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Late climber-conservationist Reese literally put Greater Yellowstone on map

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Rick Reese stands above Salt Lake City along the Ancient Lake Bonneville Shoreline Recreation Trail that he was instrumental in helping create on the west side of the Wasatch. PHOTO BY TODD WILKINSON

By Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist

Rick Langton Reese died Jan. 9 in Bozeman. He may not be a household name to young readers familiar with the famous constellation of conservationists synonymous with Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. 

If true, the lack of association is ironic because he and his cohort of conservation contemporaries literally put the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem on the map—a feat taken for granted but in its day was globally momentous. 

Reese has played not only a seminal role in popularizing the modern concept of “Greater Yellowstone”—he was the first to write a book about it—but for decades he has insisted that whenever possible the three words should always be presented fully in tandem.

Greater” as in signifying there is much more happening beyond the primary focal point.

Yellowstone” as in it being our first national park, the cradle of an American conservation ethic that has been emulated around the world, and that its health is dependent not only on interior factors but forces occurring around it.

Lastly, “Ecosystem,” indicating this region of seamless, interconnected mountain ranges, rivers and vales, wildlife migrations and scenic landscapes that stir our imagination, is analogous to a human body. The rivers of Greater Yellowstone are like a circulatory system moving around water, the essential lifeblood; wildlife migrations are equivalent to a pulmonary system and mountains and vales, encompassing public and private lands, serve as essential bone and connective tissue. Underlying all of this is a geo-hydro-thermal system that is manifested as geysers, hot springs and fumaroles, some 10,000 in Yellowstone, that represent the largest still-functioning congregation of those phenomena on Earth.

The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem encompasses all of the above and many other moving and stationary parts. What’s extraordinary is that such things only persist in an interrelated way because they have not yet been impaired by various kinds of human activity.

One of Reese’s favorite taglines, one he has uttered innumerable times to anyone who will listen, is that “the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is one of the last biologically and topographically intact ecosystems in the temperate zones of the Earth.” It’s safe to say that Greater Yellowstone never had a more tenacious, headstrong and enthusiastic cheerleader.

Back in 1983 Reese and a plucky contingent of citizens from the three-state intersection of Wyoming, Montana and Idaho came together and founded the Greater Yellowstone Coalition. The idea of forming a group started with Ralph Maughan, a conservationist and political science professor at Idaho State University in Pocatello. It was Reese’s book in 1984 and its subsequent editions that made Greater Yellowstone palpable—a focal point that had previously been lacking.

“People who don’t understand the value of wild country, or who don’t care, or who want to capitalize on it for their personal gain, will take as much as they can get,” Reese told me. “They are always demanding more of something that is finite. The takers need to be met with an equal amount of resistance from people who are not willing to surrender or give away things that, once gone, cannot be replaced.”

Reese was born in Salt Lake City in 1942 and raised in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. While his involvement with Mormonism lapsed over the years, he often mentioned how love of nature is a value embraced by many of the faithful; people he forever welcomed into the fold of conservation.

After graduating from East High School, he joined the National Guard, his service coinciding with the Berlin airlift crisis. Upon returning to the states, he earned an undergraduate degree from the University of Utah and then completed a graduate degree program as a Woodrow Wilson Fellow at the University of Denver’s Josef Korbel School of International Studies.

While he would go on to teach political science as a professor at Carroll College and serve as director of community relations for the University of Utah, one of his favorite passions was rock climbing and mountaineering which began during his youth along the Wasatch Front. He was recognized as a skilled and precocious young alpinist.   

Reese became a member of the crack Jenny Lake Climbing Rangers in Grand Teton National Park, taking part in several dramatic rescues, none more legendary or harrowing than his involvement six friends who rescued a severely injured climber and his companion on the North Face of the Grand Teton. 

The event was featured in a documentary, “The Grand Rescue,” that appeared on PBS stations across the country. His close alpinist friends who took part were Pete Sinclair, Leigh Ortenburger, Ralph Tingey, Mike Ermarth, Bob Irvine and Ted Wilson, who went on to become mayor of Salt Lake City. 

It was in 1980, however, Reese and his wife from New Mexico, Mary Lee, made a life-changing decision that brought them squarely into the center of saving the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. That year the couple was recruited by Yellowstone Park Superintendent John Townsley to serve as codirectors of The Yellowstone Institute (today Yellowstone Forever), which offered outdoor education opportunities to park visitors. 

Just a few years later, the Reeses were part of meetings held in Jackson Hole, Bozeman and at the ranch of John and Melody Taft in the Centennial Valley where the Greater Yellowstone Coalition was born.

Reese, as cofounder of Mountain Journal, astutely believed that it would draw a crowd of avid readers but had no idea it would attract 230,000 followers on Facebook and having its stories pass in front of millions of eyeballs.

History is destined to remember Rick Reese as a person who always looked ahead past the span of his own life to see the higher purpose. He has not fought for wild country because it’s popular in the short term, but because it is right. We all owe him a debt of gratitude for helping us see the brilliance of a Greater Yellowstone.

Todd Wilkinson is the founder of Bozeman-based Mountain Journal and a correspondent for National Geographic. He authored the book “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek,” featuring photography by famed wildlife photographer Thomas D. Mangelsen, about Grizzly Bear 399.

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