The Yellowstone Country Page

A Page Devoted to Yellowstone Country Policy Issues

The Pinnacle Buttes from Bonneville Pass. In the backcountry, about
25 miles SE of Yellowstone Park
Copyright Ralph Maughan


It is extremely important to understand that the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE), or just the "Yellowstone Country" as many call it, is much larger than Yellowstone National Park.

Yellowstone Park was created in 1872 -- a square piece of land with its boundaries surrounded by wilderness. The states of Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana didn't even exist. The Park's boundaries did not correspond to any identifiable features on the ground, but at first that didn't matter, but it wasn't long before some of surrounding land was settled and the migration of wildlife out of the Park to its traditional wintering range became an issue. Over a hundred years later it is still an unresolved issue.

Map of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem 133K


The Park's boundaries were adjusted once to add some geographic rationality. The Norbeck Act of 1929 revised the Park boundaries on the northwest, northeast, and east. According the classic book by John Ise Our National Park Policy (John Hopkins, 1961), the additions were 43 square miles on the NW to protect the petrified forest in the Gallatin mountain range; 4 square miles on the NE to include the headwaters of Pebble Creek; and 110 square miles on the east to put the boundary on the watershed divide of the Absaroka mountain range. Settlers in Jackson Hole to the south of Yellowstone occupied the winter range of a huge elk herd. Efforts to solve this problem began in 1912 when Congress appropriated $45,000 to buy 2000 acres near Jackson, Wyoming. This became the core of the National Elk Refuge, upon which 5000 to 14,000 elk now winter each year. The Refuge now abuts the small city of Jackson. With the real estate prices prevalent in Jackson Hole today, the Refuge lands would be worth a 200-million plus dollars on the market.

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The Grand Teton (center)
Grand Teton National Park
   copyright Ralph Maughan  

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Rainbow at Sunrise- Grand Teton National Park

Copyright Ralph Maughan



The Park's Creation and controversial Enlargement-

A tiny Grand Teton National Park was established by Congress in 1929. It included just the east slope of the Teton mountain range. Today's park was created after a lengthy battle wherein John D. Rockefeller Jr. established the Snake River Land Company 1927 and purchased 35,000 acres of private land in Jackson Hole (the name of the valley on the east side of the Teton mountains). He wanted to give it to the U.S. government to enlarge the national park. Opposition to the park from Wyoming Stockgrowers was intense, but in 1943 President Franklin D. Roosevelt took Rockefellers land, combined it with scattered public lands in the valley and proclaimed Jackson Hole National Monument under the Antiquities Act of 1906 -- the same act President Clinton used in 1996 to proclaim the Escalante Canyons/Grand Staircase National Monument in southern Utah. The reaction in both cases was similar. Just as the case now with Utah, Wyoming went to court to try and the President's action declared invalid. Wyoming lost. Wyoming Representative Frank Barrett and Senator Frank Robertson (both stockgrowers) introduced legislation to prohibit further presidential proclamations of national monuments. The bill was debated with heat in Congress. Representative Barrett said that the President was "worse than Hitler" (the United States was in the middle of World War II, fighting Hitler's forces in Europe). The bill passed the House and Senate, but the President pocket-vetoed it.

Special privileges for a few built into the expansion of Grand Teton-

Barrett continued his efforts as well as a much bigger attempt to give most of the public lands of the United States to the western states, and from there to the stockgrowers for a nominal fee. Finally a compromise was reached in 1950. Senators O'Mahoney and Hunt of Wyoming sponsored a bill that would create an enlarged Grand Teton National Park which included most of the lands in the national monument. In turn, certain stockgrowers were allowed to continue grazing livestock in the Park, there were generous leases granted to those with summer homes in the Park, and elk hunting was permitted each fall when Wyoming hunters were permitted to be "deputized" as Park rangers and hunt the elk.

