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Is Yellowstone National Park a ‘pristine’ environment?

Yellowstone National Park was created in 1872. It was the world’s first federally protected natural area. Located in Wyoming, the park spans 2.2 million acres and is known for its geothermal features, such as the Old Faithful geyser (NPS, 2017). There are over 400 species of animals including bears, bison and wolves, as well as over 1100 native plant species (Frank & McNaughton, 1992). Along with the wide range of diverse plant and animal species, Yellowstone has a long history of human habitation. If ‘pristine wilderness’ is defined as remaining in a pure state without human alteration (YourDictionary, 2017), can Yellowstone be considered pristine?

In 1870 when the nine members of the Washburn party embarked on the first official expedition of Yellowstone, they dismissed any signs of human habitation, describing it as primeval wilderness “never trodden by human footsteps” (Schullery & Whittlesey, 2003)(Spence, 1999). Sightings of Native Americans from the Shoshone, Blackfeet, Crow and Bannock tribes, were dismissed as they were considered “vanishing Indians” (Spence, 1999). Henry Washburn and Nathaniel Langford, leaders of the party, officially declared the area to be pristine wilderness (Spence, 1999).

Yellowstone clearly wasn’t untouched by humans, even before it was declared a national park. Rather, it was an area that had been moulded by thousands of years of human habitation and use (Spence, 1999). Evidence of this dates back to over 11,000 years ago when Paleo-Indian groups moved into the area at the end of the last ice age (Spence, 1999). Small bands of hunter/gatherers made use of the area leaving behind evidence of potsherds and obsidian quarries. These groups also altered their environment utilising controlled burns to maintain plant and animal habitats for agricultural purposes (Spence, 1999).


Figure 1: A Shoshone Tribe encampment in what was to become Yellowstone National Park, 1870.

The idea of pristine wilderness preceded the creation of Yellowstone.  The ‘myth of wilderness’ is a cultural creation that came about through the romanticism of nature. The roots of this idea can be traced back to the writings of John Muir (Friskics, 2008). He described wilderness as a sacred space, ingraining upon the American mind the superiority of pristine wilderness rather than the coexistence between humans and nature (Marris, 2011). This seeming superiority of pristine wilderness was such a powerful idea that evidence of human habitation was often ignored.

Another philosophy, known as Cartesian dualism, was also serving to separate humans from nature during that period. Cartesian dualism is a western view that deemed nature as inferior along with indigenous people who remained entwined with it and its existence was for human consumption and control (Haila, 2000).  Thus, to conserve naturally pure areas it was thought that humans needed to be removed from nature, resulting in the eviction of all four native tribes inhabiting Yellowstone in 1879.

The majority of scientists today would likely claim that national parks are not historically pristine. Humans are so deeply involved in the management and visitation of these sites.  In 2012, 3.4 million people visited Yellowstone (NPS, 2017). Ecosystems within the park are managed, monitored and even altered.  For instance, the Grey Wolf was hunted to extinction through a predator control program in 1926, only to bring it back by way of reintroduction in 1995 (Smith et al, 2003).

Yellowstone exists as a “public park … for the benefit and enjoyment of people”; it does not exist to be safeguarded from them.


Figure 2: Some of the over three million tourists to visit Yellowstone, 2015

There are very few landscapes that could still be considered pristine; perhaps none. Those that haven’t been altered directly by humans are now being affected by anthropogenic climate change.

We must rethink what pristine means at an environmental level.

A present day pristine environment could now be considered a “functioning ecosystem, largely intact and minimized human impacts” (Cronon, 1996). Many areas have been disturbed only to recover later.  These areas display no obvious signs of human impacts; perhaps these are as pristine as it gets. These places contain plant and animal species that would be there in the absence of habitat loss, hunting, invasive species and other human-driven threats (Cronon, 1996).

