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On Yellowstone's 150th anniversary, documentarian looks at the happenstance of history

Larry D. Moore
Wikimedia Commons
Dayton Duncan has been making documentary films with Ken Burns for 30 years and is the author of numerous award-winning books of history.

This week in Bozeman, librarians, historians, scientists and the public gathered to share ideas for how to preserve the history of Yellowstone National Park. This year is the park's 150th anniversary. Dayton Duncan, an award winning author and a collaborator on Ken Burns documentaries for over 30 years, gave the keynote address at the Conversations on Collecting Yellowstone Conference. Wyoming Public Radio's Melodie Edwards sat down with Duncan and asked him about the title of his talk, "Happenstance and History."

Dayton Duncan: If you look back at history, you think that it was supposed to be this way. It was always going to be this way, it was preordained, or it was inevitable. Nothing in history is inevitable, I believe. And at 150 years old, I think it's important to remember that Yellowstone is one of the great best ideas America ever had to quote Wallace Stegner on the National Park idea. When it was created as a national park in 1872, no one there said, 'Oh, we're changing the arc of history here. We're doing something no one had ever thought of doing,' even though that was true. That was not the motivation and the foresight that they had.

Melodie Edwards: The first superintendent ended up misleading people about the idea that Indigenous people hadn't used the park before, as a way to make sure that tourists felt safe to go there. So I wonder if you can talk a little bit about the truth about the role of Indigenous people in Yellowstone?

DD: Well, I mean, the Mountain Shoshone lived there for time immemorial, and dozens of other Native tribes who would travel through to gather obsidian for their arrowheads, to hunt, to fish, to take advantage of the hot springs for variety reasons, the health or for religious rights. They all knew about the place. So in the film that Ken and I made about the National Parks, we tried to make that point, that the "discovery" of the National Parks was new to some people, but it wasn't new to the people who called the place home. There were all these myths for sometimes self serving reasons. People propagated that Indians, of course, were superstitious, and so these geysers and the other things would probably scare them, or they thought that they were evil spirits or whatever, all of its balderdash.

So it's a troubled history, both in terms of overlooking the deeper history that Native people have had with this very special place, and it was sometimes used against them. On the better side of that is that starting, I think, around the mid-1990s, the Park Service began making steady and now accelerated efforts to involve Native people with both the management of the park but also just to make sure that their story and their relationship to it are not forgotten.

ME: Yeah, that was going to be my next question, just how that rocky beginning set the park on a certain trajectory in terms of its mission and how maybe that mission has kind of zig zagged along the course of history?

DD: The future of wildlife was really hardly discussed at all. And it was with a changing mission evolving with the National Park Service, partly due to a young biologist named George Melendez Wright and other people who said, "Well, this is not the Park Service's mission, just to cater to tourists. Giving them a show of bears eating at garbage dumps is really not what we're supposed to be doing." And over time, they realize that predators shouldn't be shot. And over time, Yellowstone became the place where the bison teetering on the brink of extinction were saved. That wasn't why it was set aside. It just was a happenstance. And luckily for us that occurred. The trumpeter swan was on the verge of extinction. And George Melendez Wright did studies of them in Yellowstone in the surrounding area. The result of that were efforts that were made to give them sanctuary and preserve that magnificent bird from also going extinct.

So history not only is it not inevitable, it doesn't travel in a straight line, it evolves. It's more biological than it is mathematical. It also means that we can't take it for granted that everything's going to be fine. It takes the efforts of people who champion the park idea and what we think are the better principles of it. And it's a constant battle. I mean, who are we as Americans? Are we the kind of people and nation that could take a magnificent species like the bison that once existed in uncountable numbers and drive them to the brink of extinction? Oh, yes, we are - for a buck. Yeah, that's us. Or could we lay waste to the magnificent continent in our hurry to get to the Pacific Ocean? Yeah, that's us. But are we also people who could, in certain instances, at least say, 'No, we're not doing that here' or 'No, we're not doing that anymore.''

