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The Inside Story-Yellowstone at 150


The Inside Story - Yellowstone

TRANSCRIPT:

The Inside Story” Yellowstone at 150

Episode 74 – January 12, 2023

NATASHA MOZGOVAYA, VOA Correspondent:

Yellowstone, America’s first National Park, is marking 150th anniversary - celebrating achievements, dealing with climate challenges, and fixing the historic narrative by bringing in Native American voices.

Yellowstone National Park covers nearly 9,000 square kilometers of the Western United States across Montana, Wyoming and Idaho in four mountain ranges driven by powerful magmatic forces underground.

There are over 10,000 geothermal features, including hot springs…

… gurgling mud pots…

…steam vents…

…and half of the world’s active geysers,

including the most famous – Old Faithful.

About twenty times a day these fountains of boiling water erupt, reaching as high as 50 meters. It’s the center of the park’s tourism – an American landmark that draws more than four million visitors a year.

Matt Wallenstein, visitor from Texas:

We literally just arrived and saw Old Faithful erupt, which was pretty nice welcome.

Nicole Quiterio, visitor from Texas:

And I think we've gone to a lot of national parks but what sets this apart I think is just the attraction of the geysers. So just yeah, kind of all there's one hanging out and waiting for it to erupt it's kind of nice. It's sort of - it's everyone together.

Cam Sholly, Yellowstone National Park Superintendent:

I don't think anybody ever gets tired of the view. I think Yellowstone is an incredible global icon. And 70% of the visitors that come here - first time visitors every year. And so, a lot of people are seeing this for the first time in their lives, but even for those that come back time and time again are for those of us who are lucky enough to live here and work here – it never gets old.

NATASHA MOZGOVAYA:

For the first-time visitors of Yellowstone, probably the most mind-boggling fact is to realize that they stand on top of a huge active volcano.

Rick Burk, visitor from Massachusetts:

I figure it only explodes like every 600,000 years - so we're probably not going to hit that one day - one week. So, yeah, I don't worry about it. But you think about - it's nice to think like, wow, we're in this crazy area, you know, that you normally wouldn't be in something like that.

NATASHA MOZGOVAYA:

The Park Service monitors volcanic activity along with the U.S. Geologic Survey and the Universities of Utah and Montana. Yellowstone Volcano Observatory Scientist-in-charge Michael Poland says there is little chance of a surprise eruption across a volcanic system of more than three-thousand square kilometers.

Michael Poland, Yellowstone Volcano Observatory:

If you can imagine - it's like a car that hasn't been started in a really long time. In order to get Yellowstone to a point where it can erupt in a really big way, explosive, then you'd have to melt a lot of that cooling magma chamber beneath the surface. And in order to do that you would see all kinds of input of heat. There would be changes in gas emissions, lots of seismicity, lots of changes in how the ground deforms in ways we've never seen before.

NATASHA MOZGOVAYA:

This is the rim of Yellowstone volcano caldera, it was likely formed 640,000 years ago during the previous eruption of the super volcano. Though not all geologists like this term.

Michael Poland, Yellowstone Volcano Observatory:

I'm not a fan of the term super volcano. This is something that was sort of made up and used in some documentaries and docudrama movies. I think it's misleading, because a lot of people will say: “Well if Yellowstone is a super volcano, it only has these huge explosions.” And that ignores the fact that we know from the geologic record that the most likely form of eruption from Yellowstone is a lava flow, not a big explosion.

NATASHA MOZGOVAYA:

Inside the park’s volcanic system, brightly colored organisms called thermophiles thrive in extreme conditions.

AJ Ferrara, Yellowstone Park Ranger:

We're looking at temperatures in the 90 to 70 degree Celsius range, far too hot for most life forms - even the well adapted, heat loving organisms that make these hot springs home - to survive. As we move closer to the edges, we near temperatures closer to the 60-degree range. And as we start seeing the transition from browns to greens, we're looking at temperatures in the much more-habitable 30-to-35-degree range.

NATASHA MOZGOVAYA:

For microbiologists, Yellowstone is an immense living lab.

AJ Ferrara, Yellowstone Park Ranger:

What we know about the human genome the genome of animals is reliant entirely on a chemical made by that little yellow streak in that runoff channel. As we look towards the future, Yellowstone's thermophile communities are helping us look at so many possibilities in the field of medicine in the bright blue springs of Yellowstone with temperatures too extreme for most lifeforms to survive. There are archaea and viruses so alien that our immune system can't quite recognize them as a threat.

NATASHA MOZGOVAYA:

Research on organisms thriving in hot acidic water may provide answers about how early organisms on Earth survived without oxygen.