Yellowstone, like all other national parks can’t be considered a pristine environment even by today’s definitions. Given the long history of human habitation, continued management, and the maintenance of the park for human enjoyment, it is anything but untouched. However, this doesn’t mean that it should be valued any less than actual pristine environments. If only truly pristine environments are worth protecting, we would have nothing left. Yellowstone contains a high diversity and density of our plants and animals worldwide (Waller (edt), 2012). Non-pristine environments like parks are often more accessible and are therefore the ones that humans will interact with and value greater. Gaining appreciation for nature whether it be pristine or not and if we are part of it or not will motivate future generations to protect it.

Kate Hunt

Works Cited

National Park Service (NPS), (2017). Modern Management. Retrieved March 22, 2017, from National Park Service Yellowstone: https://www.nps.gov/yell/learn/historyculture/modernmanagement.htm

Cronon, W. (1996). The trouble with Wilderness: Or, getting back to the wrong wilderness. Environmental History, 1(1), 7-28.

Frank, D. A. (1992). The Ecology of Plants, Large Mammalian Herbivores, and Drought in Yellowstone National Park. Ecology, 73(6), 2043-2058.

Friskics, S. (2008). The Twofold Myth of Pristine Wilderness: Misreading the Wilderness Act in Terms of Purity . Environmental Ethics, 381-399.

Haila, Y. (2000). Beyond the Nature-Culture Dualism. Biology and Philosophy, 15(2), 155-175.

Marris, E. (2011). The Yellowstone Model. In E. Marris, Rambunctious Garden (pp. 17-37). New York: Bloomsbury.

National Park Service (NPS). (2016). Guidance for Protecting Yellowstone. Retrieved March 20, 2017, from Yellowstone: https://www.nps.gov/yell/learn/management/protecting-yellowstone.htm

Schullery, P. &. (2003). Myth and History in the Creation of Yellowstone National Park. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press .

Smith, D. W. (2003). Yellowstone after Wolves . BioScience, 53(4), 330-340.

Spence, M. (1999). Before the Wilderness: Native Peoples and Yellowstone. In M. Spence, Dispossessing the wilderness: Indian removal and the making of the national parks (pp. 41-54). New York: Oxford Press.

Spence, M. D. (2000). Indian Removal and the Making of the National Parks. In M. Spence, Dispossessing the wilderness . New York: Oxford Press.

Waller, J. (edt). (2012). Yellowstone Science. Wyoming: Yellowstone Association.

YourDictionary. (2017). Dictionary Definitions Pristine. Retrieved 2017, from Your Dictionary: http://www.yourdictionary.com/pristine

Figure 1: Retrieved 29th April 2017, from: http://www.yellowstonepark.com/yellowstone-sheepeater-tribe-ledgend/.

Figure 2: Retrieved 29th April 2017, from: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/travel/travel_news/article-2991863/Shocking-photos-reveal-destruction-Yellowstone-National-Park-hot-spring-tourists-throwing-coins-luck.html.


Evidence of source-sink metapopulations in vulnerable native galaxiid fish driven by introduced trout – a synopsis by Stuart McKay


Click here to access printable pdf version.















Stuart McKayStuart McKay has over 15 years experience working for  governments in Australia, the UK and New  Zealand across  health, agriculture, housing  and environment portfolios.  His experiences  range  from  representing Australia at Commission on Sustainable  Development meetings at the UN  headquarters  in New York to  providing project management expertise to health, housing and social  care  projects in the  UK.    With the New Zealand government at the Ministry for Primary Industries  Stuart was responsible for the 2011  independent audit of  the  Dairying and Clean Streams Accord, the Natural Resource Sector Briefing for Incoming Ministers and part of the cross portfolio team that implemented the National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management.  Stuart was also pivotal in securing funding for the establishment of  the  Mangatarere  Restoration Society a community restoration group in the Wairarapa.  Stuart is currently sustainable  development  consultant at Sustainable Communities and is currently completing a  post graduate certificate in ecological  restoration at  Victoria University, Wellington to supplement  and specialise his expertise.  He currently holds a Bachelor of Science in  Environmental Science and Social Ecology with Honours in Sustainable Development from Murdoch University in Perth, Western Australia.


