What kind of a birthday present do you get for the park that has everything?
To celebrate the National Park Service’s centennial, National Geographic asked one of its most experienced writers, David Quammen, to explore the nation’s keystone public space: Yellowstone National Park. An entire magazine issue would be dedicated to the project.
Quammen immediately ran into the problem many longtime Montanans face every summer: What else is there to say about the place we only see when we show it off to relatives? How does one write 15,000 new words about something everybody thinks they already know? And then how to do it again, in an even bigger book version?
“I knew it was important not to touch the obligatory bases,” Quammen said from his home in Bozeman. “I do not think watching Old Faithful Geyser explode into the air at a predictable time interval is interesting. I wanted to approach it in a fresh way.”
But that was the challenge for writing “Yellowstone: A Journey Through America’s Wild Heart.” The two-year project first saw print in the May 2016 edition, notching one of the magazine’s best-selling newsstand issues in the past several years. Quammen’s hardcover edition of the project hits bookstores in early September.
To do it, Quammen followed the grizzly bear. The bears of Yellowstone chase four main food sources through their yearly cycle: cutthroat trout, elk and bison meat, whitebark pine seeds and army cutworm moths. Quammen turned that menu into a web of stories illustrating what holds Yellowstone together.
“It’s about our relationship with the natural world,” Quammen said. “That’s complicated, because of the paradox of the ‘cultivated wild.’ I was trying to get at this tension between saying we’re going to protect, preserve and venerate this as a wild place — but we’re going to draw a border around it. And the rules will be completely different inside and outside. We will make management decisions about what we want wild to look like.”
While Quammen couldn’t predict that 2016 would be the year the Interagency Grizzly Bear Committee would make a final push to declare its namesake species fully recovered in Yellowstone, the controversy over removing grizzlies from Endangered Species Act protection saturates the book.
Quammen has gone on record to oppose delisting grizzly bears from the Endangered Species Act. But for this project, he opted to spotlight the question — not his own answer.
“Some people expected us to come out and say the bear should be delisted, or shouldn’t be,” Quammen said. “We made a conscious decision that the most valuable thing National Geographic could do was say ‘This is not a simple question.’ There are arguments on both sides. The only thing that’s simple is that preserving the grizzly bear in this ecosystem is hugely important. The highest purpose of Yellowstone is preserving a viable population of grizzly bears and all the things that go with that.”
Anyone familiar with National Geographic knows the publication’s photographs viciously compete with the words for the reader’s attention. Its editors referee that fight with careful attention to the captions on each photo. In this project, Quammen lacked the time to give those captions due consideration, so he looked across Bozeman’s South Third Avenue to neighbor Todd Wilkinson for help.
A distinguished natural history writer himself, Wilkinson plunged into the task of interpreting more than 200 photos from half a dozen expert photographers. He also wrote several sidebars highlighting tangent topics such as artistic interpretations of park scenery and how Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk deals with ever-growing crowds of tourists.
The photographs came from some well-known National Geographic shooters led by long-time Quammen collaborator Michael “Nick” Nichols. Charlie Hamilton James, David Guttenfelder, Joe Riis, Erika Larsen, Ronan Donovan, Drew Rush, Cory Richard and Louise Johns delivered the new pictures, supplementing a careful selection of historic photos.
Two years of travel, interviews and research produced far more than would fit between the covers of a magazine. That meant leaving lots of material out. When the opportunity came to revisit the project as a book, Quammen had the rare writer’s option of adding back.
That allowed the story to include a late winter trip into Heart Lake near Yellowstone’s southern border on a carcass survey that revealed a surprising facet of grizzly bear nutrition: After reintroduced wolves chased out the area’s small elk population, the bears remained and switched to a spring diet of earthworms instead of elk.
It also provided room for more interviews with private landowners around the park, and their role in directing the future of the area.
“The different agencies that manage the public lands in the ecosystem only involve the public governmental bodies and agencies — they don’t include private landowners,” Quammen said. “They often don’t include the Indian reservations, except in advisory roles. There needs to be broader memberships and more authority shared among those committees.”
Nearly all of Yellowstone Park’s tourists spend their time in its most unnatural places — the roads and parking lots and gift shops and restaurants looping from Old Faithful Geyser to Canyon Junction. Reporting the story allowed Quammen to explore some much more remote sites — such as the Thorofare, farthest place from a road of any place in the continental United States. But asked to suggest a best way to experience the park, he didn’t propose any extreme options.
“One of my favorite places is the Lamar Valley,” Quammen said. “Get up early in the morning and look for people who are stopped at turnouts with spotting scopes. If you’re nice, those people will be very friendly in letting you know where the wolves are that they’re watching. It’s not something that can sustain a huge increase in traffic. I don’t want another 5,000 people to go to the Lamar Valley every morning. But it’s something that doesn’t require you to hike more than 100 yards.”