After Yellowstone, In Search of Nature

Every student at College of the Atlantic earns a degree in human ecology. The following piece is my final human ecology essay, a place where each College of the Atlantic senior reflects on what they learned during their schooling and presents a snapshot of their view of “human ecology.”

As long as I can remember I have loved nature. My mother recalls three-year-old Austin rescuing earthworms from puddles after rainstorms and running around the house turning off lights to “save the penguins.” Before I entered elementary school, television shows featuring lion prides and herds of giraffe made me dream of becoming a world-traveling wildlife photographer. As a teenager, I led my parents on a grand summer vacation visiting national parks in Wyoming, Utah, Arizona, California, and Oregon. I’ll always remember how I felt exploring Yellowstone National Park for the first time—like every footstep deserved to be placed with a gentleness and respect for hallowed ground.

While visiting Yellowstone, I was entranced with the natural and human history of the region. Firsthand experience watching bison swim with their heads barely bobbing above rushing rivers, seeing coyote puppies play with their mother in a sheltered glade, and observing wolves’ tracking a scent and howling through the twilight inspired a sense of natural wonder. The park, steeped in the legacy of American conservation, served as an ideal place to spark my imagination.

At Yellowstone, I felt the environmental vigor of my childhood again. I felt sensations that spurred the first champions of the conservation movement. This is a movement that has made great strides since the creation of Yellowstone, but given the current climate—one where humankind’s impact on Earth’s environment is more pronounced than at any previous time—there has never been a more opportune time to take bearings and consider if conservation requires a new direction forward. I wonder if Americans struggle to separate modern conservation from the preservation values of the 19th and early 20th century, a period when many beloved parks were protected. In an era of climate change, we need a new wave of environmental thinking because our environmental dilemmas require national leadership and international cooperation—not national isolation and international division. To reach a new plateau in conservation, we need a national effort to assess how our current relationship with nature falls short and what new routes we need to take.

Most dictionaries define nature as a collection of physical elements like water, rocks, plants, and wildlife devoid of the influence of humankind. The definition assumes that nature is found where people are not. In some places the vestiges of primitive America persist. No setting fits our image of the natural American landscape better than Yellowstone. The region where age-old geo-hydrologic features spout and flow, where expansive meadows provide forage for bison, where wolves roam free, this place beautifully fits our stereotype of the North American landscape before Europeans arrived. We think: “This is how the world used to be. This is nature.” In the 1960s the Leopold Report explicitly outlined the goal of the National Park Service: to “represent a vignette of primitive America” (Leopold et al., 1963). This goal reflects the romanticizing of the American frontier, or the idea that the best of American nature existed when Lewis and Clark ventured west—and that it subsequently deteriorated with the spread of the white man across the continent.

William Denevan (1992) argues against the viability of restoring primitive America. He contends that over the 250 years between first contact and colonization, nature grew up while Native American populations rapidly declined, a contention that explains the origins of the myth of America as a land of unpopulated wilderness. Although the full extent or character of indigenous peoples’ impact will be forever unknown, they undoubtedly influenced the landscape ages before European contact. This influence dates back to the extinction of the mastodon and other megafauna over 10,000 years ago. If we want nature to meet primitive standards or to reflect how the continent used to be, we would need to reanimate mammoths, cave lions, and giant sloths for reintroduction into Yellowstone National Park (Harrington, 1996).[1]

But Yellowstone falls short of our modern standards of nature for more obvious reasons. Overflowing parking lots and tourists surround most geysers; invasive trout dominate Yellowstone Lake; nonnative fungi and infestations ravage the forests, and both the revived bison and reintroduced wolves, although rebounding from the brink of extinction, face death if they leave the park’s boundary.[2] This is the reality of nature in the climate change era. Nothing can restore these effects—they can only be ameliorated.

Today, if you look carefully enough you can find reason to believe that nature is falling apart, even in the most Edenic landscapes. If we cannot find nature in America’s most pristine places, where can we find it? After Yellowstone we might travel to the Great Barrier Reef, the Galapagos, or the Antarctic Peninsula in search of nature. But like Yellowstone, even these places regrettably show scars from the industrial human hand: disease, invasive species, rapid warming, or overcrowding. The concentrations of gases in Earth’s atmosphere and the physical and chemical composition of Earth’s oceans have changed and are continuing to change so rapidly that every place on the globe exists in modified conditions—prompting some geologists to say we live in the Anthropocene, a new epoch where humans are the dominant force of change (Lewis & Maslin, 2015). So are we reaching “the end of nature?”[3]

If the Great Barrier Reef, the Galapagos, or the Antarctic Peninsula are not natural, then we must admit to changing our definition of nature. The presence of humans should not make a place unnatural by default—if that were true, then nothing could live up to our standards. Humans have altered landscapes for millennia, even in the New World, a place we romantically assume was once untouched. Despite all of humanity’s advancements, we still rely on nature for food, air, water, shelter, medicine, and more—we can never break these bonds. We must learn to live better with nature, not apart from it—a lesson that American conservation has long sought to realize, but seemingly failed to instill in the necessary audience: Americans themselves.