AJ Ferrara, Yellowstone Park Ranger:

The earliest days of life on Earth, when the Earth was volcanic, when the oceans were still young, when they were still hot, we probably saw bacteria like these we see in Yellowstone today. In fact, the first life on Earth and the first source of oxygen for our atmosphere probably came from photosynthesizing bacteria living in scarce and scant runoff channels from hot springs on the ancient Earth.

NATASHA MOZGOVAYA:

Archeologists say humans have been hunting and gathering in Yellowstone for at least 11,000 years.

Velda Racehorse, Shoshone-Bannock Tribes:

This continent was set aside for our people. And if you really think about it, you know, from the North Pole to the South Pole on this continent there were nothing but Indian people. And we've been placed here, you know, by our maker. And Yellowstone is part of that.

NATASHA MOZGOVAYA:

Velda Racehorse is a member of the Shoshone Bannock Tribes that lived in the area until the U.S. military arrived to secure the park’s borders at the end of the 19th century. The army stayed in Yellowstone for more than 30 years, based in a compound at Mammoth Springs that now houses park service administration.

Alicia Murphy, Yellowstone National Park Historian:

We have a government-to-government relationship with 27 tribal entities. These all are tribes that have identified that they have a real connection to Yellowstone and for a variety of reasons and many reasons for every tribe this is a rich, rich heritage with tribal experiences in Yellowstone.

William Snell, Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council:

They'll battle outside of these boundaries. But this, for some reason, the Yellowstone Park seemed to be kind of a neutral area for everyone. I think it adds a lot of spiritual meaning to it. It was unique. It was held sacred. Of course, we hold all lands sacred, but this is kind of a unique, special place that was given to us by the Creator.

Velda Racehorse, Shoshone-Bannock Tribes:

Our people adapted to whatever happened to them, and that's why we're still here today, because we adapted and even though we were forcefully removed, we all adapted to what was happening and we moved further away from what was happening.

NATASHA MOZGOVAYA:

When Yellowstone was designated a National Park, Native American tribes were chased out, and the history of the park focused on the white people exploration. Now for the first time in 150 years, teepees were erected in the park - and the first people of the land are telling their own stories.

William Snell, Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council:

We actually have three mothers, our mothers our Mother Earth, our biological mother, and then the lodge, because the lodge protects us, keeps us warm, keeps us cool. It's a place where we abide, it’s family, that kind of thing. And so when we put it up the meaning of the lodge is pretty dynamic.

NATASHA MOZGOVAYA:

Anniversary celebrations include Native American cultural events and public gatherings with tribal leaders. Shoshone-Bannock elder Winona Tindore said coming to Yellowstone was a hard decision.

Winona Tindore, Shoshone-Bannock Tribes:

My grandma told me not to come here, and she told me not to be speaking about these things because it's a bad memory for her when she got herded from her homeland. I mean, it’s very emotional, you know, because this was her homeland, and she was told to leave and never come back. And she never did come back.

NATASHA MOZGOVAYA:

Blackfeet attorney and artist Evan Thompson is documenting his fight in courts for restoring the traditional tribes' hunting rights using a technique developed by Native American artists in the mid-19th century.

Evan Thompson, Lawyer and Artist:

“Ledger art is what I call a semi-traditional form of Plains Indian art. Historically, men would leave a war record by painting it on tepees or on war shirts. And so, with the introduction of reservations and the disappearance of the buffalo, hide becomes very scarce. And so, people would go to the forts and other places to get papers to leave this record, their personal historical record for their families.”

So that tells the story of reasserting our hunting rights here in Yellowstone National Park, the lead figure is modeled after myself, I guess, to holding up our 1855 treaty with the United States government and then the four singers behind there supporting that event. And then on the bottom of the piece are some pictographic figures holding rifles and they represent the Blackfeet people that came in after we reasserted that right and their hunting the buffalo in the image.

NATASHA MOZGOVAYA:

Northern Arapaho and Northern Paiute artist Patti Baldes brought to life bison sculpted from willow branches with pairs of dancers from different tribes – she called the performance ‘Rematriate.’

Patti Baldes, Artist:


The ladies I have with me are all moms and in some way we're all connected to each other. Daughters - not all of us are moms, but I feel it inside we each have that in us. Beginning like with land, and most of this is the rematriate - to bring land back to its natural state of this harmony and healing. … It’s just having the women in my lives - from my son's girlfriend to my cousins and my nieces, my granddaughter, and my daughter as well. And the drummers there's my husband and my dad and the people I pray with at home and our ceremonies. And my little brother. It’s just everyone that I am truly connected to.

For a lot of years, I didn't know how to feel because it's kind of either the tourist or the museum, where I can't touch anything. And it's really important that my peers, the people that are from this land, walk on it with confidence and take up the space that they should in a way that that they're proud of.

NATASHA MOZGOVAYA:

Yellowstone celebrations included the debut performance of Muscogee Soprano Kirsten Kunkle’s "Reclaim The Land".

