Early in 2019, Congress decided Yellowstone National Park was worth more than gold.
And when it did that by passing the Yellowstone Gateway Protection Act, it protected the world’s first national park from the immediate threat of two gold mining companies, one of which proposed gold mining in Emigrant Gulch in Paradise Valley and the other on Crevice Mountain next to the park. But the act is not just a short-term stop gap. It protects 30,370 acres of land near Yellowstone’s North Entrance from large-scale mining in perpetuity.
“We are over the moon,” says Caroline Byrd, executive director of Greater Yellowstone Coalition, an environmental organization that worked closely with community members, legislators and business owners to fight the gold mines. “It’s a huge victory.”
But the Greater Yellowstone Coalition’s work goes far beyond blocking proposed gold mines. Since 1983, the organization has focused on protecting the 20 million acres surrounding Yellowstone that forms one of the world’s last intact ecosystems. It’s home to migrating animals like elk, bison and moose. It’s a haven for grizzly bears who made an incredible comeback after almost disappearing in the 1970s. Its critical habitat for wolves whose reintroduction in the 1990s has restored balance to the ecosystem. And it’s the origin for waters that end up in three of the nation’s critical river systems on which 55 million Americans depend: the Columbia, Missouri and Colorado.
“This truly is a unique place on the planet,” Byrd says. “There are very few places in the world with an intact ecosystem, and we still have all our pieces in place for wildlife from bears to pikas to beavers. We like to call it ‘the wild heart of North America.”
What tips does the organization have for travelers journeying into this wild heart? Be aware that you’re stepping into a fully intact ecosystem where wildlife like grizzlies live. This means taking precautions while hiking and camping in the area.
“We have a responsibility when we visit and when recreate to do it differently,” Byrd says. “For instance, you have to carry bear spray and know how to use it since bears are everywhere.”
It’s also important to follow campground rules on how to store your food, so bears don’t get habituated to human food and trash. There’s a saying in the West that “a fed bear is a dead bear,” alluding to the sad fact that bears that get into trash become “problem” bears that often have to be euthanized.
To cut down on human-bear interactions, the coalition just finished a project with the National Forest Service to install bear-proof garbage cans in 164 campgrounds in three states: Montana, Wyoming and Idaho.
“We work hard to keep people safe and bears wild,” she says.
Learn more about the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and how you can help protect Yellowstone at greateryellowstone.org.