Letters From the West

Protecting Island Park Caldera protects Yellowstone geysers

Old Faithful geyser in Yellowstone National Park (NPS Photo)

Old Faithful geyser in Yellowstone National Park (NPS Photo)

The Park Service is holding a scientific conference Monday through Wednesday to examine the science surrounding the Old Faithful Geyser.

Park officials want to know what science is out there to guide them in protecting the national shrine only miles from the Idaho border. The focus though is only in the immediate area of the world’s most dependable geyser and a place that about a quarter of Americans will visit in their lifetime according to a  poll.

Protecting Old Faithful and Yellowstone’s thousands of other thermal features – some right on the border with Idaho – is one of the arguments for the proposed Idaho Yellowstone Caldera National Monument studied by former Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne.

Concerns about geothermal development of what is called the Island Park Known Geothermal Resource Area for geothermal power or heating led the U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management to do an environmental impact statement on development in the 1970s when Cecil Andrus was Interior Secretary. Occidental Petroleum Company was one of several energy companies interested in exploring the Island Park Caldera area to determine if the geothermal resource could be tapped.

Just as Andrus was getting ready to walk out of the door at Interior in 1980 the final decision was made to ban all geothermal leasing in the Island Park Geothermal Area. But the EIS itself said such a ban still left private land and state lands in the area open to geothermal development.

This came up in the early 1990s when the Church Universal and Triumphant announced plans to development Corwin Spring on its land north of Yellowstone in Montana. A bill was written, the Old Faithful Protection Act, to try to stop it.

One of its strongest supporters was Irving Friedman, a geochemist with the U.S.Geological Survey who was an expert on Yellowstone’s natural geothermal plumbing. He wanted it to ban geothermal development not only at Corwin Springs but all around Yellowstone, especially in Island Park.

A mudpot in the Paquzhetsky geothermal field in southern Kamchatka.

A mudpot in the Pauzhetsky geothermal field in southern Kamchatka.(Rocky Barker photo)

“We should not be playing roulette with Yellowstone’s geyser system,” Friedman would say at the time.

His bosses did not always like his activist efforts and tried to shut him up. But Friedman was a legendary member of group of post doctoral researchers in Nobel laureate Harold Urey’s laboratory at the Institute for Nuclear Studies at the University of Chicago in the 1940s. There, Friedman built the first mass spectrometer for routine measurement of the hydrogen isotope composition of water. That earned him the title “father of isotope hydrology.”

I went to Kamchatka with Friedman in 1992 as a part of a scientific group that went to look at Russia’s Far East after the Soviet Union went away.

The pipes of Pauzhetsky geothermal power station in Kamchatka.

The pipes of Pauzhetsky geothermal power station in Kamchatka.(Rocky Barker Photo)

Kamchatka has active geysers though natural landslides buried many of them since. Friedman walked with me through a beautiful hot springs area with all kinds of fumaroles and bubbling mud pots but no geysers in southern Kamchatka.

Its geysers had disappeared after a geothermal electric plant was built nearby in 1966, Friedman said. He didn’t want the same thing to happen in Island Park.

When Friedman died in 2005 at age 85, Yellowstone Science Magazine called him “Yellowstone’s geothermal soul.”

Louisa Willcox, an environmental activist who went with us on the 1992 trip said even after Montana resolved the Corwin Springs threat she continued to worry about Island Park.

“It just takes some ambitious person or industry who decides they want to punch into some hot water and develop a spa to bring the threat back up front,” Willcox of Livingston, Mont. said. “It’s bigger than protecting the geysers. It’s about protecting the trumpeter swans and the other birds who depend on the year-round open water from the thermal features.”

Designating the Island Park Caldera as a national monument will provide eastern Idaho with an economic shot in the arm by keeping Yellowstone visitors in Idaho for an extra day and adding flights at the Idaho Falls Airport. No one is talking about cutting back snowmobiling or any outdoor activity that isn’t already regulated to protect grizzly bears and other wildlife.

But protecting Yellowstone’s geysers is reason enough for national action. I know Friedman would agree.

Rocky Barker is the energy and environment reporter for the Idaho Statesman and has been writing about the West since 1985. He is the author of Scorched Earth How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America and co-producer of the movie Firestorm: Last Stand at Yellowstone, which was inspired by the book and broadcast on A&E Network. He also co-authored the Flyfisher's Guide to Idaho and the Wingshooter's Guide to Idaho with Ken Retallic. He also was on the Statesman’s team that covered the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news in 2007. The National Wildlife Federation awarded him its Conservation Achievement Award.

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