BIG SKY – Heather White’s relationship to public lands started with childhood trips to the country’s most-visited national park, Great Smoky Mountains, and has transitioned to advocacy for the world’s first national park.
A native of east Tennessee, White moved this summer from Washington D.C. to Bozeman to take the reigns of Yellowstone Forever, a nonprofit that officially formed Oct. 2 when the Yellowstone Park Foundation and Yellowstone Association merged.
“It’s really a dream job,” White said. “Every morning I get to wake up with this remarkable team to think about how we get to preserve Yellowstone and connect the next generation with it. It doesn’t get much better than that.”
White’s directives will be guided by a 26-member board consisting of men and women who served on the boards of YPF and YA. Yellowstone Forever will keep offices in Bozeman and Gardiner and will remain dedicated to the missions of both organizations. Yellowstone Park Foundation has been the park’s nonprofit funding partner since 1996 and the Yellowstone Association has educated park visitors for more than eight decades.
White sees these two missions as co-equal goals that support each other.
“Through education we create opportunities for people to experience the wonderland of Yellowstone and make a deep connection,” White explained. “Then they really want to care for it and see themselves as stewards. And that next level is making a commitment of time or financial resources.”
“All the research says that if you have a good [experience] before age 11 that it builds a lifelong conservation ethic,” White said. She wants young people to have an opportunity to visit the park and connect to something larger than themselves.
White then referenced Gary Ferguson, a Red Lodge, Montana-based author who has written about the draw of Yellowstone: “Gary says that one of the great things about Yellowstone is that it allows you to unhook from what you know, even for a minute, to connect to the magic and mystery that still surrounds us. That’s the experience we want to create for the next generation.”
White, who has a law degree from the University of Tennessee, also aims to elevate the newly merged organization to a national, rather than regional, nonprofit. She wants it to serve as a model of private-public partnerships focused on national park conservation.
Even though Yellowstone is considered the crown jewel of conservation as the world’s first national park, it suffers from the budget constraints squeezing the National Park Service as a whole. Jonathan Jarvis, who directs the agency, has called the Park Service “chronically underfunded.” Yellowstone itself is facing an estimated $600 million maintenance backlog.
“We’re filling in a really important gap,” White said. “Those needs are only going to increase over time.”
Although White has visited the park’s major attractions, she’s looking forward to immersing herself in the backcountry—with bear spray, she’s quick to point out—and being with her 9- and 11-year-old daughters when they first hear a wolf howl.
White’s also looking forward to the 150th anniversary of Yellowstone, which is just over five years away. She’s been asking herself and others what the park should look like for that milestone. In addition to ecological applications—White studied conservation biology in New Zealand—that question includes visitor initiatives like mobility studies. Forever Yellowstone is helping the park find more effective ways to move record-breaking numbers of visitors around.
Productively channeling enthusiasm for the park to prevent it from being, in the words of naturalist and writer David Quammen, “loved to death,” is perhaps the greatest challenge before Yellowstone Forever, White said. “How do we create that force of love to be one of preservation?”
Yellowstone Forever is hosting an event Nov. 18 at the Bozeman REI from 6-8 p.m. to celebrate the organization’s launch. Yellowstone Superintendant Dan Wenk and celebrated park photographer Tom Murphy will be in attendance.