ME: To just build on that, there are arguments being made to actually privatize or put into local control our public lands. And so it does seem like there might be a need for a recommitment to this idea of national parks and public lands.

DD: I guess my point is, there is always a need for a recommitment. Because you can never take it for granted, just as we cannot take democracy for granted. That it's always, this experiment - an experiment in democracy. I just wrote and made a Ken Burns film on Benjamin Franklin. He understood this perfectly. Nothing's necessarily going to work out. It relies on the people and their leaders - but principally the people demanding of their leaders - to make it all work well. And that's true of democracy. And that's true of our public lands.

ME: Can you tell me the story about your relationship to National Parks and Yellowstone in particular?

DD: Yeah, well, I'm an old man and I grew up in a little town in Iowa. I was nine years old about to turn 10 when my family took its first and almost only real extended vacation of my youth. We borrowed my grandmother's car. We borrowed camping equipment from neighbors. She thought we'd go to a lot of these National Parks out in the West, for two reasons: One is they're important. And secondly, we could afford them. So we headed West and went through the Badlands of South Dakota into Mount Rushmore, went to what was then called Custer National Battlefield, now Little Bighorn National Battlefield Historic Site, came to Yellowstone. This was right after the '59 earthquake, half of the park was closed. So I lived through aftershock tremors at the bottom of the Lower Falls of the Yellowstone. Saw my first bear. saw my first moose, saw, obviously, my first geyser. A lot of the geysers were going off at odd times because of the tremendous earthquake that just occurred. We went to Grand Teton National Park, went to Dinosaur National Monument, camped there and headed back through Rocky Mountain.

And it was in retrospect, I think, a formative moment. And it was made possible because [the parks] existed, and because we could afford to go see them. And then as, you know, later in my life, I started writing books and then I started working on documentary films, and one of the persistent things that I've always been interested in is the connection of the American story and the American landscape. And I think that the National Park idea is the Declaration of Independence applied to the landscape. In other words, the National Park idea is as radical as the Declaration of Independence. In all of recorded history, prior to this, the most majestic and sacred places of a nation were preserved for the Kings nobility, the rich, the well connected. And for the first time, we as a nation, founded on the idea of the Declaration of Independence, said 'No, some of our most spectacular majestic and sacred places are there for everyone, and for all time,' and that was new under the sun.

It's a wonderland. And it's become the last refuge for the American buffalo, which Ken and I are doing a film on right now. Which themselves could easily have gone extinct, were it not for the efforts of a diverse group of individuals in different parts of the United States at a critical moment in time, but Yellowstone figures very prominently in that story. And now it's a place where you can go see bison, and you can see wolves. At least at the moment, assuming they're not all shot the same moment they get out of the park boundaries. It's a very special place. And it needs to be protected. And it also faces all these challenges in which last year almost 5 million people decided to come. And God bless them for that. But that presents challenges that have to be addressed somehow.

ME: One of the ways in which they can maybe control the influx of people is by making the cost of getting in more expensive. And then there's going to be families like yours that maybe can't visit Yellowstone.

DD: No, I mean, it is an inherent tension in the National Park idea. And when the National Park Service was created, inherent in the law that created them is that it served two critical elements. The first is that these places are for everyone, not just exclusively set aside for, as I say, the rich and the royalty and the well connected. It's for everybody. We all are co-owners of it. And that is key to that idea.

The second and equally important thing is, they need to be there for Americans and people not yet born. They're there for all time, and therefore have to be protected and preserved, which require regulations and management practices that will make it possible for people you and I will never know and so generations we'll never see can have the same experience that we did.

That's a tremendous challenge. But I like to think that the more people that come to the National Park, the more people become potential champions of the National Park idea. And so the problem that we've got too many people coming here is a management problem. The other problem would be nobody gives a damn about them, and that would be an existential problem.

Melodie Edwards is the host and producer of WPM's award-winning podcast The Modern West. Her Ghost Town(ing) series looks at rural despair and resilience through the lens of her hometown of Walden, Colorado. She has been a radio reporter at WPM since 2013, covering topics from wildlife to Native American issues to agriculture.
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