David Quammen was 12 the first time he visited Yellowstone National Park. His parents loaded him and his two siblings into the car and drove from Cincinnati.
It was 1960 and Quammen wasn’t impressed.
“Old Faithful inspired me zero” he said. “I had no idea I would ever come back and have such a deep relationship with it.”
Quammen not only returned, moving to Montana in 1973, he also authored the May 2016 issue of National Geographic magazine which is devoted entirely to the park.
Peaks to Plains caught up with Quammen, who is also the author of “Spillover,” “Monster of God” and numerous other books. He is the first contributor to pen an entire issue of National Geographic.
You said you barely remember that first trip to the park. What is your earliest memory of visiting Yellowstone?
In 1978, I turned 30 and wanted to spend my birthday in Yellowstone on skis snow camping. I skied with a dear friend into Slough Creek and spent a few days in the snow in February 1978. There were bison. It was beautiful. It was cold. The snow conditions were difficult and we were carrying heavy packs. We didn’t ski very far, but far enough to get a good workout. I went back 10 years later alone to celebrate my 40th birthday.
How has the park changed since then?
I think if you are 5 miles up Slough Creek in February the park is probably just the same as it was when I was camping there in 1978, and that’s a great thing. And in some ways it’s probably a little better than when I was camping there in 1988. It was very hard to go into the Yellowstone backcountry where you didn’t hear snowmobiles. Now we’ve got a handle on the snowmobile issue, there are fewer snowmobiles and they are quieter. There were 4 million visitors last year. There are more tour buses than there were before. In West Yellowstone [Montana], there are six Chinese restaurants and four had signs in mandarin. In 1978 there were no signs in mandarin. The park is in better shape than it was in 1978. But around the ecosystem, there continues to be an erosion of private land [due to development]. If everyone builds a home in the wilderness, it isn’t wilderness anymore.
Did reporting this issue take you to new places in the park?
It took me to corners of the ecosystem I hadn’t been into. I spent eight days on horseback in the thoroughfare region. I took a ski trip into the Pelican Valley with Doug Smith, the wolf biologist. I got to fly over the ecosystem at low elevation and slow speed. I got to make trips with biologists to tranquilize wolves and elk.
What did you learn about Yellowstone, and how did your perspective change?
I learned about the importance of the elk migrations pulsing in and out of the core of Yellowstone like a heartbeat and the importance of big swaths of private land for that migration. The more I researched, the more complicated the issue of delisting for the grizzly bear became. I wanted to do justice to the complexity and persuade readers it’s really important and pretty complex.
It’s the National Park Services’ Centennial this year. What, besides Yellowstone being the first national park, made it emblematic of the agency and worthy of its own magazine issue?
With the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem we have an intact major ecosystem with big magnificent carnivore species in an area that is entirely surrounded by modern America. It’s different than Alaska. It’s different than Glacier [National Park] because those places aren’t surrounded by development. It’s an ecological island in the ocean of the New West. There’s a population of grizzly bears, wolves, mountain lions, wolverines, coyotes and smaller predators, plus bison, elk and deer, surrounded by ranches and towns and malls and golf courses and Starbucks.
What do you see as Yellowstone’s future?
There’s no way of knowing what’s going to happen. Things could go bad or things could remain magnificent. It depends on the choices we make as individuals and as a civic community. That might mean controlling the ways people can visit the park. If we lost the private lands, then we’ve lost the elk migrations and if we lose the elk migrations we lose the integrity of the ecosystem. So those private lands are crucial. If they are subdivided, that is lost.
What does the unified voice of one writer give the magazine?
It’s only one story, but told in three parts, plus an epilogue. People should not think of this as three different stories. It’s meant to be read from start to finish. I think there is a unified vision to the magazine. The park is an idea that has evolved in the 144 years since it’s been founded. There’s climate change, invasive species, private lands. They all play a role. Tying all those things together gave me an enormous opportunity to paint a picture of a great place and its complexities and make a gentle argument about why we should love it and how we should love it and how to understand it.