Yellowstone National Park, a beloved icon to Americans and visitors from across the globe, is managed by the National Park Service (NPS). In 2016, the NPS will celebrate the one-hundredth anniversary of its formation under the Organic Act.
Yellowstone has served as the model of park management throughout the world since the NPS began managing in 1916, but current management practices may be producing undesirable outcomes in Yellowstone. Current management practices may be harming ecological and wildlife health, especially the northern range of the park. The National Park Service Organic Act of 1916 charged the NPS to “conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wildlife” within the national parks to “leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.” Over the past century, the NPS has experimented with multiple management schemes in Yellowstone in response to political and public pressures resulting from the vague wording of the Organic Act. These management regimes have affected the physical landscape and wildlife within the park. Under the current hands-off management scheme, called “natural regulation” or “ecological process management,” the NPS may not be fulfilling its mandate to preserve the park unimpaired for future generations.
This report explores Yellowstone using a public choice analysis of the institutions and incentives that have caused the NPS to change management strategies over time. Public choice theory is a field of political economy that explains why and how politicians and bureaucrats make decisions. This report draws on the work of Dr. Charles Kay, a professor at Utah State University, who has spent many years documenting the landscape changes in Yellowstone National Park. Kay and other researchers have documented the ecological changes in great detail, but few researchers have studied the political and bureaucratic roots of these changes.
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