By Todd Wilkinson
Some two dozen different indigenous tribes claim to have cultural and spiritual connections to the Yellowstone region going back not just a few generations but millennia. Imagine if members of those nations had only had access to pen and paper. What insights might their observations, recorded for posterity, have told us?
The first and probably most famous written record belongs to “mountain man” Osborne Russell who authored Journal of a Trapper that describes the Lamar Valley in what is today Yellowstone Park.
There’s a difference between roadside accounts and trail guides and those penned based on extensive travel through the backcountry.
Among more recent published accounts, Tom Turiano shares observations of what he saw in his book Select Peaks of Greater Yellowstone. Mountain Journal columnist, naturalist and retired Forest Service wilderness specialist Susan Marsh has several books filled with lyrical insights, as does Michael Yochim and Lee Whittlesey.
There are also fine enduring tomes by Tim Cahill, Olaus and Mardy Murie, Frank C. Craighead, Marjane Ambler, Paul Schullery, Gary Ferguson, Gretel Ehrlich, Tom Murphy, David Quammen, Rick Lamplugh, Doug Peacock, Phil Knight, Jerry Mernin, Terry Tempest Williams, Jack Turner, Howie Wolke and others.
[As an aside, we must not forget the late musician “Walkin’ Jim” Stoltz of Big Sky, who hiked thousands upon thousands of miles in Greater Yellowstone and went on the road singing about it to generate public support for conservation. In addition, wilderness trekking inspired Bart Koehler, who worked for the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and The Wilderness Society, to make landscape protection a central theme in songs played by his band, “Coyote Angels.]
But back now to Todd Burritt, who has penned a book that is really a reflection about his personal transformation. He started hiking with his partner, Jen, thinking about the journey ahead in terms of miles that would be covered, a checklist of places to be seen and considered within the context of what the backcountry could give him.
Burritt’s book, Outside Ourselves: Landscape and Meaning in the Greater Yellowstone is instead a reflection on what we can give back. Only by putting our egos and self-serving interests in check can we succeed not buffing the wild edges off this remarkable region which is different from any other in the Lower 48.
Outside Ourselves did not have a major book tour or publicity blitz when it was published quietly in late 2018. This does not diminish its importance. The book is especially timely now as Greater Yellowstone confronts an existential question: how it can retain its ecological health and not be loved to death by those who regard it primarily as an adventure playground and cash cow?
As Burritt points out, this is a numbers game in which too many people doing so many different things—recreating, building trails, constructing retirement homes and development on the edge of public lands—stand to simply overwhelm the wildlife living there—repeating the pattern that has happened almost everywhere else.
What Burritt calls out is how unreflective we are, how unwilling proponents of certain activities are to admit there is a tipping point, beyond which “wildness” (i.e. the places where rare wild creatures can still survive) disappears.
Mountain Journal has published an excerpt from Outside Ourselves that features Burritt’s observations about the importance of protecting the Gallatin Mountains as wilderness and he challenges the mindset of certain me-first recreationists who tout their personal access over the persistence of rare animals like grizzly bears.
He also brings scrutiny upon an outside group, started in California, that has enlisted members of Congress—who, by the way, possess some of the worst voting records on environmental issues in the country—to radically reform the Wilderness Act and open up those lands to mountain biking and, one might assume, ebikes.
All federal wildernesses in the U.S. hold intrinsic value as places set apart from roadbuilding, mechanization, and things like logging, mining and energy development. They are also places that, because permanent bricks and mortar habitation by humans is prohibited, wildlife do not suffer from extensive habitat fragmentation.
It would be argued that Greater Yellowstone’s wilderness areas have the highest wildness quotient of any in the Lower 48 states because of the diversity of species that still persist there—species that historically have vanish from landscapes with lots of people and habitat fragmentation.
Why should the Gallatin Mountains, the only range in Greater Yellowstone connected to Yellowstone that does not have designated wilderness, be classified with the highest level of safeguarding? Burritt provocatively explores the question in his excerpt; indeed that chapter represents, in many ways, a crescendo for his book following chapters in which the narrative sets the context for why Greater Yellowstone is different.
