NEW YORK — America's first national park, author Alston Chase charges, is under siege from the very organization assigned to protect it. Far from shepherding Yellowstone National Park into an environmentally secure future, writer/environmentalist/philosopher Chase contends, the National Park Service is aiding the systematic destruction not only of the vast Western wilderness lands that comprise the park, but especially of the wildlife within it.
"As a wildlife refuge," Chase writes in "Playing God in Yellowstone" (Atlantic Monthly Press, $24.95), "Yellowstone is dying. Indeed, the park's reputation as a great game sanctuary is perhaps the best-sustained myth in American conservation history and the story of its decline perhaps one of our government's best-kept secrets."
Chase balks at the conventional blame-it-on-the-corporations explanation for the steady ecological havoc he says is at work in Yellowstone. Rather, Chase turns vocal environmental iconoclast and blasts not only the National Park Service, but also the same environmental movement that has so often presented itself as the national park system's de facto collective watchdog.
Instead of distancing itself from the organization it has purported to monitor, "I think the environmental movement has gotten too close--too closely associated with--the Park Service," Chase said.
Not surprisingly, such suggestions are not embraced universally by those within the environmental movement.
"I think some of his criticisms are well thought-out," said Fred Krupp, executive director of the Environmental Defense Fund. "But some of his criticisms are just off base--for example, the notion that environmental groups are not already pressing for expanding the (Yellowstone) park ecosystem is just erroneous."
Nonetheless, Krupp said, "I welcome this contribution to the dialogue" about the parks and the environmental movement in general. "Neither the Park Service nor the environmental groups are immune to criticism," he said.
At the Park Service, the reaction to Chase's new book was resoundingly unenthusiastic. "We're less than enamored, to say the least," Yellowstone National Park superintendent Bob Barbee said from his park office.
Branding Chase "an outsider who claims to be an insider" with the park system, Barbee did allow as how "we think probably about 30% of what he has to say is absolutely accurate--and we have been saying it for about 30 years ourselves." Chase's plea for increased scientific research in and on the parks was nothing new to the Park Service, Barbee said, nor was Chase's advocacy of increased professionalized management within the parks.
However, Barbee said, "we think probably 30% falls in the category of misquotes, high-grading research to prove his point and downright distortion." The kindest thing Barbee can bring himself to say about Chase is that the author is a "gadfly." On the other hand, Chase probably would not dispute this assessment, since when the author drives around his Paradise Valley, Mont., neighborhood that very same word appears on his personalized license plate.
Park Service cynics scoff that Chase is capitalizing on old, unhappy and not necessarily accurate news. But at a luncheon here sponsored by the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research and attended by representatives of some of this country's major foundations and environmental groups, Chase insisted it was never his intention merely to lambaste Yellowstone's bureaucratic guardians.
On the contrary, when he signed the contract to do a book about Yellowstone nearly six years ago, "I thought it would be an upbeat book" on how this country's green revolution had affected American values. Up until then, Chase comfortably had shared a kind of common wisdom that Yellowstone "seemed to be a place that was in good hands."
To his amazement, when the former Macalester College philosophy professor began doing research on Yellowstone, "what I found was something entirely different. Rather than being what it seemed, Yellowstone, in fact, was in trouble." His book ballooned from a projected 90,000 words to about 200,000. In the end he said he cited nearly 2,000 references.
In Yellowstone, Chase said he discovered problems at virtually every level. Ecosystems management, a Park Service buzz term, was not ecological at all, he came to believe. "Resource management is still an underground activity in the Park Service," he said. Science often was secondary to politics: "Managers make their decisions not on the basis of scientific data, but on political expediency--then they call on the scientists to do some research to justify their decisions."