In Yellowstone, Haaland recognizes threats to park, ecosystem

Angus M. Thuermer Jr., photo U.S. Interior Secretary Deb Haaland, wearing jewelry given to her by the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes during her recent visit to Wyoming, on Friday discuses the challenges faced by Yellowstone National Park.

CANYON VILLAGE (Yellowstone National Park) — Secretary of the Interior Deb Haaland has a responsibility to work with Yellowstone National Park’s ecosystem neighbors to resolve vexing cross-boundary conservation problems like climate change, wildfire, crushing visitation and wildlife that “don’t see borders,” she said Friday.

Flanked by buffalo on the drive and hike to the banks of the Yellowstone River, Haaland outlined her duty to sustain “the shared ancestral homelands of the Northwest and Great Plains Nations who were the first stewards of this special place.” 

She wore a beadwork necklace, bracelet and earrings given to her the day before by leaders of the Eastern Shoshone and Northern Arapaho tribes of the Wind River Indian Reservation.

To preserve Yellowstone and the ecosystem around it, for “our children and grandchildren,” Haaland said it’s necessary to engage towns, counties, states and others.

“Developing those relationships so that we can all make the best decisions together for that ecosystem is certainly an obligation that I take seriously,” she said near the Upper Falls of the Yellowstone.

The Biden administration’s positions, however, differ from Wyoming’s on many environmental and conservation issues, a divide that Gov. Mark Gordon underscored after he met with Haaland on Thursday. As Yellowstone faces climate change, for example, and the Biden-Harris administration strives to cut carbon emissions by pausing federal oil and gas leasing to review policies, Wyoming wants leasing to begin again.

“One key topic for me was our energy and mining industries” on which the state heavily relies, Gordon said in a statement after meeting Haaland. The governor “urged Secretary Haaland to hold the Bureau of Land Management’s postponed March and June 2021 oil and gas lease sales,” Gordon’s press office wrote in a statement. The Biden administration “will proceed with leasing,” officials said Monday.

“I continue to stress how much the mineral industry has done for our state, its importance to our economy, and the impacts and issues created by the Biden administration’s actions,” Gordon’s statement reads.

In addition to oil and gas, Gordon’s statement said he raised other prickly issues with Haaland. These include Wyoming’s desire to manage grizzly bears, an omnivore protected by the Endangered Species Act but which the state has proposed to hunt. They talked about the Bureau of Reclamation, according to Gordon’s office — an Interior Department agency that struggles to maintain the level of Lake Powell as Wyoming plans to divert and store even more flows from the troubled Colorado River Basin.

Interior’s BLM will review a Trump decision to allow mineral exploration and mining in 252,160 acres of the most valuable habitat for greater sage grouse in Wyoming — sagebrush focal areas that the Obama administration protected. Wyoming feels Gordon’s executive order protecting sage grouse is a sufficient guard for the troubled bird, but a court disagreed after Western Watersheds Project and others sued.

Haaland’s department, mainly through the BLM and National Park Service, manages 32 percent or about 20.4 million of Wyoming’s 62.6 million acres. The BLM manages minerals across 68 percent of Wyoming.

Haaland and Gordon found some common ground on that shared landscape.

The two discussed the governor’s migration corridor executive order and how it both supports conservation and accommodates “multiple-use opportunities while protecting private property rights,” Gordon’s statement said. As that conversation took place in Lander on Thursday, Haaland’s agency and the sister Department of Agriculture announced $2 million in wildlife migration grants that could support deer, pronghorn and elk routes in Wyoming and around Yellowstone.

Haaland’s principal message in Yellowstone, however, was about “the big investments that the federal family is making to support our parks and public lands, including right here in Wyoming,” she said. She ticked off The Great American Outdoors Act, the Biden-Harris 30×30 America the Beautiful volunteer conservation initiative and the Senate-passed bipartisan infrastructure bill, all of which will help the ecosystem, she said.

The Great American Outdoors Act, which Haaland supported as a congresswoman, will bring $121.5 million to Yellowstone, she said. It will rehabilitate 22 miles of the park’s Grand Loop Road, replace the Lewis River Bridge and restore historic buildings at Fort Yellowstone, now the site of park headquarters at Mammoth.

“The Great American Outdoors Act investments in the park’s infrastructure in 2021 alone are expected to support nearly 1,600 jobs and contribute $339 million to the nation’s economy,” she said. Such investments are “absolutely necessary” to help manage record visitation and “threats to our natural resources from climate change,” Haaland said.

Biden’s America the Beautiful conservation initiative “will help us to unify around the idea of conservation,” Haaland said, and may help resolve some of the challenges to ecosystem fragmentation posed by development.

Haaland called the Senate-passed infrastructure bill “a big deal” that she wants to see completed with House approval. Among other things, it would establish a network of charging stations for electric vehicles and buses.

“National parks like Yellowstone are lighting the path on how we can do all of that (conservation work) by embracing innovative technologies like the autonomous vehicle we saw today,” Haaland said, referring to two new small shuttle buses at Canyon.

Success in restoring grizzly bear, native fish and wolf populations suggests a resilient ecosystem, Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly said Friday at Haaland’s press meeting. But he made his remarks under hazy skies caused by western wildfires — a reminder of the danger climate change poses to the park and surrounding wildlands.

“As strong as the ecosystem is … we’re challenged by the threats of the future,” Sholly said.

For example, July was the first time Yellowstone had more than 1 million visitors in a single month, Sholly said, a crush that can diminish the park experience and the resource as well. Meager runoff from winter snows has led to some of the lowest stream flows the park has seen and caused managers to prohibit fishing in rivers and streams after 2 p.m. Already 13 wildfires have ignited in Yellowstone this season.

“We’ve got a lot of work to do, from a climate change and sustainability standpoint,” Sholly said. He sees traditional infrastructure and past calls for larger park roads as ideas that are somewhat old-fashioned. “We’re not going to build our way out of this,” Sholly said.

Some of the work will occur through the Greater Yellowstone Coordinating Committee, a group of federal land and wildlife managers in the 15-million-acre ecosystem. “I think what you’re going to see out of the GYCC is a much more substantial range of actions,” he said.

Action in Yellowstone can become a model, said Mike Reynolds, Park Service regional director, who joined Sholly and Haaland in the park.

“We’re going to take a lot of the lessons here in visitor-use management, in climate change, in the way that they manage Yellowstone to embrace the future, and we’re going to take them to our other 90 parks,” he said. “And then we’re going to leverage that further to help the rest of the nation.”

Haaland started Friday canoeing on Yellowstone Lake, an excursion she found “very peaceful,” she said. “Nature is essential to the health, well-being, and prosperity of every family and community in America,” she said in a statement summarizing her visit.

Yet getting into Yellowstone is increasingly difficult as crowds force campgrounds to impose advance-reservation systems and demand pushes regional lodging prices up. Haaland said she understands the problem.

“We’ll keep looking at ways that we can help families to be able to afford that (Yellowstone visit)” she said, “so that every family does have an opportunity to be in nature. 

“I’m a single mom and I get that.”

WyoFile is an independent nonprofit news organization focused on Wyoming people, places and policy.