In communicating with him, Burritt openly acknowledged to be the ethical issues he wrestled with—calling attention to the region and yet aiming to help keep it preserved. “Publishing a book about the Yellowstone region was a difficult thing for me to do,” Burritt said. “Not because of a lack of familiarity with the subject, but the fact it gets a lot of attention already. And much of that attention is to its detriment.”
Burritt then elaborated, “To add to the cacophony surrounding a natural area is delicate business. Just because you can capitalize on its popularity doesn’t mean that you should. My focus, meanwhile—phenomena unique to Greater Yellowstone’s backcountry and rural communities—is additionally touchy. Currently overshadowed by the celebritydom of the national parks, these resources thrive on some degree of obscurity.”
A 30-year resident of Greater Yellowstone himself, Burritt spent nearly a decade as a ranger in four different wilderness areas and he has traveled the length of 12 different mountain ranges on foot. “In the book, I try to explore what it means to celebrate Greater Yellowstone without selling it out,” he says. “I came to believe that reverential language, along with hard personal work on controversial subjects, may be the best thing I have to give back.”
I recently interviewed Burritt and it begins below. Outside Ourselves is a work that should give us pause. On the one hand, it is an uplifting tome that will ignite the yen for adventure in any young person. Getting people outside, after all, is the first step in caring and, God knows, our public lands need to be places of enrichment for all Americans—the full diverse spectrum.
On the other hand and in a non-preachy way, Outside Ourselves persuasively makes the case for why we need to consider not only our individual impacts but our cumulative effects on other creatures that have no other home.
TODD WILKINSON: What inspired you to take this “long hike” and how did you choose your course?
TODD BURRITT: Many of us have seen different perimeters outlined of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, or heard that it is the “largest, relatively intact, temperate ecosystem in the western hemisphere,” or something to that effect. The fact is, the Greater Yellowstone doesn’t reside in any of its definitions, and that’s part of what makes it great. This hike was largely inspired by my desire to improve my own conception of this area. I wanted that definition to be based on my own, boots-on-the-ground experience of it as a physical entity.
When Jen and I factored in all our previous experiences of the area, it made for a very idiosyncratic hiking route. We linked together unfamiliar places we wanted to get to know with familiar places we wanted to revisit. We spent a lot of our time wandering off-trail. We had no interest in fixing some definitive GYE hiking route, nor do we believe such a thing should be done: there’s no need to walk across this complex area the same way twice.
TW: What was your impression of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem before you began?
Burritt: It was discontinuous and personal, based in specific times and places. Growing up in Bozeman, my mental map was oriented toward the northern ranges and valleys. Four years with the Forest Service in the southern part of the ecosystem radically expanded my concept. While I was in Wyoming, I loved comparing and contrasting these two different loci, and realized that forming them into a cohesive whole would require a more deliberate effort.
TW: What changed in your thinking along way and now, today, as you look back?
Burritt: Few specific experiences on the trip were altogether unusual for me, which is just as well. Far more importantly, my relationship to the place deepened and filled out. The “Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem” became less conceptual and more of who I am, a context by which I understand the world. It made me even more invested in the place.
TW: How would you describe the perspective change that happened for Jen?
Burritt: Her appetite was whetted. Before we got back to Bozeman, she was already making plans for a much longer walking circuit around the ecosystem, through different mountain ranges, which we did a couple years later.
TW: What do you think even denizens of Greater Yellowstone might take for granted or fully understand?
Burritt: Residents of this area are most likely to take the resource for granted as a cash cow. But as Teddy Roosevelt warned of the Grand Canyon, “Leave it as it is. You cannot improve it. The ages have been at work on it, and man can only mar it.” If we drum up the greatest possible consumer demand for all things Yellowstone, we will only succeed in making what is unique and important about this place more dilute and more endangered. I can’t say that there isn’t a market for hastily constructed townhouses or more franchise restaurants in this area, because there is. You can sell them and get rich. But on a regional level, it’s not getting us closer to where we want to be.
