Despite the title's suggestion, "Yellowstone Under Fire," the latest report from "Frontline" (at 9 tonight on Channels 28 and 15, 10 on Channel 50), is not about the wildfires that erupted in the national park last summer.
It is about the longer-term crisis in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (as it is known) caused by the exploitation of the fragile wilderness for oil and geothermal energy, minerals and timber harvesting.
Most profoundly, producers Jan Falstad and Greg Pratt depict a battle over fundamental values. On one side is the mind-set of former Interior Secretary James Watt and the appointees who have succeeded him in the Reagan and Bush administrations. Their practice of full-scale leasing of public lands to private development is based on a rock-ribbed belief in the primacy of private property and of American military strategic interests--the Yellowstone area, for instance, has the only U.S. deposits of platinum and palladium, minerals essential for weaponry.
The report does cite this, but the Cold War strategies behind what Watt himself calls the "assault" on Yellowstone are understressed. Rather, the values of preservation are emphasized and given eloquent voice by, among others, former National Park Service director George Hartzog, former U.S. Sen. Gaylord Nelson and Montana surveyor Jack Rate.
Curiously, in a report that's unusually fact-filled and sensitive to the champions of ecology, the enormous stresses put on the wilderness by tourism itself are ignored. Much of this stress has stemmed, as the report notes, from the National Forest Service policy of the "multiple-use" of forest for recreation and development. And with two-thirds of the Forest Service budget slated for the unprofitable leasing of land for timber clear-cutting, the fate of Yellowstone hangs precariously in the balance as the '90s begin.