POWELL — While some dignitaries drop into Yellowstone National Park by helicopter, new Secretary of the Interior Secretary Deb Haaland wound up being escorted by bison on her drive in, experiencing the park in the same way as most tourists.
Before hocking the Biden administration’s infrastructure bill and pledging funding for the National Park Service, Haaland also jumped in a kayak for a spin on Yellowstone Lake, toured improvements and witnessed the ravages of drought and fire.
Wearing a pair of sneakers as she hiked along the North Rim of Upper Falls along the Yellowstone River, it was apparent she wasn’t just there for the press conference and a meal in Jackson.
Friday wasn’t Haaland’s first trip to Yellowstone, but it was her first since being confirmed to Biden’s cabinet. Her message from a podium near the Upper Falls overlook was of the hope that funding from the bipartisan Great American Outdoors Act — which was signed into law by then-President Donald Trump last year — brings to the future of Yellowstone and the Park Service.
“Investments in the park’s infrastructure in 2021 alone are expected to support nearly 1,600 jobs and contribute $333.9 million to the nation’s economy,” Haaland said. “These investments are absolutely necessary to support our parks, as we manage record-breaking visitation and protect against threats to our natural resources from climate change.”
The country’s first Native American leader of the Department of the Interior also pledged continued support for the nation’s natural jewels, calling Yellowstone a place of “shared ancestral homelands of the north, west and Great Plains nations who were the first stewards of this special place.”
She wore a colorful mask and a prominent beaded necklace with a bright, red rose — gifted to her with a matching bracelet and earrings while visiting Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes on the Wind River Reservation on Thursday.
“They were so kind,” Haaland said of the tribes. “I’m so proud to wear those in their homelands.”
She was quick to point out innovations already underway in the park and the need for further funding sources.
“Yellowstone National Park doesn’t run on well wishes. It’s going to take a lot of funding, a lot of creative solutions and a lot of commitment from everyone,” she said, mentioning recent experiments with autonomous electric vehicles and climate change research.
Since taking Yellowstone’s top role in late 2018, Superintendent Cam Sholly has been vocal about the risks posed by rising attendance in the park.
For the first time, visits in July spiked over 1 million as the park heads toward setting attendance records. New records have been set for each of the past five months, along with the final two months of the 2020 season. “
We’re really at a point right now, as strong as ecosystem is, that we’re challenged by the threats of the future,” Sholly said at Friday’s event. “And we’re seeing that through climate change — especially — and through increasing visitation.”
With surrounding peaks obscured by smoke from western fires, Sholly likened the current conditions to 1988, when more than 100 square miles of the park burned and ultimately led to new firefighting guidelines. “
We expect that these drier conditions, which are similar to 1988, will continue to challenge us,” he said. “We’ve got some of the lowest flows in Yellowstone’s rivers and streams that we’ve ever seen.”
There have been 13 wildland fires in the park this year, but all have been relatively small and none have threatened to close famous attractions or landscapes. The thick smoke visible on the horizon is from fires on the West Coast, rather than within park borders.
Sholly has actively engaged stakeholders, including gateway communities, in his search for answers to extended fire seasons and crowded roadways.
National Park Service Regional Director Mike Reynolds said he is watching Yellowstone closely as it looks to answer challenges.
“We’re going to take a lot of the lessons (from) here in visitor use management and climate change in the way that they manage Yellowstone to embrace the future,” Reynolds said. “And we’re going to take them to our other 90 (regional) parks, and then we’re going to leverage that further to help the rest of the nation.”
Ahead of Haaland’s Yellowstone stop — which at one point was scheduled to include Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg — Gov. Mark Gordon hosted Haaland in Fremont County on Thursday.
The visit was an opportunity for the governor to advocate for Wyoming, Gordon’s office said in a release, including on energy projects.
For example, Gordon said he urged Haaland to go forward with the Bureau of Land Management’s postponed March and June 2021 oil and gas lease sales.
“This has been a valuable opportunity for the secretary to see firsthand the critical nature of federal lands for Wyoming people. I appreciated her taking the time to be here and to listen to Wyoming perspectives on how her department has significant impacts on the lives of those who live, work and recreate on federal lands,” Gordon said in a statement, adding, “I continue to stress how much the mineral industry has done for our state, its importance to our economy, and the impacts and issues created by the Biden Administration’s actions.”
They also discussed efforts to address the number of missing and murdered Indigenous persons, invasive species’ impact on habitat, endangered species, state-led management of grizzly bears, the Wyoming sage-grouse plan and wildlife migration corridors.
In advance of Haaland’s visit, the departments of the Interior and Agriculture announced their support for Wyoming’s wildlife migration strategy, which they described as “designed to improve outcomes for wildlife, honor private landowner rights, and preserve multiple-use opportunities.”
Gordon signed an executive order in February that outlined a strategy to designate and manage science-based wildlife migration corridors in Wyoming.
“Wyoming is a great model for how to advance collaborative, proactive work to conserve and restore important wildlife habitat and migration corridors,” said Haaland. “We are eager to further the state’s efforts, and to leverage new and existing federal resources to support tribes, private landowners, and others in this locally led conservation vision.”
The interior and agriculture agencies announced $2 million in grants — through the Improving Habitat Quality in Western Big Game Migration Corridors and Habitat Connectivity program — for projects on federal land in the West that enhance and improve the quality of state or tribal-identified priority big game habitat, stopover areas and migration corridors.
Over the past three years, the grant program has awarded more than $9 million to 40 projects on public and private lands, the department reported. In Wyoming, the program has provided $1.8 million across five grants that will leverage programs like the Wyoming Wildlife Natural Resource Trust for more than $8.5 million in matching contributions.
Projects support more than 4,000 acres of annual invasive weeds treatment, 110 miles of fence modifications, 280 acres protected through voluntary conservation easements, and 33,000 acres of habitat restoration through treatments such as shrub plantings, prescribed burns, and conifer removal.