Yellowstone became the first national park in 1872, and has been a prominent tourist destination ever since. Today, the park faces issues that threaten to destroy the ecological balance of the land.
For just one example, a golden eagle was recently found dead from lead poisoning, which resulted from eating big game shot by lead ammunition. It was the third time in eight years that a tagged eagle had been found dead of lead poisoning.
The challenges facing Yellowstone’s health are vast, but thanks to a handful of Penn State Geodesign students, hope is on the way. In 2019, graduates of the Master of Professional Studies in Geodesign program got the opportunity of a lifetime after registering for the Rural/Regional Geodesign Challenges studio course.
The students knew they’d be using their skills to help address land-based challenges, but they hadn’t expected their challenge to be so large scale. In fact, they were tasked with helping to develop a large-scale recovery, restoration, and sustainability plan for Yellowstone National Park in just 15 weeks. No pressure, right?
The initial intimidation some students understandably felt was overshadowed by the opportunity to help the park and its animal inhabitants to thrive. But the task wasn’t easy, and the workflow turned out to be highly complex.
Students had to collaborate with outside individuals and organizations as well as each other to build a program for a natural and sustainable environment that works for humans and animals.
Geodesigning for sustainability
For a better understanding of what these students were attempting to do, think about what makes a home sustainable, and apply the underlying principles to a natural habitat. For example, a sustainable home uses as little energy as possible to provide a habitable environment.
In a human residence, sustainability is achieved by conserving the amount of electricity and/or gas that gets consumed. Sources of wasted energy are eliminated and systems are streamlined to maximize efficiency.
In a natural environment, the environment must be structured for maximum efficiency and self-sustainability. Think of a gardener planting a vegetable garden according to the principles of companion gardening.
Planting methods maximize existing symbiotic relationships between plants, much like an online psychic service can maximize an individual’s personal growth. Some plants grow better around certain other specific plants but not others. For instance, green beans grow better if planted near strawberries.
Some plants remove heavy amounts of nutrients from the soil while others return plenty of nutrients. If you plant too much of the wrong vegetation together, neither will absorb enough nutrients to grow.
The best gardens are planted based on this knowledge to maintain a balance. Balanced gardens are sustainable and can produce a good harvest.
Planting a sustainable vegetable garden is a simple example compared to restoring a complex ecosystem such as Yellowstone, but the underlying principles are similar.
Of all the projects these students could have been given, why Yellowstone? It came together when author Shannon McElvaney met the founder and director of the Yellowstone Ecological Research Center, Bob Crabtree.
Crabtree wanted to use McElvaney’s graduate-level geodesign course at Penn State to help solve a problem he was experiencing in Yellowstone. Due to several environmental factors -- including climate change -- the animals in Yellowstone National Park have been shifting North to Paradise Valley, Montana.
Since Paradise Valley is a high-traffic area, this migration put the animals in greater danger of being hit by motor vehicles. Crabtree wanted to develop a long-term plan to restore the park to a condition in which humans and animals can coexist.
One of the proposals included allowing ranchers to graze their cattle in Park County’s prairie land during the summer, and let the bison and elk have the run of the land in the winter. Most of the animals are sold for meat, so it makes sense for them to share the land.
Another proposal was to plant willow in the Yellowstone River to combat water pollution from cement construction being used to slow down stormwater runoff. Conflicts developed because the Yellowstone River is a popular destination for trout fishing, but the cement construction operations have been poisoning the water and the trout.
This puts humans at risk as well, when they eat the trout. Willow is known to attract beavers, and the idea was that the beavers would come to the river, eat the willow, and use it to build natural dams.
In the process, more willow would seed and grow, and ponds would result from the interaction of beavers and willow which would slow down the water flow and create a home for new trout.
Hope for Yellowstone
The ideas crafted by the class have been submitted to Crabtree and his team. Proposals are currently under review by a committee, and the project will move forward once the plans are finalized.
Of course, the students are excited to have been allowed to participate in the project. It’s rare to get this kind of real-world experience in a university course, and the learning opportunities have been invaluable for all.