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The New West: With another new year upon us, are you willing to save this place?

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CREDIT: David J Swift

By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist

Perhaps you read the guest editorial penned by Hansjörg Wyss last autumn in The New York Times. Wyss, a Swiss-born businessman, makes his home in Wilson, Wyoming, one of the many small towns in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. In part owed to the time he has spent there, he proudly calls himself both a philanthropist and conservationist.

The title of Wyss’ piece, published Oct. 31, 2018, was “We Have to Save the Planet. So I’m Donating $1 Billion.” It was subtitled “I will give this sum over the next decade to help accelerate land and ocean conservation around the world.”

So why I am making note of it now?

Because we are once again at the start of another new uncertain year and it is up to you dear reader who has the power to decide whether you wish to make a positive difference in the world or choose to ignore the serious problems. If you are reading this column, most likely you are somewhere inside the Greater Yellowstone region or you have a strong affinity for it.

Greater Yellowstone isn’t just any place. It is the most iconic collection of public wildlands in America and most of it belongs to you. Besides a number of major converging threats—climate change being the most pervasive, followed closely behind by development pressure and rising levels of human use—there’s a menace even more problematic: ecological illiteracy.

It’s fair to say that while millions of people are inspired by the outdoor allure of Greater Yellowstone, very few, relatively speaking, have any understanding of what makes the ecosystem tick. If you doubt this assertion, engage fellow skiers in conversation as you ride together with them up a chairlift and ask them how much they know about these facts:

– Greater Yellowstone is home to some of the longest and last remaining major terrestrial wildlife migrations on earth, involving elk, mule deer and pronghorn. In most of the rest of the world, those ancient pathways and the large mammals traversing them have vanished.

– Greater Yellowstone is home to all of its major wildlife species that were here when Europeans arrived on the continent five centuries ago. This ecosystem is considered “ecologically intact” which is something else that most other bioregions cannot claim.

– Greater Yellowstone has figured prominently in the restoration and recovery of gray wolves, grizzly bears, wolves, bison, elk, trumpeter swans, and black-footed ferrets.

– Greater Yellowstone is in imminent danger of losing its wild character unless all of us try to make a positive difference to save it. You don’t need to be a plutocrat.

As Wyss noted in his essay for The New York Times, “Every one of us—citizens, philanthropists, business and government leaders—should be troubled by the enormous gap between how little of our natural world is currently protected and how much should be protected. It is a gap that we must urgently narrow, before our human footprint consumes the earth’s remaining wild places.”

Wyss has dire concerns about the deepening impacts of climate change and he has little patience for those self-interests at work trying to stall action. His decision to step up to the plate by making a major commitment to support groups and individuals willing to be courageous is not unlike the $1 billion gift that Ted Turner, another Greater Yellowstone resident, gave in support of the United Nations and its humanitarian mission two decades ago.

Like Turner, Wyss is optimistic that by rallying together and consuming fewer resources, by exercising restraint instead of feeding our voracious appetite for more, progress can be made but the window of opportunity is rapidly narrowing.

“For me, these efforts underscore the power we each have, as individuals, to join together to save the places and wildlife that matter most to us,” he writes. “Every conservation gain I have witnessed in my two decades of philanthropy … was set in motion by local communities that wanted to safeguard these places for their children and grandchildren.”

Every year, people blessed with having enormous means—money, power and influence—pour into the Greater Yellowstone on skiing vacations, fly-fishing trips, and family outings to be together at their personal retreats or private ranches.

One poignant question they ought to ask is: how much do they give back? Are they only users or are they really concerned about helping to ensure that the wildness of Greater Yellowstone that they know today will still be around for their loved ones?

The first step in making a difference is to become educated and informed about the wonders of Greater Yellowstone. The second step is vowing to be part of solutions in confronting serious problems. The third step is to give your money and time—just a little bit of it—to the cause of making a difference.

Is that really asking too much? One guarantee: it will make you feel better.

Todd Wilkinson is founder of Bozeman-based Mountain Journal (mountainjournal.org) devoted to protecting the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem and a correspondent for National Geographic. He also is author of “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek” about famous Jackson Hole grizzly bear 399 available only at mangelsen.com/grizzly.

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