What the Yellowstone Floods Teach Us

No matter how hard we try to tame nature, we will ultimately fail.

A bison looks back as it crosses the road near Lamar Valley in Yellowstone National Park.
Erik Petersen / The Washington Post / Getty

About the author: Tom Brokaw is a retired NBC News anchor, an author, and a longtime seasonal resident of Montana.

Yellowstone is a natural wonder, carved out by eons of fire, water, snow, ice, and earthquakes. I’ve been hiking, biking, and driving through Yellowstone since I was 12 years old, and every trip is thrilling because there is always the unexpected.

One year, I saw a grizzly bear take a dead fully grown antelope in its jaws and race up a mountain to escape pesky birds of prey. Another time, my wife, Meredith, and I watched through binoculars as a pack of wolves turned on sneaky coyotes trying to snatch a free meal.

Normally, Yellowstone visitors skip between steaming-hot openings in the rocky hillsides. This summer is suddenly different. The devastating floods coursing through Yellowstone are yet another reminder that this park is not Disneyland or Las Vegas. Yellowstone is in a perpetual state of change, as it will be after these floods. There will be new streams and newly carved landscapes. There will be loss and, more important, renewal.

I remember the devastating Yellowstone fires of the 1980s. Whole mountainsides were stripped of green and covered in blackened trees. Friends visiting from the East Coast thought that was the end of Yellowstone as we had known it. In a few years, those mountainsides were covered with fresh green boughs. Nature restored the wounds.

Yellowstone is more than a natural wonder, of course. It is also a thriving commercial attraction, which has been effectively shut down by these floods. Within the park, the financial loss still is being calculated, but it is sure to be enormous. These destructive waters have arrived at the beginning of the peak tourist season. Motels, restaurants, souvenir shops, and other services all came to a halt as local rivers started to run amok last week. Gardiner, Montana, on the north side, is the most popular entry point, and its economy is fully dependent on the park. The other entries are in more isolated areas where, even in the best of times, roads, bridges, and campgrounds are susceptible to difficult conditions. Every commercial area in and around the park will need financial assistance sooner rather than later to survive.

The main lodge overlooking the Old Faithful geyser depends on a robust population to make its numbers in the relatively short summer season. Now it’s a kind of ghost town as the park personnel try to restore business in time for the winter season. Heartier winter guests may have second thoughts this year. I hope not. In my experience, Yellowstone is best in the winter.

I try to imagine the legendary mountain man John Colter, who, when the Lewis and Clark expedition ended, struck out for that area of steaming holes in the ground that he knew of from his initial trip into the region. Colter was not exactly a pioneer: Native tribes had been in and out of Yellowstone for centuries. In 1872, Yellowstone was established as a national park, and the U.S. Army managed it until 1918, when the National Park Service took control. By then, automobiles were allowed into the park. But as the park became more popular, too many visitors treated it as a kind of petting zoo. Bears and other animals got used to being fed by well-meaning but ill-informed visitors. So the rules were changed and wildlife no longer had access to open-pit garbage dumps. Wolves, the most voracious of the local wildlife, were reintroduced to the park despite the protests of regional livestock interests. The wolf population expanded rapidly and remains a touchy issue with surrounding states. Another event, another change.

Now, as lovers of Yellowstone like myself look on at this new destruction, it’s important to all remember one thing: America’s greatest park may be wounded, but it will survive. This experience should remind us of something that Yellowstone has always reminded us: that for all of America’s man-made alterations, nature still rules.