Last week’s post about the death of Yellowstone hiker Lance Crosby and the subsequent death of the grizzly bear responsible sparked a lot of commentary here on this page and elsewhere on social media sites. Some comments were supportive, some highly critical.
The majority wrote that last week’s story helped them understand the complexities of the issues surrounding the incident. Since that was my intent, I was pleased to get the support.
Personally speaking, the most rewarding comments came from Mr. Crosby’s friends and co-workers.
I didn’t know Lance Crosby, but I now have a much greater understanding of the man through his colleagues. I will share one private email, with permission, because it reminds all of us that we are dealing with real people here as well as bears:
I wanted to thank you for your exceptional article. Lance was a good friend of mine having worked at Lake Clinic with him for two seasons. The social media comments on his death have both angered and disgusted me. I too knew Blaze having passed her and her cubs many mornings when out for a run. (usually in the horse pasture just below the government housing) I also have hiked much of the back country alone and even now can close my eyes and follow the Elephant Back trail up to the lookout point. What I wanted you to know that I have struggled this past week to make any sense of Lance’s death. I am surrounded by suicide bombings almost daily here in Afghanistan and the thought of losing Lance in such a peaceful and beautiful setting was hard to wrap my head around. Your article has helped me come to terms with his death.. Thank you Tim Langley Kabul, Afghanistan.
That message, and many others like it, made the initial post worthwhile.
But there were sincere objections too, and they deserve a response.
The most common criticism referenced my statement that Yellowstone was created “For the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” I obviously didn’t explain what that means to me very well.
While I didn’t invent that line, (the 42nd U.S. Congress did,) I think it’s a damn good thing they wrote it.
I’m very certain that without those words the Yellowstone landscape would currently be covered in condos, ski resorts, fast-food joints, and ATV trails. And there wouldn’t be grizzly bears there at all. That measured and thoughtful congressional language withstood many assaults from profiteers and developers in the park’s early days.
We can revise our opinions and beliefs, and we can amend laws, but we cannot edit historical documents because we don’t like the words in them. The act creating Yellowstone National Park indisputably says what it says.*
On a similar note, some critiques revolved around my statement that humans created Yellowstone. They said adamantly that humanity had nothing to do with creating Yellowstone, nature did. They are both right and wrong.
Obviously, we had nothing to do with creating the Yellowstone landscape. But the definition of the park is all our doing. As stated above, without that legal description, you don’t have anything to visit, to marvel at, to fight for, and to cherish.
Yellowstone “The National Park” is 100% man-made. And I, for one, am very thankful for the foresight of the people who created Yellowstone and for the language they used in setting it aside.
The one thing that protects Yellowstone is that it’s a public place. If you prefer, the inscription could just as well read “For the benefit and enjoyment of the public.”
To the many commentators here who suggested, or even insisted, that we “stay the hell out” of Yellowstone because it belongs to the animals, not the public, you are insisting on something very dangerous; much more dangerous than traveling alone in the wilderness.
Some even said “tear down the damn sign.”
To those people I say: Are you really asking for people to stay out of our National Parks? Stay out of those places some have called “Americas best idea” – that’s truly what you want?
Imagine being prohibited from visiting the Grand Canyon because condors live there; or Brooks Falls because of the bears there. . . the Everglades, Mount Rainier, the Smoky Mountains, Yosemite Valley, the Cascades, Crater Lake, the Badlands, the Tetons, Glacier Bay, – the list is 59 parks and hundreds of rare species long.
That’s what you “stay the hell out” and “tear down the signs” folks are advocating, whether you admit it or not.
In each of those parks, wild animals thrive specifically because the parks are wild places. But they are wild public places.
If we exclude humanity to preserve the animals, if we turn all those national parks into more national wildlife refuges, (which we are fortunate to already have hundreds of), where human activity is strictly controlled and in many cases even prohibited, then those places will become the domain of animals and researchers alone. “Good!” you might say. But be careful what you wish for.
Excluding people to protect the animals from human contact means you won’t ever have the chance to see a wild grizzly bear. You won’t even get to see pretty pictures of them on Facebook and Instagram because my colleagues and I won’t be allowed in either. In fact, you won’t know if the animals still exist there at all unless you read about it in a government report or see them on television.
I know there are people who really do want this total public exclusion, but happily the vast majority still want to see these things for themselves. They want to experience first hand the perpetual sense of awe that those parks promise. I’m one of those people.
As soon as the public cannot visit the parks, those places and the creatures there will cease to have significance to the masses. And it will become much more difficult to advocate for any of them.
