The National Park Service (NPS) has been managing our national parks for the past 100 years. With that much experience, our national parks should be the prime example of ecosystem health and recreation management. Yellowstone, our nation’s oldest national park, is a prime example of how time and experience don’t always amount to the best outcomes. Politics have always been a part of national park management, and politics can detract from the best management decisions and lead to unintended consequences.
The Organic Act of 1916 established the NPS as the caretaker of America’s most beloved places. In the Organic Act, the NPS was charged to preserve our national parks “unimpaired for future generations,” but it was also charged to make the parks accessible for recreation. The problem with promoting conservation and recreation is that they contradict one another.
When laws have contradictions, the people who enforce the laws can do almost anything. The Organic Act’s contradictions have allowed the NPS to completely reverse management policies whenever it was politically expedient to do so, as we’ve seen in Yellowstone for the past century.
Even with the best intentions, bureaucrats in any agency can implement regulations and policies that have wide-sweeping effects that they may not have intended. Management decisions from the NPS have can be more complicated than other agencies because NPS decisions affect complex ecosystems. When bureaucrats try to plan an ecosystem, things can go wrong.
The NPS employs ecologists, biologists, and foresters, among other scientists. Even with all the best scientific information, no person or set of people can ever know enough to plan an entire ecosystem.
They are just too complicated. In essence, we are playing God in Yellowstone, but we aren’t all-knowing or all-powerful. Mere mortals are in charge of the management decisions, a fact that has led to problems in our nation’s first national park.
Policy decisions can have cascading effects through entire ecosystems for decades. In the 1880s, the army began managing Yellowstone. Army officials decided to eradicate predators like mountain lions and wolves, which allowed bison and elk populations to boom. After the Organic Act was passed in 1916, NPS officials saw huge numbers of elk and feared that they would overgraze the park. NPS decision-makers chose to adopt the practice of killing and relocating excess elk to avoid overgrazing.
The NPS continued to kill and relocate elk out of Yellowstone until the late 1960s. The 1960s was also the birth of the environmental movement, and most Americans started to realize the importance of being eco-friendly. Controversy broke out in Yellowstone when mass media reported on the NPS decision to directly reduce the elk population in Yellowstone. The newly eco-minded public cried out against active population management.
Political pressures from Congress and the public forced the NPS completely changed their elk management policy in 1967. With a scientific justification that was shaky at best, NPS officials decided to engage in so-called “natural regulation” management. In this management strategy, humans don’t directly manipulate animal populations, despite the fact that humans have influenced animal populations in Yellowstone for millennia.
Through natural regulation, wildlife populations — elk in particular — grew much larger than their historical populations. These large populations have overgrazed the park’s ecosystems. Yellowstone’s rangelands, aspen groves, and river ecosystems have all declined in the decades since natural regulation was implemented. Fifty years of evidence show that natural regulation has been harmful to the park, and politics was the main driver for putting this policy in place. If we want to make sure our parks remain unimpaired for future generations, we will need to examine how and why politics influenced NPS management decisions.