YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. — As colder weather snuffs out the last smoldering hot spots from Yellowstone's record fires, the fight is now shifting to a new and perhaps even more challenging ground: repairing the singed public image of the world's premier national park.
With a fortune in tourism dollars at stake in three states, efforts to promote the "New Yellowstone" are both costly and creative.
Whirlwind European Tour
At the forefront is a traveling show starring the park's beleaguered superintendent. In his ranger uniform, Bob Barbee is making a personal appeal to the European media and travel industry on a whirlwind visit to England, France and West Germany this week, taking along fire videos, maps and other officials to back up the premise that everyone is banking on:
Yellowstone is alive and well.
Over and over, the park's good-will ambassadors use the same careful word to describe what Yellowstone looks like after its worst fire season in 300 to 400 years:
To those flying over the park, the mosaic pattern of the fierce fires is evident in the checkerboard of black, brown and green. Singed ridge tops overlook pristine valleys. Black moonscapes brush up against dense pine forests.
"It's neat," said Len Carlman, public lands specialist with the Jackson Hole (Wyo.) Alliance conservation group. "The vegetation, frankly, up to now had been boring. Nobody is going to Yellowstone to look at trees. It's not like the California redwoods."
Carlman got a bird's-eye view of the park during a recent flight with Project Lighthawk, a nonprofit environmental air patrol based in Santa Fe, N. M.
"I was worried," Lighthawk pilot Bruce Gordon said. "This is my favorite spot on the whole planet. From what I'd read, I thought it was going to be devastated."
That misperception--that Yellowstone was destroyed--is exactly what officials hope to counter with a massive campaign to educate and reassure park visitors. They plan to use special museum displays, nature trails through burn areas, films, wayside exhibits and other fire-related programs. There is even talk of a post-fire Yellowstone calendar.
"We're trying to reach out and get beyond the basic Bambi story," said park spokesman Joan Anzelmo, whose public relations office fielded up to 250 media calls a day--some from as far away as Japan--during the worst of the summer firestorm.
Telephone surveys and visitor questionnaires will assess public perceptions of the "New Yellowstone" to help the park and state tourism officials focus their promotional campaigns.
Deadwood Hauled Away
The 2.2-million acre park, which is over 98% wilderness, is getting some post-trauma cosmetic surgery as burnt trees and deadwood are hauled away from many roadsides, picnic grounds and campsites.
Overall, the rehabilitation of the greater Yellowstone ecosystem--including conducting the current marketing campaign--is expected to cost at least $25 million. The National Park Service is budgeting an estimated $2 million to $4 million, Anzelmo said. Officials from Yellowstone and neighboring Grand Teton National Park are also asking Congress for $23 million.
The governors of Montana and Wyoming together asked for an additional $3 million in federal aid, and more millions to promote Yellowstone are being earmarked by state and private groups.
Montana and Wyoming depend on the park for a sizable share of their tourist revenues. Idaho is taking a more opportunistic approach, assuring potential visitors that Yellowstone survives but noting that Idaho has similar, unburnt attractions.
Not everyone is happy about the situation.
$50-Million Cost Seen
Bill Schilling, director of the Wyoming Heritage Society, a nonprofit state chamber of commerce, complains that the "New Yellowstone" scramble could end up costing $50 million.
"The federal agencies and the coordinating officials are now busy putting together plans, hiring people to analyze, forming committees to figure out ways to present the 'New Yellowstone' look," he said, adding that they "have in effect created a whole new layer of government with programs in response to a natural disaster that could have been controlled at a much earlier stage."
Schilling, a critic of the Park Service's controversial policy of letting some wildfires burn naturally, said that the "government is great when it comes to intervening afterwards."
In addition to governmental funds, Yellowstone is collecting big checks from corporations and coins from school children; and people are sending everything from pine cones to chain saws to help restore the park they loved and almost lost. Kindergartners in Vail, Colo., sent $101.31 from a bake sale. The Royal Order of the Moose pledged $1 million.
Little 'Severe Burn' Found