March 2001


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 Written by
Mark Collins

Photo by
Ed McCord

Up Cose - From a Distance

 Near the middle of Yellowstone Park—“middle” being a relative term amid 3,500 square miles—lies the Grand Prismatic Pool, a geologic miracle.

Time and subterranean forces have forged this steaming oval pond, a football field in length and half as wide. A boardwalk leads tourists to the edge of the pool, but a dozen people have gone off trail to climb a nearby hill. The higher elevation offers a vantage point that cannot be witnessed up close—Grand Prismatic Pool is actually a host of colors, mostly greens and blues with a dark center, staring like a huge, watchful eye.

The climbers, huffing after the steep hike at an altitude of 7,500 feet, stare back in silence. Finally Paula Grgich, a senior in geology, breaks the quiet.

“Way to go, God!” she calls.

Pitt’s Yellowstone field course is top-heavy with such moments—physical, geological, spiritual. Now in its eleventh year, the Honors College class has given more than 150 students the chance to live and study in the country’s most spectacular classroom. But it’s a classroom with a complicated past and uncertain future, a classroom that’s 1.5 billion years old but also at the center of modern controversy. For these Pitt students, Yellowstone offers an unparalleled view of our natural world, and difficult questions about how our species might approach that critical oxymoron “wilderness management.”

It is fitting, then, that the difficult issues begin the very first day of class. There are two, month-long sessions each summer—10 students per session—covering topics in geology, ecology, and ethics/public policy. (The course is open to all Pitt undergrads. In fact, a field course is required for majors such as environmental studies. But the 20 slots for this particular field experience fill quickly.) Steve Anderson, a geologist from Black Hills State University in South Dakota, begins the first day with a simple question: What four dimensions make up Yellowstone Park? Sitting at the base of the Absaroka Mountains with the 500-foot high Cathedral Cliffs literally at your back, it’s easy to figure the first three dimensions: height, width, and depth. “Now what’s the fourth dimension at work here?” Anderson asks.

Margy Rose, a junior majoring in neuroscience, says simply, “People.”

“You’re right,” Anderson smiles. “I was thinking about time being the fourth dimension, but there are five at work here. People are the fifth dimension.”

And so, another moment. Despite the fact that these students will spend 30 days studying rocks, volcanic formations, plants, and animals, they will inevitably encounter that sticky issue of people—people in the park, people as “land managers,” people with conflicting goals. More immediately, they will encounter the park’s visitors, usually in the traffic jams that form near park attractions. (“If you close your eyes, it’s just like being in Pittsburgh,” says Pitt senior Ron Malec.)

Yellowstone Encounters: Tourists
Summers are short in Yellowstone. Snows begin in September and don’t let up until May. As a result, most of the three million annual tourists make their visits in June, July, and August.

Needless to say, it’s both a blessing and a curse for the locals. Tourists fuel much of the region’s economic engine; they also tie up traffic and generally frustrate the year-rounders. So it is that many visitors have earned the name “tour-ons,” a blend of tourist and moron.

An example: One visitor to the K-Z Ranch spent a long day in Yellowstone Park, returning late in the evening. When asked how she liked it, the tour-on said, “I just wish they would move the attractions closer together.” —MC

But Anderson teaches the geology section, so he can provide an antidote to the crush of humanity at places like Old Faithful. He leads students on long hikes through the untrammeled parts of the park and surrounding Shoshone National Forest, named after the area’s original residents. It’s the unmarked, wilder part of Yellowstone that most of the three million annual tourists will never see and never understand. “Everything is new here,” says Charles Blake, a junior majoring in math, neuroscience, and philosophy. “I come from Washington, DC, and I live in Pittsburgh. But the class is small, so there are plenty of opportunities to ask questions.”

And there are plenty of amazing things to inquire about. For instance, Anderson’s discussion of “mud pots”—magma-heated water and muck escaping through small fractures in the earth—includes a visit to a hot spot near the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. The long walk across the hot ground (some parts literally steaming) is worth it: The students encounter a series of foot-high, volcano-like mounds, each gurgling and spurting hot mud. They check every inch of the mound (except, of course, the boiling muck inside); some even paint their faces with drying mud.
“I come to this spot twice a year,” Anderson says, “and I think I and the Park Service are the only folks who know what’s here.”

The National Park Service administers Yellowstone proper, but the park sits within a huge natural area—two national parks, six national forests, three wildlife refuges, two Native American reservations—roughly 18 million acres in all, spread across three states. Needless to say, lines of authority are tangled. (In a nutshell: The Park Service reports to the Department of the Interior; the Forest Service reports to the Department of Agriculture; adjacent grazing lands are administered by the Bureau of Land Management.) In the ecology section of the course, Harry Corwin, the retired Pitt biology prof who helped to start the course in 1990, teaches students to identify a half-dozen species of trees and many more kinds of plants and shrubs. But the students’ new lexicon isn’t limited to Douglas fir and Engelmann spruce; they also learn how the practices of myriad government agencies in Yellowstone Park, Grand Teton Park to the south, and the surrounding national forests can affect the entire ecosystem.

