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Searching for Yellowstone: Ecology and Wonder in the Last Wilderness

Yellowstone is one of the best-known places on earth—or is it? The popular image of the world's first national park is composed of equal parts myth, hype, and rare glimpses of the incredible wonder of the place. Searching for Yellowstone is the first environmental history of one of American's greatest and most far-reaching experiments. Combining exhaustive and uniquely broad research in the rich scientific and cultural literatures of Yellowstone with many years of experience working and living in the park, Paul Schullery paints a dramatically new picture of the park and its meaning to the world. Originally published in 1997 and in an updated edition in 2004, Searching for Yellowstone has become a standard reference on the continuing rediscovery of one of the world's foremost natural treasures.

"In Searching for Yellowstone [Schullery) has given us a refreshingly unhyperbolic look at the place he loves, and has thus notably honored its beauty, its mystery, its people, its past⎯and its future."—The New York Times Book Review

"Searching for Yellowstone is . . . both history and reflection, discourse and arbitration, a guide to an inner park that few of us have been lucky enough to visit."—Audubon

"A book that manages to combine scholarly rectitude with literary grace and passion is rare (and endangered) in any field—but Paul Schullery's Searching for Yellowstone does precisely that. The author's history of America's first and still greatest national park is a triumph of narrative skill and his admirably clear-headed analysis of the political and cultural obstacles put in the way of Yellowstone's intelligent scientific management surpasses everything that has gone before it."—T.H. Watkins, author of Righteous Pilgrim: the Life and Times of Harold L. Ickes

"In Searching for Yellowstone, Paul Schullery has succeeded brilliantly in making clear absorbing reading from some of the most complicated and controversial phenomena of North American conservation history."—David Rains Wallace, author of The Klamath Knot

"Truly a thorough and eloquent work of great historical value for ecology and conservation, especially in relation to national parks. I think that this [book] is unequalled for any place I know of in the world."—A.R.E. Sinclair, author of The African Buffalo

Excerpt from Searching for Yellowstone, from the introduction, "Establishing Yellowstone:"

In 1965, microbiologist Thomas Brock identified a new Yellowstone organism, a microscopic bacterium that lived in the plus-160°F waters of a little-known thermal feature in the Lower Geyser Basin, Mushroom Pool. From Thermus aquaticus, or Taq for short, other biologists extracted an enzyme known as Taq polymerase, which California biochemist Kary Mullis used to develop a gene-replicating procedure known as polymerase chain reaction, or PCR.

If all this sounds a trifle off the subject for a book of history, consider that in 1993, Mullis was awarded the Nobel Prize for his work, or that PCR, which one biologist has called the “Swiss army knife of molecular biology,” has changed our world. Consider that because of PCR, we now have the entire discipline known as DNA fingerprinting, which has revolutionized not only medicine but also other such eminently practical fields as criminology. Consider that spectacular advances in microbiology have opened new avenues in our search for the origins of life itself, and that hot-water organisms like Taq polymerase hold up vast promise for a host of other revelations and applications. Last, consider that the scientific consensus is that less than one percent of the organisms in Yellowstone’s 10,000 thermal features have even been identified yet, much less studied or put to work. Yellowstone’s fabulous reach in world culture seems only to grow longer as time passes and as we learn more about what the creation of Yellowstone National Park may yet mean.

We are in the habit of saying that Yellowstone National Park was established on March 1, 1872, but in fact we have never stopped establishing Yellowstone. Just as today we—whether as first-time visitors or as world-famous biologists—continue to discover and explore it, we also continue to create it. That is why I have called this book Searching for Yellowstone. Our continuing attempt to understand the park and fit it into our national and international life is the most important and certainly the most exciting thing we do here. We had no idea, in 1872, where this search might lead us. Sometimes we seem not to have all that much better an idea now. The process of caring for Yellowstone National Park brings to mind all the metaphors of growth and change, something a great deal more organic than political, a crucible of ideas, ambitions, dreams, and belief systems—a cultural, intellectual, and spiritual crossroads at which we are forever choosing which way to turn.

