PLAYING GOD IN YELLOWSTONE by Alston Chase (Atlantic Monthly: 24.95; 480 pp.)

<i> Parfit is the author of "South Light: A Journey to the Last Continent," published by Macmillan</i>

This book is like one of Yellowstone’s more erratic geysers: unpredictable, explosive, overheated, full of itself--and then at the end, one is left with just a hot mist, a last cranky bubbling, and a whiff of sulfur.

The book’s purpose is to call attention to management problems in Yellowstone--its subtitle is “The Destruction of America’s First National Park.” It is already succeeding, at least in the political arena. Alston Chase, who lives north of the park, fits the mold of Montana curmudgeons, taking on the managers of Yellowstone the way the late historian K. Ross Toole took on strip-miners and power companies in the ‘70s. His attacks on the U.S. Park Service have been reprinted in magazines, quoted in newspapers and promoted on television. But it’s too bad that this book, sure to become the core of a major debate about the park that in turn may change the way the place is run, is so intemperate, arrogant, and, in many cases, misleading.

Chase’s accusations are legion. We hear, specifically, of errors in controlling elk populations, of costly ignorance of the way humans used the park before the arrival of white men, of an alleged subterfuge to sneak wolves into the park to support a bankrupt policy, of an apparent conspiracy to kill off many of the park’s bears, of the way recreation politics pushed an unwanted and unneeded development much the way military-industrial politics pushes unnecessary weapons, of the way scholarly research is discouraged in the park, and of the way environmental philosophies contributed to disastrous management decisions.

But Chase is not content with straightforward criticism. The book erupts sporadically with steamy self-righteousness, which poisons the air. Chase himself is probably a kind and tender-hearted person, but it doesn’t show here. He gratuitously mocks everyone from hunters to park superintendents to backpackers, often cheap-shooting from the hip with trade-name listings of the silly artifacts that people use in genuinely worthwhile pursuits. Officials he disagrees with “scurry” to make decisions, or “admit” things that are not crimes. Often mistakes are not considered in their historical context, and so are made to look far more stupid than they were at the time. About the only park officials for whom he expresses much respect are those who have been retired a long time and so conceivably are reformed, and one man who was killed in a car accident in 1936, a wreck described in unnecessarily graphic detail.


His arguments are powerful, detailed and appear well-supported, yet he often leaves himself open to the charge already made by park officials of selective research and unfair interpretations. In one section, he digs an elbow into officials for protecting wilderness values in areas not officially designated as wilderness, but he utterly ignores the likelihood that--as is common--the areas were unofficially managed to preserve wilderness characteristics. In a section on park naturalists, he quotes passages from five publications, implying that these passages represented a specific trend that he pegs close to the year 1966. You have to go to the end-notes to find out that the grouped citations came from documents published in 1957, 1969, 1975, 1976 and 1980. After thus compressing time to suit argument, he then rhetorically inverts it, indicating there was an attempt to counter the 1966 trend with the formation of an advisory committee in 1964.

The theme of the book is in its last line: “If Yellowstone dies its epitaph will be: ‘Victim of an Environmental Ideal.’ ” This overstatement (Yellowstone isn’t dying; it’s changing, although not, perhaps, for the better) is symptomatic of the book’s weakness, which lies in Chase’s efforts to sound strong. All his snideness, his bending of evidence, and the better passages on such genuine tragedies as overgrazing by elk and the decline of the bears, are forced to support the second part of that final statement. The disaster he sees looming over Yellowstone, Chase thinks, has been brought about because an environmental ethic has led officials to believe that the best management is no management at all; that an ecosystem should be left alone to take care of itself.

In spite of several chapters in which Chase almost loses his drift in philosophical eddies, his argument against this kind of ecosystem management is, eventually, compelling: Expecting an ecosystem that has lost many of its vital parts--predators, for instance--to maintain itself is like leaving your car beside the road in the hope that the transmission will climb back into place. But the evidence Chase himself has amassed shows that this misconception is only one of a whole array of forces--political pressure from the surrounding communities, for instance, or bureaucratic turf wars--that affect Yellowstone.

So eventually he does almost exactly what he accuses the Park Service of doing: He oversimplifies nature. As he tries to prove that one mistaken concept led to disaster, he crowds evidence that in reality demonstrates the complexity of human decisions into the confines of his own single and distorting idea.