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61 d ay 4 Beauty and the Beet As we were about departing on our homeward trip we ascended the summit of a neighboring hill and took a final look at Yellowstone Lake. Nestled among the forest-crowned hills which bounded our vision, lay this inland sea, its crystal waves dancing and sparkling in the sunlight as if laughing with joy for their wild freedom. It is a scene of transcendent beauty. —David E. Folsom, 1869 There is a beehive of activity around me this morning as we pack to leave and clean up the cabin. Our sojourn through the activities of rangers in the field is over, just as is our stay at Trail Creek. Also clearing out is the slow-moving weather system that has been our constant companion on this trip—the skies today are blue, with mist rising from the lake after a clear, cold night. To continue enjoying cabin privileges, we have to leave it in as good a condition as we found it (or better), with a fire laid in the woodstove and matches handy for the next rain-soaked or ski-weary ranger to light with one match. So, Sean, Josh, and Eric empty the ashes, lay a fire, clean all horizontal surfaces, haul more firewood in, enter our visit in the logbook, and sweep and mop the floor. It is mid-morning by the time we launch, those chores having taken a while, and the mists have dissipated in the strengthening sun. Our route this morning takes us past the broad delta built up by the Yellowstone River over time. About five miles across, it is mostly covered in willows , the soils too moist for lodgepole pines or any other trees. We take our time paddling along it, exploring the shoreline’s many ins and outs. There is a lot to savor, whether it is the snow glistening in the sun on the 62 DAY 4 Absaroka peaks, the possibility of seeing a moose browsing the willows, or the delicate tension between sediment deposition by the river and erosion by wave action, which collectively determine the shoreline. That same dance leaves much of the near-shore lake shallow and covered in ripple marks, miniature sand dunes in six-inch-deep water. Nature’s beauty surrounds us here, in scales large and small. This natural beauty might now be under twenty-five feet of water had things turned out differently in a major national park policy debate almost a century ago, for Yellowstone Lake’s level would have been raised to nourish agricultural beauty downstream in Montana. The dam proposed for the lake’s outlet was one of several proposed for the waters of Yellowstone National Park in the 1920s; it would have backed water several miles up the valley, well into the Thorofare. Not only would such a reservoir have killed all these willows, but its oscillating levels would have exposed the former delta at times—transformed into a smelly, unsightly mudflat. The willow flats and sand dunes would be gone, that delicate tension impossible to recreate with the widely varying reservoir levels. At the time, it was not at all clear whether such dams belonged in Yellowstone or whether they would be built. Fortunately for us, natural beauty would prevail, but not without some compromises. The story is a fitting one, both because we see and enjoy its outcome today and also because it further illuminates the motivations impelling people to protect this place. Thanks to those who acted on their convictions, the premise that some places should remain free of human alteration, first given expression in 1872 with the establishment of Yellowstone, became more deeply rooted. National parks would remain dam-free, and the Thorofare would remain as beautiful as it is wild.1 e At its core, the dam controversy was about differing ideas of beauty and which of those should prevail in Yellowstone. Montana and Idaho irrigators saw beauty in vibrant fields of cash crops like sugar beets and the prosperous society those would support, while conservationists saw beauty in undeveloped and untrammeled nature. Reclamationist thought was rooted in the ideals of utilitarian conservation, the idea BEAUTY AND THE BEET 63 that society should strive for the “greatest good for the greatest number for the longest time.” To reclamationists, “the greatest beauty in the world is the beauty of use.”2 Conservationists drew from a different line of thought, one that emphasized the preservation of nature in an...


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