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As we enter the season of reflection and giving thanks and as I personally think back on my last decade of work with the National Parks Conservation Association, (NPCA) I’d like to make the case for wonder — starring, Yellowstone National Park.

When I think of my first experiences at Yellowstone, admittedly, it’s a blank spot as I was 7 years old and on a three-month-long family road, with my sister and I backseat bickering from the California coast to Acadia in Maine and back again. I remember a freezing morning in Grand Teton, a baseball-sized hailstorm at Devil’s Tower National Monument and clam-digging on the Maine coast, but I don’t remember Yellowstone.

Instead, I remember my dad referring to Jellystone, with hat tip fondness to Yogi Bear. While Yogi extolled wisdom like “picnic baskets may be delicious on the lips, but they’re a lifetime on the hips,” it’s fair to say that my knowledge of the world’s first national park was superficial at best and would remain that way for nearly 30 years.

In 2015, I started working on Yellowstone and Northern Rockies issues with NPCA. Yogi bear became protecting grizzly bears, providing bison with more room to roam, and breaking down barriers to help super sprinting pronghorn reach historic habitat lands outside of Yellowstone. Words like brucellosis bubbled from my lips as I traveled to NPCA’s Bozeman office and reached out to journalists to share a report and recommendations around Yellowstone bison management. Armed with wildlife-focused knowledge, I spent a long weekend in the park, where critters were the star: pronghorn at the Roosevelt Arch who seem to welcome you into the park, bison herds in Lamar Valley that took my breath away, moose, marmot, foxes, black and grizzly bears, pika and so many other charismatic critters. I was hooked, Yellowstone was a wildlife park, and I couldn’t be bothered to explore the geysers and its other non-roaming features.

But that first “official” visit, or the first that my memory retained, also including visiting Bozeman parks and driving those Big Sky Country roads, where I was introduced to the value and stories in the people who live in the lands beyond.

Enter Bryan Wells and the community leaders who formed the Yellowstone Gateway Business Coalition. I remember riding in Bryan’s truck, up the bumpy road along his Emigrant Creek property, lands owned for generations on his wife’s side. His wife’s family history of caring for and defending the lands from outside threats including mining interests became part of his story. Through the work of Bryan and the many who live, work and play on the lands surrounding Yellowstone, along with advocates far and wide who care for this incredible place, permanent protection from industrial gold mines was achieved in 2019.

Some relationships to the land go back much further. In recognizing next year’s 150th commemoration of Yellowstone National Park, there is also an incredible opportunity to dive into the human history that goes back 12,600 years.

My most recent exploration into the wide world of Yellowstone has come with the privilege of working alongside people including Dr. Shane Doyle and other Tribal members. In October, I visited Yellowstone with Shane, leaders from Mountain Time Arts, and educators and artists, advocates, and grandmothers. Many were affiliated with some of the 27 Tribes with historic connections to the lands now known as Yellowstone.

“We must let people know that Tribes have never left this place and that Native people of this continent will save this world, spiritually,” shared Shane. “We are not artifacts,” another Tribal member emphasized, in visioning the future of representation and visibility within Yellowstone and other national park lands.

So Yogi bear, a wildlife-filled park, the community members who rely on park and the lands outside, the Tribes who have deep connections as well as deep-rooted scars on the lands — they all share common ground Yellowstone.

The common ground is unfortunately not evenly laid out, and I would say it’s been more mountainous for some. And through these experiences, I’ve also removed the rose or even cartoon-colored lens that initially shaped my Yellowstone knowledge.

To learn a place is to be open to relearning it, in many cases. So for me, the case for wonder is the incredible values that come from discovering, rediscovering and in so, sharpening my lens on Yellowstone, year after year and one story at a time.

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Kati Schmidt is a communications director with the National Parks Conservation Association.

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