Spectacular scenery combines with a genuine frontier history to create what I consider the real American West. The land is mostly uncluttered -- even the so-called cities are little more than overgrown cow towns -- and the setting is one of rugged beauty: the remote wilderness of Yellowstone's Thorofare country, the Gallatin valleys where Sacajawea led Lewis and Clark, and the sandstone arroyos of famed outlaw Butch Cassidy's Hole-in-the-Wall country.
There's a little more pavement here than there was in years gone by, but the open horizon and hospitality -- along with a pronounced independent spirit among the locals -- still exist in Wyoming. Your first visit will likely be centered on the scenery, the outdoor recreation, and the region's Wild West history, but these two states have even more to offer.
Today -- Since the 1950s, the story of the area has been an evolving one, with tourism and agriculture playing key economic roles. Primary crops include wheat, cherries, sunflowers, and sugar beets, as well as beef. Growth has emerged as a key, often divisive issue, as areas like Whitefish and Bozeman have attracted wealthy newcomers from out of state and the population has steadily ticked toward 1 million. But large chunks of Montana are far outside the fast track and have remained relatively unchanged for several generations.
Unfortunately, mining, logging, and housing developments have impacted the area known as the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem that surrounds Yellowstone and Grand Teton national parks. The ecosystem is an interdependent system of watersheds, mountain ranges, wildlife habitat, and other components extending beyond the two parks into seven national forests, an Indian reservation, three national wildlife refuges, and nearly a million acres of private land. To put it into perspective, the ecosystem's 18 million acres span an area as big as Connecticut, Rhode Island, and Delaware combined. It is one of the largest intact temperate ecosystems on the planet.
Park officials have the dual -- and often contradictory -- missions of conserving the natural environment and providing recreational access to three million visitors a year, each with a different definition for the word "wilderness." The roads and facilities necessary to open the parks to the public are often at odds with the concept of conservation, and the human impact on the environment is no small thing.
Gray wolves, which were eliminated in the 1920s and reintroduced in 1990s, have been a crucible for conflict. Many ranchers whose lands border the parks have fought the reintroduction tooth and nail, despite the fact that they are compensated when they lose livestock to a wolf. Gray wolves now number about 1,500 in Idaho, Montana, and Wyoming; single animals have turned up in Utah and Colorado, but permanent populations have yet to be established. With Montana's first legal wolf-hunting season in 2009 taking the life of a prominent alpha female wolf, the controversy is not going away soon.
Snowmobiles in Yellowstone have also generated their fair share of controversy in the past decade. While the machines were to be banned under a plan put in place by the Clinton administration, the Bush administration implemented an alternative compromise of a quota system and best-available technology. The gateway towns of West Yellowstone, Jackson, and Gardiner remain popular jumping-off points for park tours, park officials are still studying the long-term environmental impact of the machines, and snowmobiles still share narrow trails with wildlife during months when the animals' energy levels are at their lowest.
Though the ranching community has dominated Wyoming politics for most of the past century, the modern economic hammer in the state is undoubtedly the energy industry. The state's fate has been closely tied to oil, gas, and coal, with the economy rising and falling in synch with world prices. But in recent years, the state has tallied billion-dollar surpluses thanks to the extraction industries. The boom and bust of the energy industry has prompted repeated calls for a more diversified economy, and in recent years Wyoming's tourism industry has begun to have an impact. Nonetheless, Wyoming remains a predominantly rural state -- and by far the least populous in the union, with about 530,000 residents as of 2009.
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