Kirsten Kunkle, Soprano:


It's about the struggles of Native American people and trying to get over them and move forward. It's about Yellowstone specifically, the beauty of the land and how we have as people once inhabited these lands. And now we are at the point we want to be recognized and share this land with all the beauty of nature that surrounds it. And I was hoping with this piece that I would connect with people - that it would be something that people would want to sing, that people would want to hear.

Obviously, people aren’t going to inhabit Yellowstone again. It is a National Park, but we want the cultures known, we want people to acknowledge the tribes that were once inhabiting this land and throughout the entirety of America. That you know, we're not just reservations we're not just casinos we're not just powwows, we have deep cultural heritages, and we have many things that are vitally important to us.

NATASHA MOZGOVAYA:

Park Superintendent Sholly says no one can tell that story as well as the people whose ancestors lived it.

Cam Sholly, Yellowstone National Park Superintendent:

They were on this landscape long before Yellowstone was a National Park. And we've done a significant amount of engagement, especially in the year leading into the 150th, with all of the tribes to have them help us do a better job. You know, the Park Service has a duty to tell America's history, the good and the bad.


And importantly I think we want to look at the 150th not as a one-time thing - let's do these things together just in this year - but a reset point, a starting point to do more and more in the future with these tribal nations.

William Snell, Rocky Mountain Tribal Leaders Council:

The hope is that the tribe's involvement would be a little bit stronger, that they'll listen to our people. We're all about nature, we're all about balancing. We're all about honoring. And that's honoring not just us as people but also the animals and the Earth. It's give and take. It's if you take something from the Earth put something back, do it in prayer and supplication, you know, that's how important that is. And I think one hundred and fifty years from now I hope that it stays in balance, that it's maintained, and we as Indian people want to be able to help do that.

NATASHA MOZGOVAYA:

Preserving the park for future generations is a centerpiece of cooperation between the Park Service and Native Americans in Yellowstone, where there were too few rangers at its start to protect geothermal features.

Alicia Murphy, Yellowstone National Park Historian:

People would wade in the hot springs. People would, you know, at the West Thumb geyser basin over on the lake - it was really popular to catch a fish and stand on the cone of the geyser and cook it on the line in the hot spring.

You know, periodically we clean out some of our thermal features like our hot springs and, you know, there will be tires in there. I mean, weird things.

Now we have a system of boardwalks that protect people as well as protecting the resource so that people don't accidentally fall in, and also don't leave their footprints all over this landscape that takes, you know, thousands of years to develop. Once something is broken at a hot spring or a geyser, you know, that's fragile, fragile material, and those footprints will be there forever in some cases.

NATASHA MOZGOVAYA:

With boiling pools of acid and wolves and grizzly bears roaming free, Yellowstone is no amusement park.

Cam Sholly, Yellowstone National Park Superintendent:

It’s a team effort here for us to manage the interface between visitors and wildlife and that's something that we've got a responsibility for, but it's also something that visitors have an individual responsibility to understand what this place is, how wild these animals are.

NATASHA MOZGOVAYA:

Wildlife conservation improved with more rangers and an end to most poaching. Animal populations fluctuated naturally within Yellowstone until a change in government policy in the 1920’s eliminated nearly all the park’s predators.

Cam Sholly, Yellowstone National Park Superintendent:

So we killed every wolf, reduced the number of grizzly substantially, killed all the mountain lions. And, you know, 50 years ago we were feeding grizzly bears out of garbage dumps so visitors could see them. So, we've slowly put the pieces back together of this ecosystem.

NATASHA MOZGOVAYA:

Bison have lived in Yellowstone since after the Ice Age. At the beginning of 20th Century, due to overhunting, there were about two dozen left in the wilderness in Yellowstone. Now there are over 6,000 of them here, and occasionally they create bison traffic jams.

Cam Sholly, Yellowstone National Park Superintendent:


Yellowstone - it's a bucket list trip for people. And it's not the public's fault that the Park Service 30 or 40 or 50 years ago didn't build shoulders on the roads. And so, when you see pictures of traffic jams and you see people, 70 percent of which are here for the first time, seeing their first bison in the wild or seeing a grizzly - that's why they came. And when they do, guess what’s going to happen – they're going to stop their car and they're going to get out and they're enjoying that moment. That's why they came here.

NATASHA MOZGOVAYA:

There are also smaller marvels at Yellowstone, with hundreds of types of wildflowers supporting insect life in an ecosystem that combines species from both the Rocky Mountains in the west and the Great Plains to the east.

Cam Sholly, Yellowstone National Park Superintendent:

Health wise, the ecosystem is in better condition now than it ever has been since Yellowstone became a park. But that doesn't mean that we can sit back and enjoy success. There's a lot of challenges and threats - climate change, other threats to this ecosystem that we need to be cognizant of and pay attention to moving forward.