Take, as one example, the park’s policy toward forest fires. For those Americans raised in the East near denser populations, “fire policy” is obvious: If it’s burning, put it out. But in a wilderness like Yellowstone, the answers aren’t easy. Ecologists see fire as a natural occurrence, one that actually helps the land in the long run. Lodgepole pines, for instance, drop just 40 percent of their cones; the rest are kept on the tree, and open only in the case of extreme temperature. These trees have adapted to the inevitability of fire. Our knee-jerk reaction to put out fire, however well intentioned, may not be the best reaction. As a result, Yellowstone’s policy is to let lightning-caused fires burn; most fires only consume a few acres

But there are consequences to fires, both geological and biological. The Yellowstone fires in 1988 were so widespread that the park changed policy and actively fought them. Nearly 800,000 acres burned, leaving millions of dead trees. Dead root systems and lack of grass lead to erosion. Nitrates in the soil are no longer anchored or sucked up by the trees, so the nitrates flow into glacial ponds—“kettle lakes”—acting like turbo-charged fertilizer. As a result, algae and other plants grow out of control, choking fish and causing localized ruptures in the food chain. The lakes—and Yellowstone—recovered from the fires, but not without changing the landscape.
So Yellowstone’s fire-fighting policy intersects geology and biology—another lesson. Siobhan Girling, a junior majoring in civil and environmental engineering and environmental studies, appreciates such intricacy. “I’m learning how complicated it all is,” she says. “The more you come to know something, the more real it is.”

Such intellectual challenges (and, considering the terrain and altitude, physical challenges) are exactly what Harry Corwin and Alec Stewart envisioned a dozen years ago—sort of an Outward Bound program mit textbooks. Stewart, dean of Pitt’s Honors College, and Corwin both love the outdoors, especially the high country. “We talked about how few students had been exposed to learning outdoors,” Corwin recalls now. “At the same time we were aware of growing environmental problems that weren’t being discussed in the classroom, especially among non-science majors. The whole idea of the delicate balance between humans and nature was foreign to so many students.”

Stewart knew of an ongoing study of chipmunks in Wyoming’s Beartooth Mountains near Yellowstone. He asked Corwin to check out the possibilities. Could Pitt undergrads work at the research site? The field site, Corwin found, needed a bit of work. “I practically fell through the floor,” he recalls. By chance, he heard of a new guest ranch nearby—the K-Z Ranch. A deal was struck, and classes started the following summer. Only two things have changed since then, Corwin says. “We now have more cabins, and we now offer the courses every summer instead of every other summer.”

(Those interested in the “Yellowstone experience” be forewarned: It’s no vacation. Six days a week of hikes and lectures, some of which spill over into the evenings. There are three stages to the course—geology, ecology, and ethics/public policy—which translate to three final exams, three hours each. Questions on the final often focus on the ecosystem of the K-Z Ranch.)

The K-Z (pronounced kay-bar-zee), which leases its land from the Shoshone National Forest adjacent to Yellowstone, offers 20-by-20 cabins, outstanding food, a warm shower and laundry—plus an education. Elliot and Marianne Segall run the ranch with two of their children, Dave Segall and Dawna Barnett. The family is western through and through, right down to the spurs. In addition to hosting the Pitt contingent twice a summer, the Segalls also outfit hunting and fishing parties and offer horseback riding. Many members of this extended family—friends and cousins who work the ranch each summer—also participate in the Cody Rodeo. Now that’s western

And some westerners, to put it gently, have a certain distrust of government agencies. Take the reintroduction of the wolf into Yellowstone Park 10 years ago. Many environmentalists hail the success of the experiment. What began with 14 wolves in 1991 has grown to more than 100, exceeding all expectations. But reintroducing an efficient predator such as the wolf has consequences, as Elliot Segall points out. “I don’t mind if they have wolves in Yellowstone, but what happens if they get outside? There are wolves that roam outside and kill elk calves at the elk feeding station set up by the Forest Service. If that’s conservation, well, maybe I have a different idea.”

“What’s interesting is that the K-Z Ranch is on federal land,” says Andrew Forbes, a senior in ecology and evolution, “and there are people like the Segalls who live on it, and who have little control. The problems of people living on public land is not something I’ve ever considered.”

It falls on Ed McCord to bring closure to these disparate elements in the third section of the course, public policy and ethics. McCord, director of programming at the Honors College, has the precise academic qualifications—a law degree, a master’s in anthropology, and a doctorate in philosophy. But the nexus between us and nature is anything but academic. Even though scores of government scientists exhaustively research every policy decision—logging rights in national forests, restrictions on recreational snowmobiles, controlling Yellowstone bison that wander off into private land—the research can’t predict the reaction between people and the wilderness.

In a sense, everything about Yellowstone, the world’s first national park, has been an experiment. And first often means untried; by its nature, public policy regarding parks and forest have been forged in controversy.

Take the Grand Teton National Park just south of Yellowstone. In 1927, when the park was just an idea, oil magnate-turned-philanthropist John D. Rockefeller began a secret plan to buy up the land next to the park’s eastern border. When the area was declared a park in 1930, Rockefeller announced his gift: Thousands of adjacent acres would be given to the government for preservation. But Rockefeller’s generosity garnered outrage. Local developers, farmers, and ranchers felt betrayed; their chances for using the land had been “stolen.” Public criticism led Congress to refuse Rockefeller’s gift. It was decades before the land finally became part of the Grand Teton Park.