Going native – The role of native vegetation in managing wastewater

Going native – The role of native vegetation in managing wastewater


Public opinion is increasingly indicating that it is unacceptable to discharge wastewater directly into waterways.  In determining how to manage this paradigm shift, several District Councils are examining the potential for irrigating wastewater to land.  While this approach offers benefits, nutrients from wastewater are difficult to remove and can enter waterways via ground and surface flows.  Given the pathogens and contaminants present in untreated wastewater there may also be a perception of risk to public health.  Native vegetation potentially has a role to play.  Native vegetation can provide a barrier to odours and aerial dispersal and in riparian areas act as a buffer to nutrients while improving connectivity with other habitats.   Native planting can also engage the community in wastewater planning.   Key challenges with this approach are change in nutrient removal as buffers age and ensuring effective community engagement.  Carterton District Council’s (CDC) purchase of land to discharge wastewater from the Carterton Wastewater Treatment Plant (CWTP) is presented as a case study to consider these issues.

Casestudy: Carterton Wastewater Treatment Plant

Water quality monitoring has identified discharges from the CWTP as impacting the health of the Mangatarere Stream (GWRC, 1999).  In 2012, CDC purchased Daleton Farm, a 66 hectare site adjacent to the CWTP as a first step towards no longer discharging wastewater into the Stream (CDC, 2013).

 Map of Site

Figure 1: Aerial photograph of Daleton Farm (not to scale) (Source: Googlemaps)


Groundwater flow

Figure 2:Piezometric surface and velocity vectors for the Wairarapa Valley (Source: GWRC, 2010).

The Mangatarere runs through the north corner and along the north the farm.  A residential area is to the north-east and rural properties are dotted around the perimeter.  An ephemeral stream drains the area and land between here and the stream is poorly drained (see Figure 1).    The existing land treatment system includes sixteen wetland plots.  Excess water that could be irrigated to land is discharged into the stream during high rainfall (Clark, 2010). Groundwater flow at the site is in a south-west direction (Figure 2).

Wastewater irrigation and risk

As NZWWA (2003) notes, irrigating wastewater to land requires management of environmental, social and economic matters.

Environmental issues

Nutrients are difficult to remove from wastewater and irrigation can accumulate in waterways, impacting organisms through toxicity and triggering excessive growth of oxygen depleting plants (PCE, 2012).   Sub-surface flow can transport soluble nutrients rapidly, sometimes even directly into streams.  Surface runoff can transport both particulate and soluble nutrients (Tanner et al, 2005).   Nutrients are a key issue for irrigating to land at the CWTP.  There is significant interaction between surface and groundwater in the area (GWRC, 2009).

Social concerns

Pathogens and contaminants are usually removed prior to irrigation and odour generation and aerial dispersal can be effectively managed by application design and screening (Magesan and Wang, 2003).  Nonetheless, convincing the public that these processes are appropriate can be difficult.  There is usually goodwill if the community is well informed but public support can be challenging when bureaucratic structures are perceived as untrustworthy (Mermet et al, 2007).

Economic issues

CDC’s vision for wastewater treatment, highlights the constraints surrounding rate increases and that CDC will partner with farmers rather than purchase the remaining 150 Hectares needed to manage all municipal wastewater.  Opportunities to offset water and fertiliser costs of agriculture and forestry and allow an economic return are highly regarded and are also options that can assist nutrient removal (Personal communication: Greg Boyle, 26/3/2014).   Crop production and forestry instead of grazing will avoid urine inputs and stock removal increases infiltration as trampling compacts soils (Parkyn et al, 2004).  Taupo District Council grows and sells a cut and carry haylage crop (Treeweek et al, 2010).  Rotorua irrigates commercial stands of Pinus radiata (Magesan and Wang, 2003).

What role can native vegetation play?

While commercial opportunities will be a priority focus at CWTP, a role for native vegetation should still be considered.  Vegetation stands along borders will shield neighbouring properties (USDA, 2007) and in riparian areas will improve stream health.  Quinn et al (1997) compared stream health in riparian areas of pasture, pine plantation and native forest.  Nutrient levels were more favourable in native forest.  Connectivity between native vegetation patches is also improved.  Ultimately, native planting activities can attract community participation in wastewater planning.

