November 19, 1996
It’s a peculiar concept at first blush: “The Greening of Yellowstone”. Yellowstone, perhaps the most famous national park in the world, is already green, right? Parks are green, right? So why would 150 people spend three days in a Holiday Inn in West Yellowstone, Montana, talking about “The Greening of Yellowstone,” instead of wandering around in the majesty of the park itself?
Well, because both the national park itself, and the communities and businesses of the Greater Yellowstone region spanning portions of three states, face many of the same challenges faced by most communities and businesses–energy consumption, waste management, land use, etc. And they face these with two unique dimensions, consequences of the nature of the place: the pressure of growth, from people who move to the region to obtain the amenities that their moving to the region erodes; and the ‘platform’ of a world-renown destination for several million people a year.
The Greening of Yellowstone was produced by the same crew that produced Greening of the White House and Pentagon (now available on CD-ROM from http://www.eren.doe.gov or 1-800-DOE-EREC), and other notable sites. Spearheaded by the non-profit Global Environmental Options, joined by the National Parks Service, and the Montana and Wyoming Departments of Environmental Quality, the format in this case brought together a diverse array of local people–NPS employees, local business people and residents, state and county officials, and a multi-disciplinary team of architects, engineers, planners and others to lay out an aggressive yet practical plan for major improvements in both resource efficiency and quality of life.
Like most communities, the Yellowstone community didn’t start from scratch. Existing initiatives have included the “Truck in the Park” experiments with biofuels (ethanol and biodiesel) and biolubricants (vehicle fuels and chain saw lubricants made from canola oil and other plant-based sources of hydrocarbons); pollution prevention programs in Park vehicle maintenance that have reduced use and stocks of some hazardous materials by more than 90%; and a cautious, and apparently successful, program to reintroduce wolves to the Yellowstone Park ecosystem.
The Greening of Yellowstone program was designed to build on these efforts with six work teams that yielded a wealth of both intriguing suggestions and action strategies. Here is a sampling:
The Buildings team proposed a “Sustainable Yellowstone Benchmark” addressing environmental, economic and social design standards for buildings in and near the Park, including visitor centers, accommodations and other construction projects–with the clear intention that these benchmarks influence other designers in the region.
The Energy team proposed systematic outreach and technical assistance on energy efficiency strategies to local businesses and homeowners, and more usage of solar energy, particularly photovoltaic modules for electricity production in areas where power lines are more than a quarter or half mile away.
The Waste team, in an entertaining leap, offered “testimonials from the next generation” honoring the transition to zero waste. That hindsight view yielded a host of creative strategies for how to get to that imagined future.
The Transportation Systems team encouraged a demonstration project of a “Yellowstone-unique vehicle” such as a biofueled and biolubricated shuttle as an alternative to private cars, but focused more on transportation systems, including strategies like variable access fees to manage traffic congestion. And in a closely related effort, the Alternative Fuels team emphasized education and “good science” as well as technologies, including additional biofuel demonstration projects; educating park users to reduce idling at entrance kiosks; and better research into actual ambient pollution levels in the basin.
Cleaner Products and Processes designed an event that grew from a hazardous waste collection day to a community resource fair that could showcase demonstrations in all these realms, plus make it easier for residents to find what turns out to be a wealth of support resources available from the various state agencies.
To the organizers’ credit, the design of the workshop encouraged attention to the linkages between the work groups, and to key leverage points like education, design guidelines, the Park’s “commercial services plan” guiding concession, tours and trips, etc, and the ripple effect from the park to the surrounding region, and the challenges of mutli-state coordination.
And there was one perhaps unexpected perspective. Not only can initiatives at the Park serve as a model for the world; the Park itself provides a model for the community of “the way things work” in the real world–diverse living systems linked in a web of waste-free growth, death, and exchange, powered by wind, rain and ultimately the sun.
As always, the social and economic challenges are steeper that the technical challenges. It’s one thing to prevent pollution from equipment maintenance. It’s quite another to address the growth gauntlet faced by “pristine” magnet regions like Yellowstone and Lake Tahoe in meeting the high disposable-income-powered get-out-of-the-city-hungers of maturing baby boomers. On these questions I heard no answers, though even here we’re not without examples, ranging from the recent growth-containing “green line” initiatives in Portland, Oregon and San Jose, California, to the more traditional open-space-preserving cluster development patterns of the European Tyrol.