The great challenge of American conservation: When independence, manifest destiny, progress, consumption, and convenience are American values, how do you teach people that we need to work together, that we are not entitled, that we should save as much as we spend, that we should think of others as much as of ourselves, and that we cannot acquire happiness?

Conservation results from a human connection to a wild place or thing. Kings created some of the earliest nature preserves to protect the best hunting grounds and their game (Brockington, Duffy, & Igoe, 2008). The history of large-scale nature protection in the United States began with Yellowstone.[4] Unlike in Europe, the best lands for experiencing nature in the U.S. were not solely owned by wealthy aristocrats, but available to all. About a century after the new nation was built on democratic ideals, it began establishing a system of lands that sought to represent those ideals.

In theory, the more people who engage with nature in positive ways, the more they want to protect it. People form relationships with nature because of the inevitable human power for love. When average people have access to public lands, they connect with nature and, like the aristocrats, they want to protect nature. It is a triumph of American conservation that these experiences, and by extension the very experiences that fueled the founders of conservation, have become increasingly available to the average person.

But instead of strengthening conservation, many argue that increasing access to public lands is undermining conservation. Rather than forging a mutual relationship derived from a connection to nature, more and more people visiting public lands are consuming nature in a one-sided relationship. For example, some claim national parks or wilderness areas are managed for entertainment, like Disneyland, SeaWorld, or zoos (Sax, 1980; Turner, 1996; Borrie, 2007). In a culture of consumption, we are accustomed to seeking the most convenient form of everything. Not only have these superficial encounters become enough to appease all but the most committed nature lovers, but they also encourage the increasing commercialization and distancing of humans from intimate nature interactions. Like anything else in our culture, our experiences in nature are often mediated by windshields and smartphones. The increasing portability of our technology proposes a paradox. Do conservationists attempt to cater to a broad spectrum of comfort levels, to encourage more people to support public lands but risk enabling a culture where people are less apt to connect to nature and more likely to accept norms that run antithetical to preserving the environment? Or do conservationists advocate for only the most authentic nature experiences, experiences that exclude those weary of venturing too far from the car or leaving devices behind?[5]

If a right answer exists, that answer is finding a middle ground, a gray area that undoubtedly varies from place to place. Conservationists should not expect everyone to seek the same experiences in nature, but they must oppose the American values that created our environmental dilemmas in the climate change era. To this end, there is nothing more important than democracy, the shared value that founded both the United States and the American conservation movement. Appealing to the earliest core of our national identity, the strengthening of equal rights, inclusiveness, and freedom of expression is all that will counteract new American ideals represented by automobiles, fast food, plastic, and selfies, values that sabotage intimate connections with nature.

In a time when national opinion is separated by age, gender, and education, our human connection to the natural world can unite us.[6] To make these connections, we must bond with what is wild, rather than the idea of wildness. If we maintain the status-quo, loving nature is easy in places like Yellowstone, where cars take us to obvious wildness—vast forests, tall mountains, and herds of megafauna. But loving nature virtually impossible in places where the most obvious form of wildness is the common pigeon.[7] To encourage every citizen to fall in love with the natural world, conservationists need to support ecological literacy, nature-focused art, and community parks and protected areas: local programs that connect local people with local nature. We should not be adapting nature to fit our values—demanding that national parks and wilderness are drivable, disposable, and entertaining—but adapting our values to accommodate nature—deriving our entertainment from the unpredictability, variation, and beauty present around us. The latter requires falling in love with the natural world while the former results from falling in love with ourselves.

Connecting people with natural resources of all kinds changes the perception that nature is an abstract collection of idealized interactions and transforms nature into the individual species and elements we know and love—the real things that roll, drift, flow, sprout, swim, slither, fly, hop, and run. As former College of the Atlantic professor, ecologist, and conservationist William Drury once wrote, “romanticizing wilderness distracts attention from the impressive performance of ordinary species” (Drury, 1998, p. 108). The act of discovering wildness in even the most common aspects of nature forms true and intimate connections that stimulate imaginations, foster empathy, and promote trust in each other: skills vital to solving all the most pressing issues of our times.