Nutrient removal

Nutrient removal differs according to hydrology, soils and vegetation.  Surface pollutant transport of soluble nutrients is reduced by increased infiltration caused by root channels and soil structure changes.   Particulate nutrients are filtered and slowed by dense vegetation.  Soluble nutrients transported through sub-surface flows can be removed by vegetation uptake and denitrification.  Denitrification, whereby nitrate is removed as N₂ gas, is common in wetlands with anoxic soils rich in organic matter.  Cooper (1990) in Parkyn et al (2004) found nitrate loss was concentrated in wetland areas that occupied only 12% of the border of a stream.  Planning at the CWTP will need to consider the ephemeral stream and the poorly drained soils to the west as well as the banks of the stream.   As Gillian (1994) notes, these area receive runoff and have shallow groundwater seeps.

Stream health and connectivity

Effects of native vegetation on streams include increased shade and terrestrial food sources and reduced water and air temperature in areas where native fish lay eggs (Parkyn et al, 2004).  Death and Collier (2010) emphasise restoration of segments is optimised in areas with significant catchment cover suggesting that connectivity between patches is important.  As Akçakaya et al (2007) notes increased connectivity aids in the dispersal of biodiversity but needs to be managed as pest species can also benefit.   The local streamcare group in Carterton, the Mangatarere Restoration Society (MRS), is supported by both the District and Regional Councils and has released an action plan based on community consultation.  The action plan outlines a strategy to links restored areas to the Tararua Forest Park.   Opportunity exists for the CDC to work at the CWTP to support this vision, though a pest management strategy will be needed to ensure biodiversity values at the Tararua Forest Park are protected.

Community participation

Public participation in ecological restoration is common place in New Zealand (Galbraith, 2013).  Native planting offers an opportunity to engage the public on wastewater options.  In Carterton, for example, wastewater consultation and native planting could be held at the same time.  Community consultation has already indicated native planting as an activity the community wants to participate in and the MRS can harness this interest (personal communication: Jill Greathead, 15/6/2012).  As Mermet et al (2008) notes replacing management by government with management by community can assist in resolving contentious issues and could assure the community on public health and odour generation issues.  Galbraith (2013) notes a role for community participation in changing attitudes, suggesting that environmental education on household and farming inputs to wastewater could also be a useful focus of planting days.


Plate 1: MRS members participating in native planting at a local landowners property. Photograph by A.J. Hunter

Challenges with this approach

In advocating for a role for native vegetation, a number of challenges should be considered.  The effectiveness of nutrient removal of native vegetation changes as buffers age.  Engaging with communities is challenging.

Nutrient response as buffers age

Howard-Williams and Pickmere (1994) studied a native riparian vegetation stretch for 17 years and found that after twelve years nutrient response decreased but wildlife capacity increased.  Pores of soils can become blocked and shading limits the role of aquatic and smaller terrestrial plants in nutrient removal.  Parkyn et al (2003) suggest maintenance to allow light entry and grass filter strips to remove more particulate nutrients before they enters riparian areas.  Howard-Williams and Pickmere (1994) takes a longer view advocating wildlife values to be embraced and that riparian retirement should be accompanied by improved landuse.    Implementing such an approach in Carterton, for example, will require working with downstream landusers to improve their impacts.  To some extent this is occurring through Greater Wellington Regional Council’s work with local farmers implementing Land and Environment Plans (personal communication: Richard Parkes, 6/2/2014).

Community engagement

Silvertown et al (2007) notes recruiting broad volunteer participation in conservation as challenging.   Attitudes towards environmental issues vary and many organisations report age and gender bias in the small portions of the population they manage to engage.  While the participation of MRS members will be a useful addition to wastewater consultation, CDC will need to ensure this occurs as part of a broader strategy or the approach may be perceived as being hijacked to appease a conservation orientated elite.  As Mermet et al (2007) emphasise governance and coordination approaches to conservation, while useful in bringing together stakeholders can also be seen as reinforcing defacto power balances and be vulnerable to political manipulation.


