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Art’s role in the preservation of Yellowstone

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BIG SKY — In 1871, American painter Thomas Moran joined the Hayden Geological Survey during their pivotal exploration of the Yellowstone region. For 40 days, Moran documented the unique landscape with his pen and paint brush, capturing the wildness, vastness and grandeur of what is now Yellowstone National Park—many today believe his visions are what inspired Congress to execute on the park’s establishment in 1872.

It is only fitting a community of Yellowstone Park supporters gathered at Creighton Block Gallery in Big Sky Town Center on Feb. 16 to discuss the future and new leadership of Yellowstone Forever, tucked amongst similarly inspiring works of Western art.

Yellowstone Forever is Yellowstone National Park’s official nonprofit partner, dedicated to preserving and protecting America’s first park. Recovering from a financial crisis that led to six layoffs in May 2019 and a budget deficit of $3.8 million, despite as much as $35,000 pay increases to top-tier employees, Yellowstone Forever is refocusing their efforts and moving forward in confidence.

The fundraiser agenda included talks from Park Superintendent Cam Sholly, YF’s Interim President and CEO John Walda as well as support from Yellowstone Club’s Sam Byrne. It yielded $5,000 in sponsorships and although they are still confirming gifts and pledges, organizers are confident that number will surpass $10,000.

“It’s important Yellowstone Forever continues to focus on philanthropy fundamentals, priority activities to support Yellowstone National Park, and being thankful stewards of our current donors,” said J.D. Davis, interim Chief Development Officer. “Through staff attrition and a critical look at expenses, Yellowstone Forever has spent the past several months recalibrating our budget and we’ll continue to do that.”

Davis says this includes raising $1 million for the North Entrance project that was matched by a National Park Foundation $1 million grant, funding Yellowstone cutthroat trout recovery programs and raising some $3.5 million to support trails and overlooks in the traffic-heavy Canyon Village area. Recalibrating the budget also included a comprehensive review of the park’s vendor contracts and transitioning work in-house, when possible.

“The fundraiser went well and we were grateful for the opportunity to visit the Big Sky community,” said Davis, emphasizing the important and unique partnership our gateway communities have with the park.

Gateways such as Big Sky, West Yellowstone and Gardiner offer the only points of entry into the unique world of Yellowstone from Montana, and this geographic distinction provides educational as well as monetary benefits—a 2018 NPS report shows that 4.1 million Yellowstone visitors in 2017 spent nearly $500 million in communities in close proximity to the park’s borders, like Big Sky. That spending supports thousands of jobs and provides a tremendous cumulative benefit to the local economy.

“Having a strong partnership with these communities provides natural education opportunities,” Davis said. “It’s important for Yellowstone Forever to listen to our Gateway partners so we can learn how to best make those connections to Yellowstone National Park.”

Continuing the tradition of spreading passion for a place through its artistic renditions, one that began in Yellowstone with Moran, Creighton Block owner Colin Mathews was happy to foster an environment for the Park’s nonprofit support arm as it turns a new leaf.

“The world of funding for parks is something that is in my background and that I’m passionate about,” says Mathews.

When asked of their ties to local art, Davis referred to YF’s annual Plein Air Invitational event and artist-in-residency programs.

The Plein Air Invitational brings artists from around the country to create and auction work inspired by the park for its benefit, a program that holds strong in its third year. In regards to the latter, through the generous support of a Yellowstone Forever donor, a fund was established to host a full-time artist in residence in addition to the existing summer residency program. It is a rotating position that supports artists of all ages and will continue the tradition of telling the Yellowstone story through art.

With those funds, along with those gathered from other sources, YF works to identify projects that go beyond what is achievable with only the park’s base budget, such as long-term wildlife research and recovery efforts, trail restoration and historic preservation. And through their Yellowstone Forever Institute, YF creates more than 600 educational programs per year, reaching around 9,000 visitors.

“We believe that when individuals learn about the park and feel more connected to it, they will become more involved stewards of Yellowstone and all public lands,” said Davis, noting the importance of strengthening that connection. “It’s an incredible natural system that can still provide an amazing personal experience no matter how often you visit.”

Yellowstone National Park includes a collection of more than 10,000 hydrothermal features and is home to an abundance of plants, trees and wildlife species that have called the Yellowstone region home for millennia, so it’s no mystery as to why artists across generations have made its landscapes a focal point of their work.

If Moran’s work possessed the power of establishment, it’s easy to imagine the role art might play in keeping that legacy of natural wonder alive and well for years to come. 

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