You want to hear a real Yellowstone disaster story? One that has nothing to do with fires? This one is about you and me and the U.S. Forest Service. Every year, you and I and the rest of the taxpayers in the U.S. of A. kick in about $25 million to subsidize logging operations in the Yellowstone ecosystem. These operations clear-cut about 20 square miles a year, and if they continue according to plan, they will require something between 5,000 and 10,000 miles of additional roads over the next 50 years.

The subsidy is necessary because none of these operations makes any economic sense. The cost of cutting and transporting the trees is far above the price they bring on the market. The official justification for this subsidy is that it is needed to shore up the local economy and keep the forest-products industry alive in the region.

Environmentalists suspect that the economy of the Forest Service is the one being helped. Bureaucratic survival demands large appropriations. And then there are all those civil engineers who would be out of work if the Forest Service cut back on its road-building program (I should note in passing that the U.S. Forest Service already oversees more miles of roads than any government on earth). Actually, the deepest suspicion of environmentalists is that the Forest Service is trying to head off any attempts to designate more national forest land as wilderness. Clear-cut the forest and run a network of roads through it, and nobody can try to claim it for wilderness.

I learned about our subsidy of logging around Yellowstone from Michael Scott. Scott is the director of the Wilderness Society’s northern Rockies regional office, which covers the states of Montana and Wyoming. He was in town last weekend to speak at the ninth Northern Illinois Prairie Workshop at Northeastern Illinois University.

The invitation to Scott to deliver the keynote address at the workshop was one of the consequences of the fires that swept through Yellowstone National Park last year. Scott emerged last summer as a sensible spokesman for the idea that the fires were actually beneficial to the flora and fauna of Yellowstone and not catastrophic as proclaimed by the more thickheaded sectors of the press. A spokesman for fire is bound to catch the attention of prairie people, since we have struggled for years to advance the idea that burning can be a major tool of prairie management.

Scott had many interesting things to say about the events of last summer and about the future of Yellowstone, a topic that is occupying much of his professional attention.

He sees last year’s fires as the product of three forces that happened to come together in the summer of 1988. The first was the presence of lots of fuel. It had been more than 250 years since major fires last hit the Yellowstone plateau, so there was plenty of time for a supply of dead wood to accumulate. “When the Park Service people went back to look at what burned last year,” he told me, “they found that the fire didn’t burn young stands, stuff that burned 20 or 50 or 100 years ago. By and large, it burned out the stuff that was 200 to 300 years old.”

The drought was the second force. By the middle of July, dead wood and grasses in the park had an average moisture content of 2 percent. The kiln-dried two-by-four you buy at the lumberyard, by contrast, averages 15 percent moisture. This stuff was ready to go.

The third force was the wind. Repeated windstorms, some with gales of 80 miles an hour, fanned the flames and carried burning debris as much as a mile in advance of the main fire front.

Scott believes–and his belief is based on conversations with the people who were directing the fire-fighting efforts–that nobody could have extinguished the blazes given the combination of circumstances that existed in 1988. He quotes a congressman from western Colorado named Pat Williams who said after a visit to the park, “You stand in front of a 200-foot wall of flame that’s running at 40 miles an hour and throwing sparks a half mile behind you, and you put it out.”

Nonetheless, Scott does criticize the Park Service for not really being ready for the fires–although he tempers that criticism by pointing out that nobody had ever seen what Yellowstone could be in a real fire year. He suggests that in the future, the forests immediately surrounding developed areas–towns like West Yellowstone and concessions like Old Faithful Lodge–could be thinned. “I think with a little creative landscaping, it could be done in a way that would still look natural,” he said. Thinning the woods–in effect removing fuel–would provide a buffer. Almost all the $120 million spent on fire fighting last summer was spent to protect these developed and populated areas. If they had been protected by a buffer, there would have been little need for the massive effort that was mounted.

Scott strongly supports continuing the policy of letting naturally occurring fires burn unless they threaten endangered species or developed areas. The alternatives that have been suggested–fire suppression or prescribed burning –simply won’t work unless radical change is made to the appearance of the park. To make fire suppression work in a real fire year like 1988, you would need to cut miles and miles of firebreaks through the park and even remove substantial areas of forest. Prescribed burns would demand similar changes. In most years, you couldn’t set a prescribed fire because the fuel would be too wet. A prescribed burn could only be conducted in a year like 1988 when fires would be impossible to control without large-scale cutting.

Scott is devoting a good deal of his attention these days to the future of Yellowstone. The park itself covers only 2.2 million acres. The ecosystem of which it is a part covers almost 15 million acres. The Wilderness Society, along with a group called the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, is looking for ways to coordinate the management of the entire system.

Such coordination shouldn’t be insurmountably difficult. Ninety percent of those 15 million acres is already in federal hands, and another 5 percent is in state preserves and hunting grounds. However, the bureaucratic and policy obstacles are formidable. In addition to the two national parks–Yellowstone and Grand Teton–the Yellowstone ecosystem contains parts of seven national forests, three national wildlife refuges, as well as some properties of the Bureau of Land Management.

“Five years ago,” Scott said, “we couldn’t get the Park Service and the Forest Service to admit there was such a thing as the Yellowstone ecosystem. They were dead set against it. We got them finally to the point where they would talk about the ‘greater Yellowstone area.'”

The agencies did agree to set up a coordinating committee consisting of the park superintendents, the forest supervisors, and their various bosses in regional offices in Denver; Bozeman, Montana; and Ogden, Utah. The mere existence of the group threw the oil and timber industries into a panic. Current Forest Service policy is that every acre of a National Forest that is not formally protected by wilderness status is open to oil exploration and logging, and the industries strongly oppose any suggestion of a change in that policy. When representatives of the oil and timber industries showed up at a coordinating-committee meeting, members of the committee spent the day assuring them that the committee would concern itself with nothing more controversial than ironing out differences in radio frequencies so people from the different jurisdictions could talk to each other.

Prodded by the Wilderness Society and others, the bureaucrats did compile their separate management plans. They did nothing to coordinate them, but they did at least put them all in the same binding under the title “The Yellowstone Aggregation,” a work that Scott has retitled “The Yellowstone Aggravation.”

“It is a snapshot of all the management decisions the agencies expect to make over the next decade,” Scott said. “It was revealing for its lack of data and for its lack of understanding of the accumulating effects of management decisions.

“We said it was derivative. We suggested that somebody ought to do a little stargazing. Think a bit around a camp fire about what could be. What do you want this area to look like? What are its outstanding values, physically and culturally? Once you’ve identified that, decide what it is going to take to keep it that way and challenge individual units to come up with plans.”

Since neither the bureaucrats on the scene nor the Bush administration is showing any signs of wanting to do a job like that, the Wilderness Society is going to proceed on its own. The society will be carrying on a long-term study whose goals will be to find ways to integrate a sustainable economy into the Yellowstone ecosystem.

“Yellowstone is arguably the largest relatively intact ecosystem in the temperate zones of the world,” Scott told me. We still have a chance to keep it that way, if we have the vision to seize our opportunities.