach them about the selfless nature of conservation.
Indeed, it seems as though self-interest is trumping care for the land in these debates. Bison exist in limited numbers and cattle ranchers are opposed to that number growing as it poses a danger to their valuable cattle. Bison carrying a disease long ago contracted from cattle. Should they pass that disease on to modern cattle, it could cause pregnant cows to spontaneously miscarry their unborn calves, meaning a loss of revenue for cattle ranchers. Thus, the interest in making money is trumping conservation of a precious species as the debate continues over how to care for these amazing creatures.
Similarly, a bill introduced to Congress called the River Paddling Protection Act threatens the conservation of the waters within the park. This bill gives the park only three years to review its regulations about motorized and non-motorized boats on lakes. Currently, only five of the 168 lakes in Yellowstone National Park are closed to boaters, but that could change if the National Park Service cannot act efficiently within the short three-year time limit. This threatens the pristine nature of the lakes that have not been touched and the conservation efforts of those lakes which do allow boaters. With such ample opportunities to enjoy the water respectfully on the vast majority of the lakes, there seems to be little reason to allow it on the five protected lakes. Human interest in recreational activities, however earnest, should not trump care of the nature that is impacted by those activities. These five lakes are the only ones remaining that have not been affected by human impacts and they should stay that way out of respect for their existence and their inherent value.
The 4.8 magnitude earthquake on Sunday is a historic event that serves to highlight why conservation is so important. The American national parks are not just green spaces created by environmental do-gooders. They are symbols of the people who have historically cared for the land and of modern Americans’ relationship to the land they live on. Saving small areas out of the vast industrialized and settled spaces is not just good for tourism, it is good for the people who may not have the opportunity to see undeveloped land otherwise. Native Americans understood the sacred relationship between humanity and nature long before America was founded, but the rest of America has been slow on the uptake. Yellowstone National Park is an important lesson on conservation, why it is important, and what the nature of the effort should be, but it shouldn’t take a natural disaster for people to remember that responsibility. Yellowstone is sacred ground, not just for Native Americans, but for everyone.
Opinion By Lydia Webb