The National Parks are the greatest public relations device ever created for Mother Nature.
Related to the “stay out” proponents are the many comments stating that Lance Crosby shouldn’t have been where he was at all because the animals were there first. The kinder versions of those comments usually went something like “We’re in their home. If we get killed it’s our own fault.”
While I agree completely that we take our chances when we enter the bear’s realm, I couldn’t disagree more that we don’t belong there in the first place.
I addressed the mistakes I personally believe Mr. Crosby made in the original post.** But I disagree wholeheartedly with those commentators who suggest that people should not be allowed to experience the parks alone and away from the crowds.
Despite what some of the modern pundits are writing about this particular situation, I believe that early naturalists like Thoreau, Muir, Burroughs, and Sigurd Olson, understood things that the “stay out” crowd are ignoring now. Those philosophers each spent large chunks of their lives alone in nature, and we have all profited spiritually and tangibly because of it.
Permanently separating humans from nature doesn’t work, especially if you want to inspire people to care. Wilderness can’t be an abstract idea, it needs to be experienced.
A huge part of the problem right now in all our national parks is balancing public access with resource protection. Logistics and infrastructure management are not my areas of experience – I’m just a dopey wildlife photographer who spends a lot of time in Yellowstone – but from where I stand it looks like a holy nightmare.
What I do know is that the solution is not to “tear down the signs” and “stay the hell out.”
I suspect that the best course now is to focus on education of park visitors and employees to the point that they can prove they understand where they are, what the benefits of wilderness are, what they’re likely to see, and what things might hurt them.
Anyone who doesn’t demonstrably understand that bears, wolves, coyotes, cougars, bison, elk, moose, sheep, even pikas, can hurt you, cannot be allowed into the park.
A signed waiver stating they understand those potential dangers and the many other things besides animals that can kill you, would also help prevent the unnecessary lawsuits the Park Service regularly faces in these kind of situations.
Arming everyone who enters Yellowstone with bear spray, but without instruction about where, when, and how to use it is a recipe for disaster. Arming them with the knowledge to prevent situations where they need that spray at all is a much better alternative.
You can make bear spray mandatory for travel away from the roads, on and off established trails, but we have to ensure people will use it responsibly and not start spraying critters they come across just because they feel uncomfortable. That does also happen in Yellowstone.
As some of you know, Yellowstone has different types of Park Rangers: Law enforcement, back country, interpretive, there are probably others…
The addition of many more rangers, especially interpretive (educational) rangers, would help. If those rangers were heavily concentrated into areas with known hazards, some potential tragedies would certainly be avoided.
Again, I realize that will be a logistical and financial nightmare for the National Park Service, but something must been done – something short of further limiting visitor access to the parks. There are already massive areas of Yellowstone which have seasonal and long-term closures for resource management.
I would prefer to see the park flooded with additional rangers rather than covered in new “Danger: Keep Out” signs.
And you should know, the grizzly bear population in the Yellowstone region is increasing. Since human visitation isn’t likely to decline, the potential for another bear attack like the one that killed Lance Crosby is there, and always will be.
More 1/4 billion people visited America’s national parks last year; 3.5 million in Yellowstone alone.
If they stop coming because they can’t go anywhere alone when they get there; if they have stay on air-conditioned tour buses; if they can only see the parks from paved roads and in the pages of magazines; the inspiration, the solitude, the solace, and the healing the parks provide to regular people on a daily basis will be gone forever.
Actually, I think those days are coming, and I don’t want to hurry them along.
I could write, much, much more on this, but I’m tired of my own words, and I know many of you are too.
I’ll end by saying that the comments I received here about grizzlies, and people, and national parks were very enlightening to me. The vast majority were obviously heartfelt, and I thank everyone who commented respectfully and thoughtfully – even those who were critical of my positions. Civility is becoming a lost art.
Feel free to contact me through my web site: http://www.lodgetrail.com
* Someone took me to task that I didn’t publish the whole 1872 act. It’s all there at the link for you to interpret as you will. You just have to click “next image” when you’re finished with the first page.
** The primary mistake being that he doesn’t appear to have been carrying bear spray. But frankly, we don’t know that. He could have had spray that he subsequently lost in the struggle for his life. Several of his friends and colleagues wrote to say the he was very bear-aware and always had the spray with him on his hikes.
Keith R. Crowley is a writer and photographer who spends much of his time in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
©2015 Keith R. Crowley – All rights reserved.