Excerpt from an essay by George Robinson


Aubrey Haines - 1914 - 2000

In 1972, at age 100, Yellowstone National Park became America’s first United Nations World Biosphere Reserve, in recognition of its great geological and biological significance and its importance as a major world ecosystem. There are now 209 biosphere reserves in 55 countries, each, like Yellowstone, helping to maintain genetic diversity in an increasingly uniform world. Six years later, Yellowstone was designated a World Heritage Site, putting it in the august company of places like Tanzania’s Serengeti Plain, the Katmandu Valley in Nepal, the pyramids of Egypt, Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, Ecuador’s Galapagos Islands, and historic Rome. There are world heritage sites in more than 53 countries, representing places whose loss or desecration would be felt by people around the world.

Yellowstone was the model for parks and equivalent preserves in 134 countries, and the precursor to the system of more than 3,600 parks, world biosphere reserves, and world heritage sites eventually set up to preserve elements of our international human heritage on this fragile planet. Like water, the national park concept touches all parts of the world and its people. Each year nearly 3 million visitors from many different nations flow into Yellowstone. Of course, they visit other places, other national parks, but coming to Yellowstone has special significance, because it is where it all began. When I see hundreds of people gathered about Old Faithful, day after day, I am reminded of pilgrims paying homage at a religious shrine.

Benjamin Franklin once said that we only begin to value water when the well runs dry. During my career in the National Park Service, which included 10 years in Yellowstone, I had ample time to develop my own sense of values, a feeling of my place in nature’s scheme of things; to nurture an understanding of the importance of wild places; to learn a good deal about the machinery of nature. But I didn’t really understand how much other people value Yellowstone—its importance in their lives—until the great fires of 1988, when people all over the world believed that the park was in jeopardy. 

I spoke with hundreds of concerned people from many countries, some offering advice on how to put out the fires, others saying that they would close their businesses and enlist in the firefighting effort, still others volunteering to send money or equipment. Many folks just wanted to be reassured that the park was in no real danger. Still, in spite of my assurances that fire was creating habitat rather than destroying it; that it was a naturally recurring event that cleansed and invigorated the forest every 300 years or so; that animals were not dying by the thousands, I failed to dispel the fears of many people.

Many differing cultures emerged, intermixed, and sometimes clashed, but all shared a common concern for the welfare of Yellowstone. Among people converging on the park during that long, hot summer were: hot-shot crews from several American Indian tribes, prisoners on work-release programs, Hispanic American crews, marines, infantrymen, and naval corpsmen. In addition, there were volunteer firefighters from communities in every state—many of them driving their trucks nonstop for several days; fire managers from the National Park Service, the U. S. Forest Service, and the Bureau of Land Management; and Canadians helping coordinate air operations. Scientists from NASA were there, too, flying over the park in high-altitude planes, mapping the progress of fires. 

Altogether, more than 10,000 firefighters joined in the struggle to contain fires that began as small isolated blazes, then merged into large fires that became giants. The epic fires also brought to Yellowstone the president of the United States and members of his cabinet, a presidential candidate, and the director of the National Park Service. Hundreds of journalists—including representatives of all major television networks—rallied at the park, transforming the parade ground of historic Fort Yellowstone into a city of satellite dishes and laptop computers. And, all the while, thousands of visitors kept coming, anxious to satisfy themselves that this great American icon was not burning to death. In the following year, record numbers of people visited the Park, to see for themselves that it had been only superficially altered; that Old Faithful was still working; that bison, elk, and bears were still alive and well. To paraphrase a line from the film Field of Dreams, it was if someone had said Burn it, and they will come.

The great fires of 1988 brought out complex human reactions. There were intellectual, emotional, cultural, social, political, journalistic, and perhaps even religious dimensions to the experience which will intrigue and perplex social historians for years. All will agree, however, that the complexity of the human response was a measure of how much we treasure our first national park, of how Yellowstone is connected to the world. Continue to the next page, Exploring Yellowstone.

Back to Main History Page.