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Book review: “Ripple Effects”

By Joseph T. O’Connor EDITOR-IN-CHIEF

In the wake of damaging June floods in Yellowstone National Park and southwest Montana, Bozeman-based national journalist Todd Wilkinson wrote that natural disasters will not destroy the park. Although surging river waters swallowed houses in Yellowstone gateway towns like Gardiner, Montana, and destroyed human-made infrastructure, he asserts that one truth remains constant: nature never destroys herself. She merely changes.

The idea of destruction is largely humanmade and, yes, humans can destroy wildness. Wilkinson, writer and founder of the nonprofit environmental watchdog journalism site Mountain Journal, feels a deep passion for the wildness of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. He’s written about it for National Geographic and The Guardian. Indeed, his greatest fear is that we will destroy this place. It is the impetus for his latest book, “Ripple Effects: How to Save Yellowstone and America’s Most Iconic Wildlife Ecosystem.”

Part tour de force, part plea for help, “Ripple Effects” brings together the in-depth knowledge Wilkinson gained through 35 years of reporting in and around the world’s first national park with a passion for the wild places in the GYE and the wildlife that live here. The book is a full-throated call to action in hopes that it will serve as the pebble cast into the lake of humanity creating a ripple of consciousness to recognize the dire nature of Yellowstone’s future.

The late Rick Reiss, cofounder of Mountain Journal, received an early galley copy of the book before he died in January and said it “ought to be mandatory reading for all citizens and especially for the thousands of staffers working for conservation organizations in the Yellowstone region and larger wild West. It will teach them why advocacy practiced by all generations matters.” 

Wilkinson knows how unique this place is and says we need to recognize that there isn’t another Yellowstone over the next mountain range.

“The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem is this rare, still-standing miracle and bastion of native biological diversity, especially in large, migratory mammals,” Wilkinson told EBS in a recent interview. “The question that I want to pose to the public and to readers is, do we want to be remembered as the generation that allowed the permanent de-wilding of the last great wild ecosystem in the Lower 48?”

The cast of characters Wilkinson interviews throughout “Ripple Effects” brings a wealth of expertise, among them author and National Geographic writer David Quammen; Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard; ski industry expert Auden Schendler; Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks’ Ken McDonald; and renowned scientists and wolf experts L. David Mech, Mike Phillips and Doug Smith, among many others.

With aplomb and thorough reporting, Wilkinson lays out the facts for readers to absorb and digest. He writes that the GYE is the final remaining mostly intact ecosystem in the Lower 48 retaining every large mammal present when Europeans first arrived on the continent in 1491. He proceeds to put the reader in the majesty of the park itself, all 2.2 million acres of it, by describing the sound of a wolf’s howl; the waterfall’s roar at the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, more than 130 feet taller than Niagara Falls; the point of the bison’s horn and the grizzly’s claws. 

“I would argue it is not success when we know better. It’s really a test of whether we have the will to think and do differently because we know where we’re headed. We are losing this place, and no one can deny that.” 

–Todd Wilkinson, author

The book is at once fact based and deeply researched while remaining accessible, almost conversational in tone. Wilkinson asks readers to look in the mirror and evaluate exactly what they see. In the second chapter, he examines the term around which his book, perhaps even his lifeblood, is centered.

“Every one of us has our own notion of what wildness is,” he writes. “What’s yours?” And later, “Why care about wildness?”

Wilkinson points to two examples of where humanity has failed nature. The first is the Front Range of the Colorado Rockies where development and recreation are prioritized over land health and wildlife. “They’ve lost wildlife diversity,” he said, “and healthy populations of animals that they will never again recover.”

The second is that we’re witnessing the death of the natural wonder of the Great Salt Lake. The reasons are a combination of climate change, what he calls a “wild card,” and a poor strategy for dealing with growth and the diminishing resource in the West: water.

“The question, for me, is what if we solve only for human challenges and for human desires, but we lose the wild quality that allows us to be characterized as the American version of the Serengeti in terms of wild native wildlife movements?” Wilkinson said. “I would argue it is not success when we know better. It’s really a test of whether we have the will to think and do differently because we know where we’re headed. We are losing this place, and no one can deny that.” 

Yet without recognizing that this place and its creatures need our help, he says, we are abandoning them to the fate of our own greed, growth and consumption. Success, in Wilkinson’s mind, begins with a common cause the recognition, regardless of where we are on the socioeconomic or political spectrum, that wildness, that wildlife, bring us together.

“But it is going to require that we retool our thinking and redouble our efforts,” he said. “What that means is that piecemeal and disjointed thinking results in fragmented landscapes. The only way that we have a chance of saving this place is to rally together and unite behind a common vision that unites people behind a common cause.” 

Visit mountainjournal.org to order a copy of “Ripple Effects: How to Save Yellowstone and America’s Most Iconic Wildlife Ecosystem.”

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