Native vegetation has a role to play in managing the environmental, social and economic issues involved with irrigating wastewater to land. Native riparian vegetation can assist in removing nutrients while improving stream health and connectivity.  Perhaps more importantly, native vegetation planting can also act as a focal point for attracting community participation in wastewater planning.  CDC’s plan to irrigate wastewater to land is an opportunity to implement such an approach.  Wastewater management will benefit from native vegetation stands along border areas between neighbouring properties, in riparian areas and along the ephemeral stream.  Planting activities will need maintenance as buffers age and should be part of a wider strategy to work with householders and neighbouring landowners in reducing nutrient inputs to the stream.  Involving the public in native planting activities as part of the wastewater consultation process, provides an opportunity to discuss and resolve contentious planning issues providing it is part of a package of activities involving the wider community.



Akçakaya, H.R., Mills, G. and Doncaster, C.P (2007) The role of metapopulations in conservation. In Macdonald, D. W. and Service, K. (eds), Key topics in conservation biology, Chichester, Blackwell Publishing, pp. 64-84.

Boyer, S (2011, December) Carterton council to pay $20k for leak, Wairarapa Times Age, Retrieved from: http://www.nzherald.co.nz/wairarapatimesage/news/article.cfm?c_id=1503414&objectid=11048605

Clark, S (2010) Carterton District Council Carterton sewage treatment plant discharge to land and water assessment of effects on the environment. Retrieved from


Carterton District Council (CDC) (2013) 2013 Pre-election Report. Retrieved from: http://www.cdc.govt.nz/sites/default/files/Pre-election%20Report%202013.pdf.

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Galbraith, M. (2013) Public and ecology – the role of volunteers on Tiritiri Island. New Zealand Journal of Ecology 37 (3) 266 – 271.

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Greater Wellington Regional Council (GWRC) (2012) Regional Freshwater Plan for the Wellington Region. Retrieved from: http://www.gw.govt.nz/assets/Plans–Publications/Regional-Freshwater-Plan/Regional-Freshwater-Plan-incorporating-plan-changes-1234-and-5-updated-April-2012.pdf.

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Magesan, G. N. and Wang, H. (2003) Application of municipal and industrial residuals in New Zealand forests: and overview.  Australian Journal of Soil Research, 41, 557 – 567.

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New Zealand Water and Waste Association (NZWWA) (2003) Guidelines for the safe application of biosolids to land in New Zealand.  Retrieved from:


Parkyn, S. M., Davies-Colley, R. J., Halliday, J. N., Costley, K. J. and Croker, G. F. (2003)  Planted Riparian Buffer Zones in New Zealand: Do They Live Up to Expectations? Restoration Ecology, 11, 4, 436–447.

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Treweek, G., Balks, M. R. and Schipper, L. A. (2010) Nitrogen leaching from effluent irrigated pasture, on a vitrand (pumice soil), Taupo, New Zealand – initial results,  2010 19th World Congress of Soil Science, Soil Solutions for a Changing World, Brisbane, Australia, Published on DVD.

Stuart McKayStuart McKay has over 15 years experience working for  governments in Australia, the UK and New  Zealand across  health, agriculture, housing  and environment portfolios.  His experiences  range  from  representing Australia at Commission on Sustainable  Development meetings at the UN  headquarters  in New York to  providing project management expertise to health, housing and social  care  projects in the  UK.    With the New Zealand government at the Ministry for Primary Industries  Stuart was responsible for the 2011  independent audit of  the  Dairying and Clean Streams Accord, the Natural Resource Sector Briefing for Incoming Ministers and part of the cross portfolio team that implemented the National Policy Statement on Freshwater Management.  Stuart was also pivotal in securing funding for the establishment of  the  Mangatarere  Restoration Society a community restoration group in the Wairarapa.  Stuart is  sustainable  development  consultant at Sustainable Communities and is currently completing a  post graduate certificate in ecological  restoration at  Victoria University, Wellington to supplement  and specialise his expertise.  He currently holds a Bachelor of Science in  Environmental Science and Social Ecology with Honours in Sustainable Development from Murdoch University in Perth, Western Australia.