THE NEW WEST: Explosive Resilience

By on March 7, 2018

Yellowstone’s geysers are a miracle of survival but humanity hasn’t made it easy

Not everyone has viewed the Grand Prismatic Spring from a respectful distance. (NPS.gov)

One of the greatest rustic hotels in the world, a stadium-sized parking lot and, more recently, a multimillion-dollar visitor center were all built on top of the world’s most famous and, so far, predictable erupting geyser.

To put this in perspective, imagine how a tramline running to the Grand Teton might affect the way we think about the mystique of the largest summit in the Teton Range. Or maybe an escalator running to the bottom of the Grand Canyon. Or tourist trollies motoring down the sidewalk in front of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C.

That America still has the world’s largest assemblage of still-functioning geothermal phenomena in Yellowstone National Park is nothing short of a miracle.

It’s a cautionary message that was loud and clear in an overview provided a decade ago by graduate student Alethea Steingisser and her professor Andrew Marcus, both geographers from the University of Oregon. Their report, “Human Impacts on Geyser Basins,” appeared in the winter 2009 edition of the journal Yellowstone Science.

“Globally, there are at least 40 locations where geyser activity has been documented but geysers are now extinct in many of those locations,” the report reads.

In New Zealand, which once had the third largest number of geysers, some 220 spread across 20 different geothermal areas, now has only 55. The bulk of the decline is linked to poorly-conceived energy development.

Closer to home, at Beowawe and Steamboat Springs in Nevada, the two largest geyser basins in the U.S. outside of Yellowstone, zero active geysers exist today following the drilling of exploratory hydrothermal energy wells four decades ago.

As calls are made for America to harness fossil fuel and alternative energy resources, the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is a philosophical reflecting pool for pondering the tradeoffs of development versus protection. Similar discussions are happening in Russia’s Valley of the Geysers on the Kamchatka Peninsula.

Although Yellowstone Park was set aside in large part to safeguard its geysers and 10,000 other geothermal phenomena, human regard for the features historically had been less than admirable.

Earlier generations of modern tourists chiseled off pieces of geyser cones and carved their initials and graffiti into the mineralized surfaces. Tour guides impressing their clients dumped objects—all kinds—into the waters to leave them encrusted with travertine so that trinkets could be peddled to visitors as souvenirs.

Some geyser and geothermal vents were deliberately crammed with stuff to create a spectacle when they erupted, sending debris skyward. It’s amazing how allegedly freedom-loving adults, when given the chance to exercise their free will, are unable to behave responsibly, or consider the next generation.

When park staff learned that some guides were pouring soap and lye into geysers to trigger premature eruptions, they, too, engaged in the practice. Even famed park photographer F. Jay Haynes employed the technique so that geysers would fountain on cue when he thought the light and wind were perfect to create a postcard image.

In short, adults treated the delicate, fragile features in the national park as cheap carnival games for their own immediate enjoyment, never thinking twice about long-term impacts because, frankly, many knew they might never return to Yellowstone again.

Steingisser and Marcus note that park geysers and hot pools sustained heavy damage in 1946 as the end of World War II brought huge increases in visitation. And, as late as the 1950s, rangers dubbed the picturesque, rainbow-hued waters of Morning Glory Pool as “the garbage can” because of the amount of debris tossed into it.

Looking back, such behavior seems senseless and stupid, yet when the park implemented strict resource protection rules, informed by science, there were still profiteers who cackled loudly about their livelihoods being affected, their freedoms being impinged upon, and years of beloved, sacred tradition being dishonored by the heavy-handed, paternalistic federal government.

What have we learned? More recently, during the 2018 government shutdown when law enforcement in Yellowstone was lax, rogue snowmobilers drove into the Upper Geyser Basin defying normal restrictions. And there have been a lot of other incidents. Remember the Canadians who in 2016 recorded themselves brazenly tromping across Grand Prismatic Spring and then posted their exploit on social media?

The irrefutable lesson is that whenever natural resource protection or development is left to the whims of the lowest common denominator of our species’ instincts, it suffers. Without human self-restraint, is there any hope for saving what’s wild? PJH

Todd Wilkinson, founder of Mountain Journal (mountainjournal.org), is author of Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek, about famous Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear 399 featuring 150 photographs by Tom Mangelsen, available only at mangelsen.com/grizzly.


About Todd Wilkinson

Todd Wilkinson, founder of Mountain Journal (which just published a long piece on climate change in Greater Yellowstone), is also author of Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek about famous Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear 399 featuring 150 photographs by Tom Mangelsen, available only at mangelsen.com/grizzly.

You must be logged in to post a comment Login