“We don’t have fires here.” It’s not a sentiment you hear much these days in the drought-blasted, wildfire-bedeviled, climate-change-challenged West. It shows just how unusual is this comment of a forest ranger in the little corner of southeast Idaho that serves as an obscure back door to Yellowstone National Park. This tiny part of Idaho is lush and verdant, with rolling lime green fields of barley, alfalfa, potatoes and other crops. It looks more like Ireland than the rest of Idaho, let alone most of the Western United States.
The conventional ways into Yellowstone are through Wyoming and Montana, but if you want to avoid the millions and see the park at its wettest and most dramatic, this little area can’t be beat. This corner of Yellowstone, replete with wide rushing rivers and high plunging waterfalls (one of them so remote it was not even discovered until 1922), is mostly cut off form the rest of the national park. Yet it is possible for the hardy to hike 31 miles to the famous Old Faithful geyser. Of course, if you leave your car here, you then have to hike 31 miles back, a problem that is sufficient to discourage all but the toughest hikers, including my wife and I.
Our own experience on a two-week road trip underlined just how rare it is to dismiss the threat of wildfire. We were chased out of Canada and Montana by wildfires. More than 200 fires were burning in British Columbia alone. One of the three vast national parks in the Canadian Rockies was closed entirely and the other two were heavily impacted by smoke. Leaving Missoula, Mont., we detoured hundreds of miles to avoid fires north, east and west of the city.
As of last week, 36 large wildfires were burning in nine mostly Western states, including 11 in Montana, nine in California and six in Oregon. So far this year, 39,000 fires have burned nearly 8,600 square miles.
Record drought, the worst in the country is destroying the agricultural economy of eastern Montana. Throughout the northwest, crops are toasted brown and lake levels are shrinking. In this region of once abundant rainfall and snowmelt, farming is now usually shackled to irrigation.
Glacier National Park and Waterton Lakes National Park, the two adjacent parks on either side of the Canadian-Montana international border, are a kind of canary in the coal mine of climate change. A Waterton ranger said, “We have no glaciers.” A Glacier ranger said the 150 glaciers that once graced the park have been reduced to 25, and all of those are expected to disappear by 2030. Actually, he said, the 25 figure is believed to be an exaggeration. It reflects a 2011 glacier survey, the most recent the National Park Service has undertaken; “it’s probably less now,” he added.
The very name of Glacier National Park may one day be an ironic symbol of human folly and national failure.
Exhibits and conversations with rangers at Glacier National Park, Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming (where there are three shrunken, remnant glaciers) and Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho clearly demonstrate the connection between global warming and the changing landscape. These exhibits together with surveys, photographic records and other scientific data approve what the Trump administration has sought to downplay or ignore: Manmade climate change is not only real but accelerating.
The president’s own staff, curiously enough, has repeatedly declined to say whether President Trump accepts or rejects climatology demonstrating manmade climate change. In withdrawing from the Paris global climate change treaty, Trump based his action solely on the U.S.economy rather than any evidence or lack thereof of manmade climate change. The only plausible inference is that he does indeed accept the science of manmade climate change but won’t say so because it undermines his policy.
Whatever the president’s private knowledge and belief, some of his major appointees have publicly accepted the theology of climate denial. It is as if when they look at the world, they fail to see it, or at least fail to see it clearly. The real world for them is out of focus, as if they have astigmatism. What most of us find clearly and sharply in focus, they see as blurred and confused. The price they—and we—will pay for their confusion may seem modest and manageable to them now, but they will pass on a wrecked planet to their children, who will hardly be inclined to forgive them.