Photograph by Erika Larsen
Photograph by Erika Larsen

One Woman’s Quest to Keep Yellowstone Wild

How do you make sure nature stays natural? Ask Caroline Byrd, who has devoted her life to preserving the world’s first National Park.

As soon as  Caroline Byrd, 56, graduated from college, she drove her Volkswagen bus from California to Wyoming—and never looked back. From early days on a Forest Service trail crew to her current role as the Greater Yellowstone Coalition’s executive director, Byrd has held tight to one goal for the place she loves: keeping it wild.

Why is the Yellowstone area so special?

We have, in the heart of North America, this tremendous wild place that still works like nature can—and should. And while it is 20 million-plus acres, it’s still not big enough. We’ve got three hubs of protected wildlands in the northern Rockies—Greater Yellowstone, the Crown of the Continent, and the central Idaho wildlands—and the connective tissue between them is crucial. None of those, in the face of climate change, are big enough on their own.

How do you balance pressures on the park?

There are people who say they are deeply committed to conservation and yet want more access for recreation. And we’re still fighting 1872 gold-mining laws. It’s the Old West and the 21st century all at the same time. Our goal is just that the integrity of the wildness comes first.

The 1872 act establishing Yellowstone declared it was “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.” Is that still the park’s credo?

Yes, but it’s different. The wildness is what we need to treasure, so that you’re not seeing hot dog stands or a flotilla of rafts; you’re seeing the North American West at its most elemental. Now. Not in the past. I think that’s an important point. We shouldn’t try to re-create, or have as a benchmark, what it was. We should embrace what it is.