TW: Mountain Journal is featuring an excerpt of your book that looks at one unroaded stretch of Greater Yellowstone—the Gallatin Mountains—that extend from inside Yellowstone clear to Bozeman. You put its wildness in perspective in your discussion of mountain bikes. Why does having a wild Gallatin, free from inundation by large numbers of people matter?
Burritt: First of all, the wild Gallatins are important for precisely the same reason that wild Yellowstone is important. When you start cutting up an ecosystem, asking one part to be one thing and another part to be something else, every productive element becomes less efficient. An ecosystem is one, big, functioning unit, or it is nothing.
Secondly, the Gallatins have characteristics, features, and a place in the world that makes them eminently their own thing. Many of these unique geographical traits make them especially valuable to wildlife—a fact that was recognized remarkably early in the conservation movement, and inspired some of the very minds that would later help create the wilderness protection system. The Gallatins meet the standards for wilderness designation beautifully: they are a place for wild animals, a place to tread lightly.
TW: What’s your biggest worry about the future of Greater Yellowstone and public lands in the West?
Burritt: There are even larger, more existential threats, but what keeps me up at night is the inexorable creep of development into our open spaces. Nothing else is so visible, and illustrates such a clear connection between choices we make and the destruction of what we love. This summer, just north of Gardiner just beyond the northern boundary of Yellowstone, an eight-acre business park popped up where I’m accustomed to seeing elk starving to death every spring. To be sustainable in the long run, many of our most iconic wildlife populations are going to need more habitat than they have now, not less, even in this exceptionally large protected area. Much of the damage being done today comes from misguided, consumer-based attempts to appreciate this place. If we really want to talk about love, we need to forget about “Owning the view” or “Owning the adventure” (to cite two current realtor slogans) and, instead, focus on restoring the land’s autonomy.
TW: You’ve evolved personally into an advocate. Please riff on what you see as the difference between merely being a recreational user and an outdoor person who takes the next step and becomes someone who wants to preserve wildness?
Burritt: It is easy to bring a work attitude to recreation, and see it as a venue to pursue efficiency, optimization, and personal progress. This, after all, is the worldview that the marketplace trains us to have, and it is fostered even more by the burgeoning forms of technology that encourage us to convert experience into social currency.
It is much more difficult to assimilate the instruction of the natural world into our daily lives. It is a practice of attention. It requires transcending the individualistic mindset that is always asking, “What’s in it for me?” and learning to ask trickier, open-ended, and case-specific questions, based on the flood of new information that comprises every foray outdoors. “What’s happening here? Why?”
TW: What’s most challenging if one wants to have fun and yet do the right thing? Of course we’re all guilty of taking to varying degrees.
Burritt: Some days, I lack that level of self-reflective awareness, and I am just a recreational user. I go outside, take what I need from it, and then go back to what I was doing before. Being worthy of the inconceivably rich sensory and intellectual resource that is our public land system is a goal with endless room for growth.
For most of us, our relationship to the outdoors is a story of a slow, intensely personal evolution—but the dynamic nature of the resource will assist you on your way. For example, you might be introduced to camping as a fun, social experience, but then one day you’ll find your favorite campsite is trashed, and have to figure out what to do with that. Or you might be drawn to backcountry skiing for ego-boosts and adrenaline shots, and then notice one day that an entire mountainside has succumbed to parasite and disease. Advocacy is ultimately a function of awareness.
TW: Your book is filled with uplifting observations. What kind of outdoor experience gives you meaning and joy?
Burritt: The experiences that mean the most to me do not need to be the furthest, fastest, or steepest. They can happen anytime, anywhere. They need only take me by surprise, lift me out of my “self,” and hint at how much more is out there. By dedicating my attention to the outdoors, I receive rewards that are out of all proportion to what I have given back. For that, I am indebted to this place.
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