NATASHA MOZGOVAYA:

Unprecedented flooding in June tore through parts of Yellowstone, washing away roads and causing rockslides and mudslides.

Sarah Ondrus, Paradise Adventure Company Owner:

I've never experienced something like this. The rain was falling; it felt like forever. It just kept coming and coming and coming, which then was melting our snow melt. So together it just made this huge flume of water overnight.

Cam Sholly, Yellowstone National Park Superintendent:

Yellowstone historically has not had a lot of floods. And there was not really any warning that this flood was coming. // But I think the team here couldn’t have handled it better. I mean, the fact that without power for 40 hours, evacuating the park, 10,000 visitors within about 30 hours; doing the damage assessments, getting temporary repairs done all across the park.

NATASHA MOZGOVAYA:

The park’s North entrance reopened once upgrades were completed on the Old Gardiner Road as a higher-ground alternate route to the washed-out riverside road. Outside the park entrance, piping is all that is left of a house swept down the Yellowstone River from the small Montana town of Gardiner.

For local businesses here, the prolonged closure means lost income. This season, Sarah Ondrus' new hand-painted teepees stood mostly empty. Her other business, a rafting company, is down from 20 to 30 boats a day to about five.

Sarah Ondrus, Paradise Adventure Company Owner:

Unfortunately, with what has happened with the flood, we've pretty much lost all our business, and I lost about three employees from here just because we didn't have enough work for them.

NATASHA MOZGOVAYA:

Frank LaMotta and his girlfriend Ariel Rodriguez moved to the area about two years ago to work at a local hotel. The flood, along with the COVID-19 pandemic, added to their challenges, but they have no plans to leave.

Frank LaMotta, Wonderland Cafe & Lodge Manager:

This is a very special community. And if it wasn't, a lot more people would have left by now. But we all put our heads together and, you know, and make it work. So, our community is stronger, but our economy is struggling.

NATASHA MOZGOVAYA:

Some tourists were determined to come to Gardiner despite the logistical inconvenience. Mary Haag and Jim Zweighaft married in Yellowstone 32 years ago.

Mary Haag, Visitor:

We were devastated when we saw the videos and knew that the park would be impacted so highly with all the millions of people that come here in the summer, including our own plans in the park. But if we can get in by our bicycles and support the town of Gardiner by being here and having, you know, dinner or something, we think that's a good thing to do.

NATASHA MOZGOVAYA:

Central to the park’s infrastructure is the historic Old Faithful Inn. The largest log construction in the world looks today pretty much the same as it did when it was built in 1904. The massive fireplace, made from 500 tons of local rhyolite – rock, produced by volcanic eruptions; its towering iron and brass clock; and violin music filling the main hall. In the park’s early years, only the wealthiest visitors could afford to come to the Old Faithful Inn or the Yellowstone Lake Hotel, traveling first by train and then by stagecoach. When automobiles were allowed in 1915, attendance soared, making it one of the most visited national sites in the United States.

NATASHA MOZGOVAYA:

Among the Inn’s unusual traditions is Christmas in August.

Alicia Murphy, Yellowstone National Park Historian:

There's no true record of how Yellowstone started celebrating August 25th as Christmas. There's some people suggest that visitors were snowed-in over August 25th and they needed something to do and so they decided to have a Christmas party. It can snow any month of the year here in Yellowstone.

NATASHA MOZGOVAYA:

It’s the scale of Yellowstone’s natural beauty that helped convince U.S. lawmakers to fund the park 150 years ago. But they hadn’t seen it in person. They were persuaded by accounts of early expeditions and by the images of photographer William Henry Jackson and painter Thomas Moran. This scenery is still seen in the park. But what about in another 150 years?

Michael Poland, Yellowstone Volcano Observatory:

One hundred and fifty years from now, Yellowstone - I think it will be different. I think perhaps the way the park is managed will be different. Certainly, we can see over time the way the park has been managed has changed. For example, in the way the park responds to wildfires - the way climate is changing will certainly also have an impact. That's one thing I really wonder about. We know from looking at the past record of say Old Faithful that during prolonged periods of drought, some geysers don't erupt that much. Can you imagine that Old Faithful, iconic Yellowstone feature goes quiet?


Cam Sholly, Yellowstone National Park Superintendent:


We have a long way to go in relationship to a thorough understanding of how climate change impacts different species. Can those species adapt or not? What types of actions can we take if we need to assist in adaptation? Which critical resources are most vulnerable in future events? How do we protect those?

NATASHA MOZGOVAYA:

Central to its future, says Sholly, is responding more proactively to the impacts of climate change across the Yellowstone ecosystems.

Natasha Mozgovaya, VOA News, Yellowstone National Park.

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