Geyser erupting with steam (Domenico Salvagnin/Flickr)
Castle Geyser is one thermal feature that helped Yellowstone earn its national park status in 1872. (Domenico Salvagnin/Flickr)

Singled out for its unique thermal landscape, Yellowstone became the world’s first national park in 1872. Since then, the U.S. government’s approach to public land management has evolved, influenced by science and public opinion. National Park Service officials Patrick Gregerson and John Dennis offer lessons learned to others interested in public land management.

Identify unique attributes

What are the scenes, sounds, smells and stories that separate this land from other tracts? For Yellowstone, it is the park’s position on one of the world’s largest calderas and its possession of two-thirds of the world’s geysers.

Consider cultural value

“I’ve really become sensitive to the park’s cultural resources, and to seeing that they are of equal value to the natural resources,” said Dennis, who began as a plant biologist. Although valued for its natural resources, Yellowstone holds spiritual value among Native American tribes and witnessed storied westward expansion by early settlers.

Wolf peering from behind branches (Jeremy Weber/Flickr)
Thousands of tourists come annually to see Yellowstone’s wolves, grizzly bears and bison. (Jeremy Weber/Flickr)

Make a plan

“Planning provides a logical, trackable rationale for decisionmaking,” Gregerson said. A good plan answers questions like these: What is this park’s purpose? What makes it significant? What are its fundamental resources and values?

Involve everyone

“All citizens have a role in planning,” Gregerson said. The park service asks for input from state, local and tribal governments, nonprofit organizations and private industry whenever it is considering any action that might have an environmental impact. It records all discussions publicly and allows the public to comment throughout the process.

Keep an open mind

The U.S. Forest Service, for example, wanted to use a herbicide in Pacific Northwest forests to encourage conifer growth. Concerned about toxicity, a coalition of planters, scientists and residents worked with the agency to develop a nonherbicide plan for tree growth. That’s typical. Gregerson said agencies tweak most plans before implementing.

Look for mitigating measures

Agencies request a “mitigating measure” when environmental harm is done or public access lost. If the Bureau of Land Management extracts minerals, the park service could ask its sister agency (both are under the U.S.  Department of the Interior) to offset the harm done by buying adjacent, equivalent — down to the number of trees — land.

Seek tourism and preservation

Managing parks so people can enjoy them is a park service mandate. “Many people have argued there is conflict between preservation and enjoyment,” Dennis said. “I’ve come to realize that it’s not a conflict — both are absolutely necessary to meet the purpose of the parks.”