Instead, they chatted frankly of progress made and the challenges ahead while celebrating the Greater Yellowstone Coalition’s 30-year anniversary Saturday. The coalition celebrated its birthday in West Yellowstone, Mont., with three park superintendents joining the party for a fireside chat.
“I found the Greater Yellowstone Coalition to be absolutely invaluable,” said Mike Finley, who served as Yellowstone’s superintendent from 1994-2001.
The coalition pioneered the effort to preserve Yellowstone and the ecosystems that surround the park, said Jeff Welsch, communications director for the Bozeman, Mont.-based coalition.
Welch described the coalition’s opposition to the New World Mine just outside Yellowstone’s Northeast Entrance as the organization’s “signature movement.”
Finley and the coalition were against the New World Mine, Finley said.
In 2010, Crown Butte, a Canadian company, withdrew its mining plans near Yellowstone after two decades of negotiations. If the mine had gone through, there would have been a toxic waste pool the size of 72 football fields threatening both the Lamar and Yellowstone rivers, Welsch said.
It is significant when the coalition involves itself with an issue. “Working with the GYC to kill the New World Mine,” Finley said, “I loved that.”
Smart people and businesses are attracted to the Greater Yellowstone Area because of protected public lands and the area’s proximity to nearby airports that can shuttle them to major airports, Welsch said.
People and businesses are not lured to mineral-industry boom towns. Still, the coalition is not opposed to energy development, as long as that development is managed responsibly, he said.
Yellowstone is surrounded by national forest. Those forests are healthier thanks to weighing environmental impacts prior to taking actions, said Bob Barbee, Yellowstone’s superintendent from 1982-94.
The coalition was founded with the desire to prevent grizzly bear extinction and to protect public lands surrounding the park. Now, grizzlies are recovered as well as grey wolves.
“This ecosystem is healthier, ecologically and economically, than it has been at any time since Yellowstone was created in 1872,” Welsch said.
Barbee worked hard to prove the ecological significance of re-introducing gray wolves in Yellowstone, Finley said.
“Thirty years ago, there were no wolves roaming this part of the world,” Welsch said. “Today they are recovered and the conversation is very different.”
Grizzly bears are recovered too, Welsch said.
Grizzlies depend on army cutworm moths that arrive from the Great Plains. Who is protecting the moths before they reach the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, Finley asked rhetorically.
Whitebark pine cone production, another important grizzly food source after squirrels free the nuts inside them, was poor this year.
“Yet we’re on the road to de-listing (in 2014),” Finley said. “Make them (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service) prove the habitat quality is there. They can’t.”
He said the answer is to take delisting to court.
“Litigation works,” Finley said.
In November 1994, lake trout were discovered in Yellowstone Lake. “Probably had them for a number of years decimating cutthroat trout,” Finley said.
Since efforts to eradicate lake trout began, 1.3 million have been removed, said current Superintendent Dan Wenk, who took Yellowstone’s reins in 2011.
In addition to the policy and issue discussions, Rick Reese was honored for founding the coalition.
Reese influenced hundreds of leaders on conservation issues. He provided inspiration and leadership, said Peter Metcalf of Black Diamond and Patagonia, which presented the celebration.
Reese, who took part in an “impossible” rescue that saved two climbers stranded on the Grand Teton in 1967, left a well-paid job to found the coalition in 1983. Three decades later, “we have been the people’s voice for a greater Yellowstone,” Metcalf said.
Reese said he realized early that Yellowstone was not an island. Yellowstone and Grand Teton parks represent 15 percent of the Greater Yellowstone Area. The concept to protect Yellowstone and its surroundings was right 30 years ago and remains so today, he said.
“This award belongs to hundreds and hundreds of people,” he said.
Welsch said protecting wolves, grizzlies and bison are a few challenges for the next 30 years. Caroline Byrd, coalition executive director, called for a toast of the coalition’s first three decades and the next.
The coalition can maintain public interest in preserving the ecosystem. “We really need to keep the drums beating,” Barbee said.