[1] Although this suggestion seems ludicrous, remains of American cave lion have been found from present-day Alaska to Peru. Archaeologists even discovered bones of the cave lion at a midden in Idaho, suggesting that Paleolithic Native Americans hunted this species about 10,000 years ago. Like many Paleolithic megafauna their demise is likely the result of human influence (Harrington, 1996). But extinction is not stopping a group of conservation biologists that believe in reanimating, reconstituting, or replacing extinct species for reintroduction into the North American landscape. This effort is called “rewilding” and claims to be a vision for 21st century conservation. The idea of rewilding is based on classic ecological themes of natural regulation, niche theory, and top-down trophic cascades, concepts that arguably do not translate from the mathematical theories on which they are based to the real natural landscape at large.

[2] Migration outside park boundaries is a necessity for a good portion of Yellowstone’s fauna, limiting the protection that the national park provides to these animals. The average altitude in Yellowstone is 8,000 feet, leading to predictably harsh winters that force many species to at least expand their range during these months. And once bison, elk, and wolves begin encroaching on public rangeland or private property, they are killed for fear of disease, for sport, or because of other perceived dangers. This is the impetus for managing the region as the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, but cooperation across federal agencies and to private landholders is a task not easily accomplished (Runte, 1997).

[3] The End of Nature is the title of a book written by Bill McKibben that received critical comments for its pessimistic and possibly self-serving perspective on nature. See Uncommon Ground, edited by William Cronon as an example of this critique. One chapter from Uncommon Ground written by Cronon (1996) was an early inspiration for writing this essay. However, Cronon’s chapter is worthy of its own critiques, see Hays (1996) as an example.

[4] Or Yosemite, depending on potential geographic favoritism. Yosemite and the nearby Mariposa Grove of Big Trees was originally granted to California by Abraham Lincoln in 1864, but was not recognized as a National Park until 1890. Given this essay’s focus on the idea of a national movement related to democracy and protected areas, Yellowstone was truly the first National Park as the first designated by the United States Congress (though, most western states like Wyoming were territories at the time of Yellowstone’s creation).

[5] On this subject, Cronon (1996) argues that the Wilderness Act continues to romanticize the idea of nature and conceptually separates humans from nature, not unlike my argument that the Leopold Report romanticizes “primitive America.” But the Wilderness Act was intended more as a modern tool for conservationists to prevent the takeover of American capitalism in places still devoid of roads, places that are threatened by the changing global environment and becoming rarer and rarer. Conservationists still must make the opportunities in wilderness available to all, but to not protect these areas still free from humanmade structures is to succumb to the same values that conservation must oppose, namely “spoliation” and “wanton destruction” (Yellowstone National Park Act, 1872).

[6] The separation of national opinion through the demographic breakdowns of the 2016 presidential election supports this claim. Tyson and Manam (2016) with the Pew Research Center show that in the vote for Clinton or Trump the gender gap was highest since 1972, the education gap highest since 1980, and that the age gap between parties remains distinct. However, income was one possible predicator whose power dissolved in the November polls with a fairly even split between the parties across income ranges.

[7] See Brockington, Duffy, & Igoe (2008) for a discussion of the pigeon paradox and other issues with modern conservation.


Works Cited

Borrie, B. (2007). Turning Wilderness Into Zoos? Retrieved from index.php/main/article/are_we_turning_wilderness_into_zoos/

Brockington, D., R. Duffy, & J. Igoe (2008). Nature Unbound: Conservation, Capitalism and the Future of Protected Areas. London: Earthscan.

Cronon, W. (1996). The trouble with wilderness: or, getting back to the wrong nature. Environmental History1(1), 7-28.

Denevan, W.M. (1992). The pristine myth: the landscape of the Americas in 1492. Annals of the Association of American Geographers82(3), 369-385.

Drury, W.H. (1998). Chance and Change: Ecology for Conservationists. J.G.T. Anderson (Ed.). Berkeley: University of California.

Harrington, C.R. (1996). American lion. Retrieved from 055913/

Hays, S. P. (1996). Comment: The Trouble with Bill Cronon’s Wilderness. Environmental History1(1), 29-32.

Leopold, A.S., S.A. Cain, C.M. Cottam, I.N. Gabrielson, & T.L. Kimball (1963). Wildlife Management in National Parks: The Leopold Report. Department of the Interior, National Park Service. Retrieved from leopold/leopold.htm

Runte, A. (1997). National Parks: The American Experience. Lincoln: University of Nebraska.

Sax, J. (1980). Mountains without Handrails. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan.

Turner, J. (1996). The Abstract Wild. Tucson: University of Arizona.

Tyson, A., & S. Maniam. (2016, November 9). Behind Trump’s victory: Divisions by race, gender, education. Retrieved from

Yellowstone National Park Act of 1872. Pub. L. No. 42-24, 17 Stat. 32 (1872). [Enacted as “An Act to set apart a certain Tract of Land lying near the Head-waters of the Yellowstone River as a public park.”]