Grand Teton still has cows today and as recently as 1997 grizzly bears were killed by the federal government because they attacked a few cow calves in the Park. Some folks say the Act that created the Park conveyed too great a privilege on a few prominent Wyoming citizens. Others see it as a necessary compromise. Still others see it as a shining example of the distant federal government respecting local customs and culture. Recently a bill passed Congress and was signed into law further extending the grazing privileges of the few remaining families. The extension lasts until the Park Service does a study on how grazing in the Park helps maintain open space in Jackson Hole.   The theory is that were it not for these grazing permits, the ranchers' base property (private land) would be sold for subdivisions. 

It is highly unlikely these grazing permits will protect the ranches from subdivision because private land in Jackson Hole sales for $20,000 an acre or more.


Further alterations of Yellowstone's 2.2-million acre size are not politically feasible in the brown politics of today's Rocky Mountain West. However, during the greener years of the 1960s and 1970s, many of the Park's boundaries received additional legal protection when Congress made large reservations of adjacent national forest lands by designating them as units of the new "National Wilderness Preservation System."

Go to my Yellowstone Country Wilderness Page

The Wilderness Act provides that roadless portions of lands of the United States can, by Act of Congress, be reserved as Wilderness. Such lands are then permanently protected from logging, mining (except for valid previously established claims), the construction of buildings, roads, and dams; and from use by recreational motor vehicles (such as dirt bikes and ATVs).


Targhee National Forest (link to gov't web site)

Other U.S. public lands adjacent to Yellowstone and the Tetons didn't see much intensive development because the poor quality of the timber made logging economically infeasible. Eventually, increasingly generous government subsidies for logging led to large scale clearcutting, particularly to the west of Yellowstone Park on the Targhee National Forest, with which the Park still shared an irrational straight line boundary. The boundary has become easily visible, however, even from space. The Targhee National Forest, under strong bureaucratic and political pressure, clearcut almost all of its Island Park and Ashton Ranger Districts -- the Targhee's forest subunits adjacent to Yellowstone Park.
Icehouse Creek. Centennial Mtns. Targhee National Forest
  Icehouse Creek
   Targhee N.F.

The timber program was created to salvage hundreds of millions of board feet of dead and dying lodgepole pine, killed by an epidemic of the mountain pine bark beetle.

Today the logging has mostly ceased because there few trees left large enough to cut, although conservation groups such as the Greater Yellowstone Coalition were able to greatly reduce the logging before every stand of trees was cut. Fortunately regeneration of the clearcut forest is now excellent in most areas, but in many places the regeneration consists of trees just a couple feet high. This lack of forest cover still disrupts elk migration and, perhaps, wolf recolonization of the area. The adverse effects of the excessive logging were, and remain, especially harmful to the grizzly bear because of the high density of logging roads and the destruction of huckleberry patches during the logging. The excessive logging also was harmful to local communities.

History of the Targhee Timber Salvage Program.

 There are 18 grizzly bear management units (Called BMUs) in the Yellowstone "Grizzly Recovery Area" -- places where grizzlies have historically lived. Two of the BMUs (Henry's Lake and Plateau) have no grizzly bear populations today, and both of these are largely on the Targhee National Forest. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's Grizzly Bear recovery plan states that the Yellowstone grizzly population cannot be declared "recovered", and, therefore, from the threatened species list, until 16 out of the 18 BMUs have grizzly bears (this means grizzly bears that live in the BMUs produce cubs).  Moreover the two BMUs without reproducing populations of bears cannot be adjacent to each. Because of the Targhee, they are adjacent.

  • More information on the BMUs
  • See how the grizzly bears fared in 1996. 
  • See how they did in 1997. 

 Despite widespread criticism of the Targhee, the land is recovering. In my mind some of clearcuts are quite pleasant to look at with the young lodgepole pine and numerous wildflowers. Things will get better if American citizens act to prevent the Targhee from sliding back to old non-sustainable practices. . . and there are folks around who believe there is still a timber bonanza to be made in the area. I wish it was 1898 instead of 1998 at times myself.

The Controversial Revision of the Targhee Forest Plan

After years of lawsuits by conservationists as the Island Park and Ashton Ranger Districts were turned from forests into grasslands (with plenty of signs saying "new trees planted 1986, etc."), the Targhee decided to revise their forest plan. Scores of meetings, field trips, preliminary public involvement, and work by Forest Service staff resulted in a draft of the new forest plan in 1996. It had a number of improvements.

