Of all the names synonymous with American conservation — Aldo Leopold, John Muir, Wallace Stegner, Edward Abbey and Teddy Roosevelt, among others — one towers far above the rest in the Greater Yellowstone region as the signature force behind a generation of astonishing accomplishments. And that is, odd as it seems, James Watt.
Yes, baby boomers, that James Watt.
Many longtime Westerners will easily recall that he was Interior Secretary from 1981-‘83. They remember Watt quintupling leases for coal mining and boasting about opening more than a billion acres of coastal waters for oil and gas development. Watt believed that the only good tree was a dead tree stacked in a sawmill lumberyard. He also sought to de-authorize many national parks.
And he said, half-jokingly, “If the troubles from environmentalists cannot be solved in the jury box or at the ballot box, perhaps the cartridge box should be used.”
All of which explains why, as a conservationist, I owe a lot to Mr. Watt — my employment with the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, which turns 30 this year, included.
Hearken back to 1980. Greater Yellowstone’s conservation community had precious few full-time staffers patrolling the 20-million-acre region, consisting of the national park and adjacent state, federal and private land. The term “ecosystem” had yet to come from the lips of anyone in any official capacity. Enter James Watt.
Citing divine inspiration and obligation, the Reagan appointee with the big eyeglasses from Lusk, Wyo., earned instant infamy for promising, “We will mine more, drill more, cut more.” Lusting after even the lands and waters of his home state, Watt revealed plans to drill on 350,000 acres in the rugged Washakie Wilderness adjacent to Yellowstone National Park.
Alarm bells rang from sea to still-shining sea.
“It was a scary time,” remembers Rick Reese of Bozeman, Mont., a Greater Yellowstone Coalition co-founder. “(Watt) was only secretary for a couple of years, but he came out with both barrels blazing. And he was just getting started.”
As radical an idea as it was to open wilderness to industry, even more ominous was the realization that such activities would put Yellowstone itself at grave risk. The park’s health, we were only beginning to fully understand, was inextricably linked to the health of the lands around it.
That the Greater Yellowstone Coalition was formed in Jackson Hole, Wyo., in the final year of Watt’s brief, controversial reign was no coincidence. At the time, the future of the grizzly bear — a symbol of America’s rapidly vanishing wildness — looked grim and was of immediate concern. But it was quickly evident to our founders that preserving the park required protecting a larger landscape, and the coalition has been America’s “Voice for a Greater Yellowstone” ever since. Today, it has a supporting cast of 40,000 “voices” worldwide and an annual operating budget of $2.7 million.
Meanwhile, consider the conservation achievements here since Watt exited the scene in 1983. Grizzly bears have more than tripled in numbers and today roam places they’ve been absent from for generations. With wolves restored in 1995, Greater Yellowstone became one of the last significant largely intact ecosystems on the planet.
“Ecosystem” is now part of our everyday lexicon, and at least 200 conservation-oriented nonprofit groups have fingers in the 20-million-acre Greater Yellowstone pie. As the coalition celebrates its 30th anniversary this fall in West Yellowstone, the region arguably is healthier ecologically and economically than at any time since the park’s creation in 1872.
These accomplishments bode well for a future where new challenges await: Rising human population, a warming climate and extreme forest fires. A comprehensive study by Bozeman’s Headwaters Economics suggests that prosperity in the West will increasingly hinge on a town’s proximity to public lands with strong protections.
Many visionaries merit a robust “thank you” for the incomparable quality of life we cherish today in Greater Yellowstone, and so we honor Leopold, Muir, Stegner, Abbey and Teddy Roosevelt.
But there is something to be said for the man whose vision of an industrial juggernaut throughout the West galvanized millions and created an entire generation of conservationists.
“If you talk to anybody who was in American conservation at the time, they would tell you Watt did us a huge favor,” Reese says.
Indeed, with enemies like that, it was easy to make new friends.
Jeff Welsch is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News (hcn.org). He is communications director for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, a Bozeman-based conservation advocacy group that is celebrating its 30th anniversary this year.