Photo Credit: Birds on a Wire by Flickr.com user Kiwi Flickr

Island Press Staff Picks

This week’s pick is from Lauren Koshere: “How’s the Park lookin’ these days,” asks a gravelly voice on the other end of the telephone line, “after they let those fires ruin the place?” As a reservations agent for in Yellowstone National Park, I answer hundreds of questions a day. But few guests’ questions refer to the Yellowstone fires of 1988. Fewer still reflect such disapproval about the management of those fires. “The Park is as beautiful as ever—lots of regrowth and stands of young trees,” I say. Recalling what I’ve learned about the ecological benefit of the fires, I add, “In fact, fires are an important part of the ecology of lodgepole pine forests like we have here in Yellowstone.” I look away from my computer to the steaming terraces of Mammoth Hot Springs and the lodgepole-blanketed slopes of Terrace Mountain beyond. “Beautiful? Ha! The let Yellowstone become ugly. It was a national travesty!” His outrage is surprising, but he says he’s willing to give Yellowstone another chance—after boycotting the country’s first national park for 20 years after the fires, he is calling me to book a hotel reservation. As I check room availability, he peppers our conversation with disapproving comments about the 1988 fires. By the end of our call, I’ve heard enough ranting. I decide to make a recommendation. “You seem very interested in the fires, sir. You might be interested in one of my favorite books on the subject—Scorched Earth, by Rocky Barker. It explains how fires have influenced Yellowstone since long before 1988.”

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That was four years ago, twenty years to the summer after fires burned 63% of Yellowstone National Park. As someone who has spent two summers and portions of ten more working, living, and exploring in Yellowstone, I first discovered the Island Press book Scorched Earth: How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America years before I joined IP as a staff member. But the value of this book extends beyond the 2.2 million acres of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho that comprise Yellowstone National Park. Author Rocky Barker sets the stage for this broader relevance by offering a vivid historical explanation of how fires influenced the creation and early management of Yellowstone. He explores how deeply the fires of Yellowstone (those in 1988 and before) have influenced the development of forest management practices and environmental consciousness in the United States. And he makes a case for reconciling forest managers’ early need to control fires with our ongoing need to accept that fires will happen—and that they play an important ecological role. After spending several years living and studying in the West, I especially appreciate Barker’s savvy to Western environmental issues. As an environmental reporter for the Idaho Statesman, Barker understands the context and complexities of environmental topics in the West, especially when it comes to fire. This perspective, as nuanced as it is valuable, might be lost on an author who lacks Barker’s history of working, living, and writing in the West. “Living in a forest or rangeland means living with fire, not stopping it,” he writes in the book’s final chapter. “We can collectively or individually decide where and when we want to take the risks of confronting wildfire. But we don’t have the choice of deciding whether to live with the changes it brings.”