Yellowstone through different perspectives

I will occasionally peruse campus bulletin boards to see if there are any events of interest. My attention was caught when I read a keyword in an event “Ecologies of Science and Story: Perspectives on Communicating Yellowstone”. Communication is the foundation for my passion in marine education; I love it so much that I wanted it to be part of my research topic. The next best part of the title was that the event was about a charismatic location that I’ve been to several years ago so it was someplace familiar. A couple other factors that convinced me to go was that it happened to fit into my schedule that day and my committee member was one of the speakers.

The talk, emceed by Tim Jensen, was given by Chelsea Graham, David Baker, Ben Goldfarb, and Robert Beschta. While the focus was on Yellowstone, the stories that each of them told were not what I anticipated to hear. The four speakers took a uncommon stance on the topic but the two that stood out to me most were the ones about steam and beavers. Now one may think, “Of course she’s going to be interested in the beaver portion because her university’s mascot is a beaver.” However, it wasn’t because of my school’s mascot that had me intrigued at the beaver story; what caught my attention was the similar importance of the beaver to the wolf yet people are so focused on the canine that they don’t attribute ecosystem success to any other species.

The return of the Yellowstone National Park grey wolves in 1995 is the most renowned story of a species reintroduction. In the 1920s, wolves in the Yellowstone region were hunted mainly for consuming rancher’s livestock which led to a decline in the wolf population. However, this decline allowed deer and elk to thrive without anything to keep their populations in check- more hoofed mammals meant the need to consume more aspen and willow saplings leading to a loss of overall biodiversity.

Cover photo for Ben Goldfarb's book, Eager
Eager is written by Ben Goldfarb, who was a speaker at an Oregon State University event about communicating Yellowstone through different perspectives.

Ben Goldfarb is the author of Eager: The Surprising, Secret Life of Beavers and Why They Matter. His talk described that without tree saplings, beavers were one of the unspoken species affected by the decrease of biodiversity. Beavers use willow trees to build their dams but with so many deer and elk eating their saplings, willow trees weren’t able to grow to the desired length and beavers weren’t able to build their dams. Additionally, without beaver dams, streams were too powerful and washed away the sides of riverbanks creating low water tables and high plains. There was a catch-22; beavers need willow trees to thrive but without beavers to create slow-moving water habitat for willow trees, willow trees didn’t have the right conditions to grow; both of which contribute to the ecology of Yellowstone.

Chelsea Graham is a visiting professor in Oregon State University’s School of Arts and Communication. She made a compelling presentation on how steam was a key factor in forming the national park, albeit with negative consequences. In the area that is now Yellowstone National Park, the re-discovery of steam by Nathaniel Langford and Jay Cooke (pre-Yellowstone explorer and railroad financier, respectively) brought ideas of using it as an attraction destination, leading to the completion of the railroad to bring people out West. (I say “re-discovery” because the Native people were aware of this before they arrived.) Ferdinand Hayden, who worked for the United States Geological Survey, realized that if steam could be seen as scientific data points, the lands could be governed which would give Congress the ability to remove possession of land from the Native Americans living there. The Yellowstone Park Protection Act of 1872 urged Congress to preserve the lands for their scientific characteristics and the rest is history.

However, it wasn’t until the end of the talk did I realize that I’m more interested in another term in the event title: perspectives. It can make all the difference when it comes to telling stories. Had I not attended this session, I wouldn’t have known that steam was a contributing factor to creating one of the most famous national parks in the United States. Nor would I have heard about Yellowstone from the beaver perspective; I’m not sure how long it would be until I learn that my very own university’s mascot has such an integral part of a well-visited place.

So as one can see, perspectives matter otherwise things are invisible and overlooked as a part of a whole until they’re pointed out. I suppose that’s the whole premise of perspective and it’s what I’ll be doing in my research; I’ll be applying narrative theory to a rhetorical analysis of National Geographic’s June 2018 issue about ocean plastic. My perspective involves showing people that National Geographic uses storytelling with their renowned visuals to convey the impact of plastic on the world’s oceans and the implications that arise from that. Hopefully, I can open the eyes someone to ocean plastic storytelling as Ben Goldfarb and Chelsea Graham have done for me with steam and beavers.

On the topic of Oregon State University and the Native people that were removed from Yellowstone National Park, it needs to be mentioned that Oregon State University is on the stolen land of the Kalapuya who are now a part of the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde Community of Oregon and the Confederated Tribes of Siletz Indians.