GARDINER—After nearly four years of planning, Yellowstone National Park pulled off a flawless presentation in the shade of the iconic Roosevelt Arch in Gardiner on the 100th anniversary of the creation of the National Park Service.
“An Evening at the Arch” drew a mellow crowd of about 6,000 folks, many attired in hiking gear and puffy down coats in anticipation of a coolish, late summer evening after the sun went down.
The program included snippets of video from parks across the U.S., a brief videotaped speech from President Obama, excerpts from the Ken Burns national parks documentary and “Happy Birthday”—performed from snippets of park sounds and music including Americana icons John Prine and Emmylou Harris.
But first, the speeches.
Speakers ranging from NPS officials to descendants of famous park champions Stephen Mather, the first director of the agency, and conservationist-president Theodore Roosevelt.
The program even included a little comic relief in the form of TR re-enactor Joe Weigand, clad in a period suit and pince-nez, who peppered his remarks with frequent exclamations of “Bully!” He also got a chuckle from the audience when he said a young boy earlier in the day had pointed at him and cried out, “Look! It’s the Monopoly dude!”
Speaker after speaker not only sang the praises of “America’s best idea,” but also outlined the challenges of the National Park Service’s next 100 years.
They cited climate change, maintenance backlogs and the risk of public apathy towards outdoor activities in an increasingly digitized culture. Public officials also warned about the dangers not only of transferring management of public lands to state governments, but the risks from potentially harmful activities near much-loved public spaces
National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis referred specifically to how park boundaries are not necessarily protective.
“Wildland fire does not understand political boundaries. Nor do iconic wildlife species. Nor do threats from climate change, or adjacent threats from mining,” Jarvis said, to applause from local activists opposed to foreign companies proposing to mine gold at Yellowstone’s northern border near the Montana towns of Gardiner and Emigrant.
Montana Governor Steve Bullock blasted the idea of transferring control of some federal public lands to state management, which has been proposed in the U.S. House of Representatives.
“The notion of transferring national parks to the states is the first step in selling them off to the highest bidder,” Bullock thundered. “Selling off public lands in Montana will not happen on my watch.”
Yellowstone Superintendent Dan Wenk spoke about public-private partnerships and addressed the success of the Gardiner Gateway Project, a multi-year, $25 million project that improved safety, infrastructure, and visitor enjoyment at the park’s North Entrance as well as spiffing up the town of Gardiner with a new traffic flow to the entrance, more parking, new trees and landscaping.
Wenk asked representatives from the 12 public and private agencies to stand as he read off the list —which included the Gardiner Chamber of Commerce, Gardiner Public Schools, Park County, Montana, other state and federal agencies and several nonprofit organizations, including the newly merged Yellowstone Park Foundation and Yellowstone Association. When he finished, the Arch Park audience seemed filled with participants standing.
“The Gardiner Gateway Project fulfilled a dream from 2012 to have Phase 1 completed in time for the National Park Service Centennial,” Wenk said, adding that “Save the Date” cards went out that same year.
Local music producers Joanne Gardner and John Lowell were instrumental in booking the renowned, Grammy-winning singer-songwriters.
Security was well represented at the Gardiner event and the parking shuttle from the airport to town went smoothly, one attendee reported Friday morning.
Park County Sheriff Scott Hamilton, on scene Thursday night along with other officers from his department, said the event was mellow aside from a few alcohol-induced scuffles. No arrests were made.
NPS Director Jarvis said there was no place else he would have rather been for the NPS Centennial.
“I had 413 options for where I’d be today, and I wanted to be in Yellowstone,” he said.
The gates opened at 4 p.m. The official start time was 7 p.m. Well before the appointed hour, the front row center was occupied. Several area locals from Livingston, Montana, 50 miles to north, had scored the coveted seats: Storrs and Laurie Bishop and Rich Baerg and Mikelann Caywood-Baerg.
The tactic was simple, according to Storrs Bishop: Leave home early and get in line.
“We left Livingston at 2:02 p.m.,” he said, and stood in line at the event gates for the 4 p.m. opening.
Storrs said he not only had a high-school crush on Emmylou Harris but is also a longtime John Prine fan. He hoped to hear his favorite songs, “Souvenirs” or “Please Don’t Bury Me.”
Caywood-Baerg is also a longtime Prine fan and has seen him many times, she said.
Prine sang one of his most well-known songs, “Paradise,” which tells the tale of the Peabody Coal Company hauling away his beloved Muhlenberg County, Kentucky.
Prine had squamous cell cancer a few years ago on his neck, and the surgery left his voice more gravely than his signature drawl, but with backup from other musicians, including Rodney Crowell, he performed three other songs to a rapt audience: “That’s the Way the World Goes ‘Round,” “Hello in There” and “Glory of True Love,” which includes a reference to a famous Yellowstone National Park geyser.
“But Old Faithful’s just a fountain compared to the glory of true love,” Prine sang.
After summer-long rumors that the traffic in and out of Gardiner would be a nightmare, it was not. Driving home to Livingston at about 10:30 p.m., traffic was light but steady. Deer leaping into the road, as always, were the more immediate risk than other motorists.