Yellowstone's Geological and Financial Caldera

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Yellowstone's Geological and Financial Caldera

By: John A. Baden, Ph.D.
Posted on August 13, 2014 FREE Insights Topics:

FREE is preparing for our August 25-29 seminar.  We designed it for Article III federal judges and their clerks. This program will feature a field trip to Yellowstone Park. We will have presentations from the current Park Superintendent, a retired superintendent of Yellowstone, and natural scientists specializing in wildlands ecology.

Ramona and I have been committed to preserving and protecting Yellowstone's many treasures and potentials for decades. There are many growing threats to Yellowstone’s integrity. Some are natural geological features, for example, volcanic eruptions and climate change, which are largely immune to local intentions and actions. In principle ecological, economic, political, and social issues are more manageable than these geological and environmental threats.

Yellowstone Park's inherent attraction and growing global wealth create population pressures that threaten the Park's ecological integrity, loving it to death by congestion and intrusion. Its growing visitation rate implies a doubling of tourists in just over a decade.

This is not a new problem.  Resource managers anticipated this problem decades ago and have considered options for dealing with them. For example, nearly forty years ago the US Forest Service commissioned me to prepare a study on how to ration crowded wilderness lands.  ("Rationing Wilderness Use", USFS Res. Pub. INT-192. co-authored with G. H. Stankey )

 Political opportunism, fads, and favoritism are constant threats to sound, science based management. They provide varying dangers to the Park's mission. This implies a necessity to insulate Park stewards from both gravitational and transitory pressures. This is a problem FREE and others have published in the academic and think tank literature for decades. We are way up the learning curve on thinking about maintaining consistent and responsive stewardship.

A University of Montana coordinator who works from the Yellowstone Club recently contacted me with a question: Would I help evaluate the capabilities of various non-profits working in Greater Yellowstone to deal with problems and opportunities in the area. His interest lies in directing contributions to where they would be most beneficial.

This request led me to revisit a huge missed opportunity: Why doesn't MSU identify itself as "The University of the Yellowstone"? Prof. Jerry Johnson and I advocated for this when I sat on MSU's President's Advisory Council and Jerry was the head of the Political Science Department.

We heard no serious objections, but inertia ruled. This was unfortunate: MSU is ideally located and has scores of researchers working on and in Yellowstone National Park. Further, it is minutes from Bozeman Yellowstone International Airport, the major airport serving the Yellowstone region.

Further, Ramona and I frequently go to this airport. It boasts large signs welcoming nearly 1,000,000 yearly passengers to the Yellowstone area and another telling them about MSU's attractions. I think it would be advantageous to edit the later sign to include "The University of the Yellowstone." (President Waded, please just do it! We believe this would be easy and generate rewards for MSU.)

Last weekend Ramona and I returned to West Yellowstone, Montana, the Park's major gateway town. We spent much of the day touring the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center, one of several non-profits focused on Yellowstone.

The Park is geologically, ecologically, and economically interesting, and one of the world's great caldera. Judges and clerks will soon join us in exploring it. Here is an overview.

 A caldera is a cauldron-like basin formed by the collapse of land following a volcanic eruption. Yellowstone has experienced three super eruptions, 2.1 million, 1.3 million, and 640,000 years ago. The Yellowstone Caldera, occupies nearly one-third of the land area in the Park. It was formed 640,000 years ago. 

The last full-scale eruption of the Yellowstone Super volcano ejected approximately 240 cubic miles of rock, dust and volcanic ash! Due to climate change, this was a world changing event. According to USGS, "Within the next few decades, large and moderate earthquakes and hydrothermal explosions are certain to occur. Volcanic eruptions are less likely, but are ultimately inevitable in this active volcanic region. (Yellowstone Volcano Observatory, Protocols for Geologic Hazards Response.

Changes are coming, some of which we can manage, others that we cannot. Geology is in the second category, but political economy is in the first.

One cannot prove anything by analogy, but analogies sometimes help me think through a problem. This may be one: Consider a financial caldera effecting Yellowstone.

At some point America will experience another major financial collapse.  The question is when. When it occurs, what effects will it have on Yellowstone and our other "romance" lands? Under current arrangements they certainly won't be good ones.

Nearly all mature, educated American recognize and correctly identify Yellowstone Park: They know what it is.  The vast majority also approve of national parks, especially Yellowstone. Still, if times get really tough there will be strong, politically irresistible pressures to short change and exploit Yellowstone and similar lands.

There have been recurrent calls and suggestions to sell Yellowstone. This happened during the Sagebrush Rebellion of the late 1970s and more recently during the fiscal crisis.

Facing the "fiscal cliff," perhaps the president and Congress should start thinking in terms of the "foreclosure crisis." All lenders, whether a local home-loan bank or the Chinese government, expect to be repaid either from the borrower's income or, if that is insufficient, from the sale of assets. Where does that leave the U.S. government?.... Then there are the crown jewels: national parks. Disney might pay many billions for the 2.2 million acres of Yellowstone. Throw in Yosemite, the Grand Canyon and the Everglades, and we might be talking another trillion. (Anderson, T., Johnsen, D.Bruce. Sell Yosemite, Hold a Smithsonian Yard Sale, Wall Street Journal. Dec 27, 2012)

 This might be construed as playful lobbing of libertarian grenades, but nationally respected economists in America’s best-selling newspaper, not in fugitive, obscure literature, threw these grenades.  Their article is a harbinger of proposals likely to arise when times get tough.

