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The roads less traveled in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem

What values do these road-less areas offer for science, for recreation, for wildlife? As public land owners, we all shape the future of the  Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and other wild landscapes.

Yellowstone Caldera Chronicles is a weekly column written by scientists and collaborators of the Yellowstone Volcano Observatory. This week's contribution is from Annie Carlson, Research Coordinator at the Yellowstone Center for Resources, Yellowstone National Park.


Map of roads in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem
Map of roads in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. Source: Yellowstone Spatial Analysis Center.

If you've visited Yellowstone, perhaps you've been fortunate to hear wolves howling in Lamar Valley or to watch steam rising in a geyser basin on a winter morning. The wildness of this landscape often evokes a time long ago.

Yellowstone National Park is at the core of a much larger natural area called the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE). The roughly 20-million-acre GYE is one of the largest nearly intact temperate ecosystems on Earth, with enough wild space for grizzlies, wolverines, and lynx to roam. This rare setting makes Yellowstone one of the premier places in the world for scientists to study natural processes like predator-prey dynamics, grazing ecology, wildland fire, free-flowing rivers, and thousands of hydrothermal features.

A striking image to highlight this unique landscape is a map of the roads in the GYE. A dense network of roads spreads inward from all edges of the map. But much of the core of the GYE remains road-less. These road-less areas are under many forms of land ownership: private, tribal, state, federal. Thus, they are under varying degrees of restriction from future road building and development. Some of the GYE's federal lands are designated as Wilderness under the Wilderness Act of 1964. This law is intended to preserve areas "where the earth and its community of life are untrammeled by man, where man himself is a visitor who does not remain." While none of Yellowstone National Park is currently designated Wilderness, in 1972, 90% of the park was recommended to Congress for designation and continues to be managed to preserve its wild character.

The park therefore provides an incredible opportunity for visitors to choose their own experience. Some areas, like Old Faithful, have roads, parking lots, hotels, gas stations, stores, and lots of people. In contrast, the recommended wilderness areas of the park are often quite remote, requiring many miles of hiking or horseback riding, and allowing a true sense of solitude.

pack string crossing the Yellowstone River in the remote Thorofare region
A pack string crossing the Yellowstone River in the remote Thorofare region. National Park Service photo courtesy of Sherrie and Ron White, August 21, 2016.

The Thorofare region in the southeast corner of the park is the most remote place in the lower 48 states—it is the farthest you can get from a road (about 20 miles in any direction!). That's not to say that there are no human impacts at all in the Thorofare. The region contains a network of trails, backcountry patrol cabins, and even some scientific equipment. That's right, scientific research is often considered to be an appropriate human use of wilderness if it conforms to the concept of "minimum requirement." The University of Utah is one of the institutions with equipment in the Thorofare. Their seismometer on the summit of Hawks Rest (in the Teton Wilderness just southeast of the park) is the most remote station they manage. As you can imagine, it takes a big effort and a few days of horseback riding to service this seismometer.

The GYE offers our modern society remarkable challenges and benefits. As roads and urban development continue to expand around the world, are there some areas that we hope to preserve for their wild character? What values do these road-less areas offer for science, for recreation, for wildlife? As public land owners, we all shape the future of the GYE and other wild landscapes.

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