The final version of the Targhee forest plan revision was released in May 1997. Unfortunately, the changes made from draft version were to increase timber harvest, although not as severely as many environmental groups feared. Nevertheless it is doubtful if the forest can find the volume of harvestable trees they say they are going to offer for sale, especially without great damage to the other more valuable resources of the national forest. Most of the logging is slated for the Centennial Mountains on the Idaho /Montana border, which is the biologically richest place on the Targhee NF.

The plan offered some improvements in terms of regulating off-road vehicles (such as they will no longer be allowed to drive "willy nilly" cross country where there are no roads or trails). However, the existing rules, weak as they are, are widely flouted, especially by snowmobiles. The new plan did offer one additional area as a recommendation to Congress for wilderness designation -- that part of the Diamond Peak roadless area in the Lemhi Mountains, which is administered by the Targhee National Forest. Unfortunately the plan also opened up the Palisades proposed wilderness to snowmobiles.  The wilderness recommendation for Diamond Peak is just something on a piece of paper, but the intrusion of snowmobiles into the Palisades is real.

On August 29, 1997 the Greater Yellowstone Coalition formally appealed the forest plan.  Unless its legal deficiencies are corrected, the GYC will eventually sue the Targhee in federal court. As of November 1998 the Chief of the Forest Service had not acted on the appeal.

Meanwhile, the Targhee National Forest has been under increasing pressure as the forest that is holding up grizzly bear recovery. The only two of 18 grizzly bear management units without reproducing populations of bears in the Greater Yellowstone ecosystem are on the Targhee.  As a result the Targhee recently began a problem to obliterate unneeded timber access roads on parts of its Island Park, Ashton, and Teton Basin Ranger Districts. Most of these roads were already closed by regulation, but riders of all terrain vehicles treated these closures with scornful disobedience.  As a result, the Targhee used machinery to destroy the road surfaces and dig trenches on routes were off road vehicle riders had been especially lawless.

Effective closures outraged Teton and Fremont County commissioners, and they reacted by harassing the Forest Service, and off-road vehicle groups held a rally near Henry's Lake that attracted 100-200 road obliteration protesters. The Blue Ribbon Coalition, a front group for the off-road vehicle manufacturers, filed a lawsuit saying the Targhee needed to issue an environmental impact statement before obliterating the roads.  Fortunately most were obliterated before the harassment and lawsuit shut closed a temporary shutdown of the road reclamation program.

Other Greater Yellowstone National Forests:
These are not links to official sites. There are my interpretative pages of these national forests

The relationship of Yellowstone to the politics of the three states in whose boundaries it lies.

Yellowstone predates the formation of Idaho, Wyoming, and Montana, but many politicians in these states have always seen the Park as an unfortunate federal enclave in their midst, standing in the way of economic development, even though the Park is the biggest money maker for the economy of these three states within a hundred miles of its boundaries. Most Americans, however, value Yellowstone far above the desires of local political elites. High Country News recently had a good article on this -- "Yellowstone at 125: The park as a sovereign state."

Of the three states, Yellowstone has the greater portion of its area in Wyoming, "the Cowboy State." Wyoming has the smallest population of any of the 50 states of the United States. Despite rapid population growth in northwest Wyoming in the Yellowstone Country, the state of Wyoming is economically stagnant and may actually be losing population. Much of Wyoming resents the prosperity and different culture of Northwest Wyoming. The state produces politicians with very brown political views. They are adept at scapegoating, but bad at providing jobs or protecting the natural environment.

Paul Krza gives an explanation for Wyoming's sick economy in  While the West booms, Wyoming Languishes in the High Country News. It turns out Wyoming isn't the Cowboy State after all. It's the mining state and despite the vaunted independence of its cowboys, Wyoming is controlled from the outside. Note to readers of the article: Gov. Geringer recently fired Jim Magagna, the state lands commissioner.


Check the latest on Yellowstone Earthquakes. Seismic Server at the University of Utah.