Historically, the most commonly applied educational metaphor for Yellowstone has been that of a great outdoor laboratory, where the workings of nature were exposed for our study and edification. In fact the laboratory has been busy with much more than that, for Yellowstone has become a sort of university, where we are the students and the landscape is the faculty, and where an amazing array of human interests are tested.

There is a remarkable contrast in the search for Yellowstone. Unless you live close to the park or are among the relatively few people directly or professionally involved in its issues, you will most often hear about it, even in today’s media-intense world, as a place of great goodness. In television nature shows, in travel magazines, and from friends, you will hear about this wonderful vacation destination, with its unearthly geysers and its almost unbelievable wildlife show. Even the fires of 1988, once they were smothered by a winter’s snow, led mostly to a reinforcement in post-fire media features of the park as a place of great wonder. In this context, Yellowstone is virtually always depicted as a pristine wilderness, a place of beauty where nature is preserved. Our search, then, is for a glimpse of this place, and a chance to embrace its wonder.

But there is another Yellowstone, one that may be just as important to the world even if it has little immediate reach among most people or even among most park visitors. Just as the visitors conduct their search through the time-honored traditions of tourism and wilderness adventure, other people are conducting other searches. Hundreds of scientists pursue their disciplines here, extracting this or that new tidbit or theory or microbiological miracle along the way. Entrepreneurs seek to satisfy and encourage the appetites of the commerce generated by all this searching. Advocates of alternative management approaches grow progressively more shrill as they compete for attention in the park’s saga of legal and philosophical definition. And generations of land managers in and around the park struggle with the pressures exerted by all of these forces. This Yellowstone is, at least when viewed from a distance, also a place of great goodness, admitting that on any given day it may seem a place of overwhelming contention, nastiness, and even hate.

In the 1990s, the discovery of PCR led inevitably to an explosion in “bioprospecting” in Yellowstone, by high-tech companies interested in discovering, developing, patenting, and marketing other useful new organisms, which led to a public debate over whether or not such “mining” of the park’s unique geothermal life forms was an appropriate use of the park, which led to calls for royalties paid to the public coffers for this use, which led to conferences and proposed protocols, which will lead both to some sort of legal resolution of this particular issue and to a new element in Yellowstone’s role in our society. The search goes on. Dozens of issues, with thousands of competing interested parties, careen through this process in Yellowstone. Few are uniquely the park’s issues; most are parallelled in other parks or areas with similarly special resources, though quite often Yellowstone, because of its singular eminence, takes a leadership role, either in driving the issue or in serving as a guinea pig or test case. Neither the establishment of Yellowstone, nor our search for it, appear to be anywhere near over.

I find myself thinking of the search for Yellowstone in the first person, not merely because I take it so personally myself, but because all of us participate. Even those who have never given the place a serious thought are participants in the process, through apathy, ignorance, or the most innocent inattention; in natural resource issues, as in most other political issues, nonvotes are often as significant as negative or positive votes. So when I invite you to join me in following this search, I am inviting you to consider your part in it as well. When I say “we” in this book, I am not speaking of some small group, like the employees of the park or the members of the conservation community or even the members of all the respective interest groups who surround and demand things from Yellowstone. I am speaking of all of us, nearby or distant, detached or immersed, who share responsiblity for the fate of Yellowstone. As you will see, I say “we” a lot, and I do so because at every stage, Yellowstone’s course has been largely a reflection of or reaction to public attitudes.

That is not to say that Yellowstone is a democratic institution whose direction has always mirrored some majority opinion; only that at any given time, public opinions and perceptions have driven the process by which Yellowstone grew and changed. It is a subtle and diffuse process, not especially comforting to those who prefer to see history as a fairly simple business in which good people and ideas emerge and triumph. I spend a fair amount of time in this book in conversation with past historians, professional and amateur, who have attempted to draw some lesson or other from the park’s story but have had to simplify that story in order to do so. Yellowstone, like life, is not simple.