Selling the Park is a terrible idea, one that provides cover and inspiration for political opportunism and mischief. I suggest that responsible individuals who care about the Park's integrity and mission think carefully about how to protect it prior to a financial caldera. How might we best insulate Park stewards from transitory but strong pressures?

Public fiduciary trusts have long been my recommendation for managing and protecting American lands of romance.



The University of Montana coordinator who works from the Yellowstone Club mentioned the organizations noted below. His request prompted this FREE Insight. The material that follows is an overview of some of the organizations working in cooperation with YNP. All of the information is from their websites. None of them have yet announced an interest in fostering the fiduciary trust ideal as an alternative to governmental/political management.

Although it may be an excellent model for Greater Yellowstone, I have not included the American Prairie Reserve. Its work is hundreds of miles north east of Yellowstone in an only remotely connected ecosystem.

Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center, est. 1993

“In 1995, the GDC was sold to New York based Ogden Entertainment. A wolf exhibit and ten captive-born wolves were added to the center in 1996.[1]

In 1999, Ogden Entertainment decided to close the center if a buyer couild not be found. Three long-term managers of the center formed a non-profit 501(c)(3) corporation and made a $1.7 million offer to include the center and undeveloped land north and south of the center. The offer was accepted, and was financed by a 30-year financing package guaranteed by a United States Department of Agriculture program for rural development.[1]

The center then made agreements with Yellowstone National Park to host some of the park's programs and to test bear resistant containers for the United States Forest Service. In 2001 it received accreditation from the AZA.[1]

 The Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center's primary mission is to provide visitors to the Yellowstone area an opportunity to observe, understand and appreciate grizzly bears and gray wolves.

The bears at the Grizzly & Wolf Discovery Center had to be removed from the wild because they were becoming dangerously comfortable around humans. Their stories help share a valuable lesson of how people can take the proper steps to ensure bears stay forever wild. The wolves at the Center are ambassadors, providing a greater understanding of this predator in the Yellowstone ecosystem.” (

 YPF, est. 1996


"The Yellowstone Park Foundation works closely with the National Park Service to identify Yellowstone's immediate needs and long-term funding challenges. To help accomplish this mission, YPF funds projects under six distinct initiatives. By investing in the following Strategic Initiatives, and if we take the same visionary action that created the Yellowstone we love today, your support can preserve an extraordinary Yellowstone that lasts forever.”  (

 Yellowstone Association, est. 1933

“When you become a member or renew your membership, you join nearly 35,000 Yellowstone enthusiasts who are committed to preserving the world’s first national park. Eighty-three cents of every dollar we spend goes directly to education and research in Yellowstone.

12 educational stores with gross sales of $4 million, the YA Institute which offers more than 600 in-depth courses each year, and a membership program with 37,000 members. Revenues from sales and memberships allow us to make an annual cash donation to the National Park Service for education and research at Yellowstone. Last year, we provided more than $4 million of cash and in-kind assistance for Yellowstone, including a cash donation of $874,540 to support education and research in the park. Eighty-three cents of every dollar we spend goes directly to our educational mission. YA is headquartered in Gardiner, Montana, directly across from the historic Roosevelt Arch, which marks the northern entrance to Yellowstone.”  (

 GYC, est. 1983

"The Greater Yellowstone Coalition (GYC) was founded in 1983 and has pioneered the ecosystem concept ever since. Our simple premise: An ecosystem will remain healthy and intact only if the parts are managed and allowed to function as a whole.

Thirty years later, GYC is nationally renowned asAmerica's Voice For A Greater Yellowstone — the only organization dedicated solely to protecting the lands, waters and wildlife of the 20-million-acre Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Today, GYC has nearly 40,000Voices For A Greater Yellowstone worldwide who care passionately about Yellowstone National Park — the world's first — and the surrounding wild lands that comprise one of the world's 12 remaining intact ecosystems.”  (


"Cycle Greater Yellowstone 2014, is a fully supported bicycle tour, covering 6 towns, 7 nights, 450 miles, 5 mountain passes and 20,000 feet of elevation gain. The scenery is drop-dead gorgeous and the ride finishes inside Grand Teton National Park.

The first Cycle Greater Yellowstone was an absolute blast, and our nearly 700 riders are out telling people stories about it. They’ve seen the kind of event we’re putting on: top-notch vendors and service, a ton of amenities, and breathtaking scenery to ride though. That’s why 96 percent of them rated CGY 2013 a positive experience – and 96 percent would also recommend it to a friend.”  (

 Sonoran Institute, Northern Rockies Program, est. 1990

"The Sonoran Institute inspires and enables community decisions and public policy that respects the land and the people of the West.

The Sonoran Institute’s Northern Rockies Program represents an enduring commitment to the rich resources of the Northern Rockies – its land, people, and communities. Based in Bozeman, Montana, our work is based upon the idea that communities make better decisions about their future when they have accurate, compelling information and meaningfully engage their citizens. We work with community partners to shape a better future for the region – one of healthy, lively communities with resilient and strong economies surrounded by working farms and ranches and fish and wildlife habitat.”  (


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