A giant who proudly wore the green and grayBy Todd Wilkinson EBS Environmental Columnist
Gushing at the lip of Old Faithful Geyser on May 20 came an eruption of reverence and mirth. It flooded forth for a man eulogized by his grandkids simply as “Poppy”; for the rest of us, the spirit portrayed in photographs, in the green and gray uniform he proudly wore for 42 years, was the late giant known as Bob Barbee.
Barbee died last fall just shy of his 81st birthday. His memorial waited until spring, a season he savored and at a venue that, in ways too complicated to explain here, helped cement his place in the conservation lore of America.
During his 11 years at the helm of Yellowstone, from 1983 to 1994, Barbee came to represent the prototypical modern National Park Service superintendent. His management laid the groundwork for bringing back wolves and recovering grizzly bears. He fought off development that could have harmed Yellowstone’s geysers and hot springs, and he recognized the need to impose limits on polluting snowmobiles.
Barbee voiced opposition to the misguided New World Mine targeting the park’s back doorstep and solidified Yellowstone’s scientific research division. What’s more, he had the audacity to say Yellowstone’s wellbeing was interwoven with the health of public and private lands surrounding it.
Above all, and forever, Barbee’s tenure will be associated with the historic Yellowstone forest fires of 1988—those uncontrollable, unpredictable and unstoppable blazes that ushered forward a new era in thinking about fire.
Although Barbee’s record might suggest otherwise, he wasn’t an environmental crusader. The truth is he didn’t have to be; he knew his job looking after Yellowstone made him a protector by mandate and it was a responsibility he took seriously.
Besides being a highly decorated civil servant, there is much the public doesn’t know about Barbee. As his obituary noted, he was a passionate outdoorsman, an alpinist who summited all of Colorado’s 14,000-foot peaks, a marathon-level runner and an avid skier. He also was a photographer who studied with Ansel Adams in Yosemite and he loved traveling. Together with his wife of 58 years, Carol, he visited all seven continents and chronicled those journeys with his camera.
Barbee commanded awe for unleashing rhetorical one-liners typically aimed at people or political decisions he believed didn’t have the best interests of Yellowstone at heart. Like the irreverent wisecracks of the late Yogi Berra, his “Barbeeisms” became legendary.
They were cited in abundance by dear friends and colleagues who gave moving tributes at his memorial—current Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk; former Grand Teton Superintendent Jack Neckels; Rob Wallace, former U.S. Sen. Malcolm Wallop’s chief of staff and Republican staff director for the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee; former Yellowstone assistant superintendent Joe Alston; former Park Service Director Jon Jarvis; former Hamilton Stores president Terry Povah; and former Yellowstone public affairs chief and senior federal resources manager Joan Anzelmo.
Be it political pressure, threats and intimidation made to him or colleagues, or bad policy handed down, Barbee’s responses left no doubt what he thought of people who wanted to shamelessly exploit Yellowstone.
“They came in, but their knuckles were dragging,” was one Barbeeism. “It’s the smell of marble that captures them,” was another directed toward ill-informed lawmakers on Capitol Hill.
For those hell-bent on slaughtering Yellowstone bison or claiming the park was overgrazed and needed to be managed like a livestock pasture, he once said, “What do you expect from a group that sees the world through the ass-end of a cow?”
Or when political appointees made overtures about weakening environmental laws: “They are tapping out a message on a dead key,” or, “He’s in low orbit and leaving a slime trail.”
Barbee could cut antagonists down to size like the best stand-up comic: “I think he has some redeeming qualities but certainly some missing lobes,” or, “It makes you think of sliding down a bannister with a razor blade on top,” or, “No vomiting, no paper bags, no primal screams.”
For overly idealistic environmentalists or even those in the ranger ranks, he might say, “If honesty will get you somewhere, give it a shot,” or, “Always ingratiate yourself to the ruling class,” or, “If the ambiguity of the National Park Service bothers you, go try the U.S. Postal Service.”
Some of the most poignant lines he reserved for lobbyists and others he had little respect for: “I trust you but let’s cut the cards,” or, “They are leaving like fleas from a dead rat,” or, “Keep your lips pursed and a tight sphincter.”
There were things about Yellowstone neither Barbee nor his staff were ever willing to compromise away. It won him gratitude and allegiance. At one point near the end of the memorial, three group howls were sounded; a moment later, those in the room hoisted a bourbon toast.
Todd Wilkinson has been writing his award-winning column, The New West, for nearly 30 years. Living in Bozeman, he is author of “Grizzlies of Pilgrim Creek” about famous Greater Yellowstone grizzly bear 399 featuring 150 photographs by Tom Mangelsen, available only at mangelsen.com/grizzly. His profile of Montana politician Max Baucus appears in the summer 2017 issue of Mountain Outlaw, on newsstands June 2.