“Think of turning down a gift like that now,” says McCord. “But we do have the same politics today, and to understand how people feel, you have to understand the history of the West.”

Conflict between public and private interests has hardly abated. Sorting through these difficulties is the job, literally, of Jennifer Corwin (Arts and Sciences ’91), a Yellowstone field course alum and, by no coincidence, Harry Corwin’s daughter. Jennifer now works as an environmental protection specialist for the Federal Highway Administration—and, ironically, one of her projects is reconstruction work on the nearby Beartooth Scenic Highway in Wyoming. “It’s a tricky balancing act,” she says. “You have the highway administration’s goals—you’re working on a highway that crosses a national forest. You have political concerns among the federal and state agencies. You have the public’s input. And underneath it all you have the environment. Even the idea of protecting the environment is a difficult concept. Ecology isn’t an exact science. I’ve had people tell me the highway administration’s environmental recommendations were based on assumptions. And, in a sense, they’re right. But so is their argument. It becomes a judgment call.”

The complex controversies seem to strike a chord with Yellowstone’s students. Angela Onikepe, a native of Nigeria and junior environmental studies and biology major, explains it best: “Sometimes I feel as if I wear glasses —one lens is Nigerian, one American. Sometimes the glasses are in focus, sometimes not. And that’s the way it feels here in Yellowstone, too. The answers aren’t always clear.”

Ultimately, it’s not the intellectual issues that make up the Yellowstone experience. The park simply won’t allow your mind to work that hard. One moment you’re hiking through the Sunlight Basin arguing the ethics of bison management; the next you’re standing before a 200-foot waterfall hidden in some out-of-the-way crevice. And before you know it your shirt is off, and the ice-cold water is pounding on your head, and you’re screaming like a child out of sheer delight. And you stand back in awe, watching the ancient water make its joyous journey down the cliffs, cliffs that were here before the first Shoshone people, before the dawn of history. And you wonder—as the Shoshone must have wondered, as Lewis and Clark’s guides must have wondered—at what nature has wrought, and you reach back for words to describe it all, but you’re left speechless, no vocabulary good enough.

Finally, standing there, shirtless, shivering, you remember something you heard a few days back, at the site of yet another miracle, and you call out to whoever’s listening: “Way to go, God!”

Yellowstone Encounters: Wildlife
Visitors to Yellowstone should heed a warning provided by Elliot Segall, owner of the K-Z Ranch: “This is unforgiving land.”

Indeed. There are as many ways to get hurt as there are sights to see. The most dramatic threat is bears, especially grizzlies. Truth is, bears rarely attack, and only react when threatened. Still some guides caution hikers to wear small bells on their clothing and watch for bear droppings, commonly known as “scat.” (“Bear scat is easy to recognize,” Segall says with a smile. “It’s the one with tiny bells in it.”)

Injuries are far more common from water, trails, and cars. Kettle lakes and Yellowstone Lake are deep and very cold. The streams act as oases for animals in the park, as well as for visitors. But streams can also run fast, with unpredictable currents. A number of years back, one student missed a step and was taken in. Quick thinking by Troy Barnett, son-in-law of Elliot Segall, saved the student’s life. Troy jumped into the stream, grabbed the student by the waist, and pulled him out.

But perhaps the greatest threat ever faced by Pitt students took place several years back at the K-Z barn. Classes are sometimes held in the loft, with the barn doors open on each side to catch a breeze. Jennifer Corwin was the teaching assistant for her father, Harry, who was holding class in the loft. Outside, Jennifer decided to test the super-pepper spray she carried to ward off bears. She followed directions, held the can downwind and sprayed.

The test spray worked—in fact, it pretty much debilitated 10 Pitt students and one very upset father.

“I’ll never live that down,” Jennifer Corwin says. —MC

Yellowstone Encounters: Weather
The weather in Yellowstone depends on where you’re standing—literally. Elevation varies from 5,000 feet to more than 11,000 feet. Figure that average temperature drops at least three degrees every 1,000 feet, and you can do the math. Sixty miles away in Cody, Wyoming, summer temperatures can be steamy. Meanwhile, on Beartooth Butte near Yellowstone, climbers shiver in the freezing rain.

The rain and snow, however, are also subject to fierce winds pouring through the Rockies. The wind tends to dry everything out. Combine that with low humidity, and you discover the biggest threat to hikers: dehydration. During the first few days in Yellowstone, students learn to pack at least half a gallon of water per trek, along with a few aspirin for the headaches that come with altitude adjustment.

Perhaps the greatest weather lesson comes from sitting around the dinner table at the K-Z Ranch and learning about the realities of winter in the Rockies. One example: Troy and Dawna Barnett’s young children, Chase and Katrina, attend a one-room schoolhouse (10 children total) in Cooke City, Montana. After October 15 or so, the 11-mile trip is by snowmobile only—a 45-minute trek, one way. —MC

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