Gift of Nature

As departing Administrations before it have done, the Reagan Administration can leave America a great legacy of natural wonder during 1988: official protection for an area of the Rocky Mountains known as the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

Yellowstone itself is the nation's oldest national park, created along the straight lines of the cartographer in 1872. But grizzly bears, elk and other creatures do not live their lives within arbitrary lines drawn on maps. The 2.2-million-acre park is only the core of a natural wonderland along the Continental Divide that remains much as it did before the arrival of the settlers.

There is far more there than just the popular tourist attractions like Old Faithful and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. The 13-million-acre Yellowstone country incorporates dramatic mountain ranges like the Tetons and the Wind Rivers, forests, grasslands and major river systems like the Yellowstone, the Green and the Snake. The region abounds with wildlife, and is one of the last sections of the country able to sustain a viable population of grizzlies.

As the Wilderness Society has noted: "Not only does the ecosystem preserve a tremendous array of species, it also preserves ecological processes--the complex web of interactions that occur between species and their environments. Indeed, this area represents one of the last regions of the country where these ecological processes operate much as they did before human interference."

The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is larger than Switzerland--encompassing portions of northwestern Wyoming, southwestern Montana and eastern Idaho. Virtually all of the region is in the federal domain. Ownership is not so much a problem as coordinated management. Yellowstone Park and neighboring Grand Teton National Park are administered by the National Park Service in the Department of the Interior. They are surrounded by seven national forests run by the National Forest Service within the Department of Agriculture. The region also includes three national wildlife refuges, one of which is home to the magnificent trumpeter swan.

Increasingly, scientists and federal officials are recognizing that development in one corner of this system can affect the natural integrity of the whole. The directors of the two national parks and the seven forests have formed an ad hoc committee in an attempt to coordinate policy, but much more is needed. Logging, mining and oil and gas development are not allowed in national parks, but are permitted in national forests. Recently published plans for the seven forests surrounding Yellowstone indicate that considerable logging will be allowed in the future even though most federal timber sales in the area lose money and sometimes threaten animal habitat. More wilderness designation is needed to protect such areas and to close critical gaps through which development could penetrate the ecosystem.

Such action generally would benefit the economy of the region because tourism and recreation have emerged as the dominant forces relative to the old boom-and-bust exploitative industries of logging, mining and petroleum.

The President could give the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem special protective status by directing the secretaries of agriculture and the interior to coordinate and manage their individual units for the good of the whole. Better still, the President could follow such an order with support for legislation that would establish a permanent mechanism for protecting the Yellowstone country. What a gift it would be for all America and Americans.

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