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Yellowstone Has New Old Faithful Center

Credits: ©2010 New York Times

The popular, classic Hannah Barbara characters Yogi Bear and BooBoo will be romping - via the silver screen - through the landscape in search of pic-a-nic baskets in December 2010. It’s a cautionary tale of environmental apathy, greed and cooperation whose story takes place in the fictitious Jellystone Park, which is based on the magnificent Yellowstone National Park, granddaddy of all national parks everywhere. Yogi and BooBoo’s new film will likely capture a large portion of the billion-plus annual US moviegoers. Ah ha, but the real Yellowstone has something new to offer as well: the park expects more than 2.6 million visitors to its new, sustainable Old Faithful Visitor Education Center. Located next to the famous Old Faithful geyser, the center celebrates sustainability and was built to minimize its impact on the famous geyser basin site. For example, the building's foundation is shallow, which prevents damage to the underground hydrothermal system. The underside of the first floor is heavily insulated so the building's temperature will not affect the ground temperature and vice versa. Geothermal heat is not used here because tapping the thermal systems could damage the geysers and other hydrothermal elements. When the old existing center was demolished, the concrete was crushed on-site and used in the new construction as fill. Even the souvenir shops in Yellowstone use sustainability score cards for every product for sale. The building incorporates recycled and renewable building materials and low-flow plumbing. During construction, more than 99 percent, or 4,800 tons, of construction waste was recycled. The design itself allows for a reduced heating space during winter months, and energy-efficient features include state-of-the-art lighting, insulation and climate control systems.


Yellowstone Old Faithful Center Finishing

Workers finish the roof of the new Old Faithful Visitor Education Center at Yellowstone National Park that was opened in August 2010. ©2010 Erik Petersen / Chronicle

A Cathedral to the Shrine of Nature

August 30, 2010
The view from the cathedral-size windows of the $27 million visitor center that opened here last week leads down a paved path toward a gently curved mound of rock. A mist of hissing steam drifts from the mound, but every 90 minutes or so, water starts to spurt fitfully, then more aggressively, until it erupts into a tower as high as 180 feet, whose spray may be spread by the breeze toward the hundreds of viewers gathered to watch the spectacle.

Old Faithful was the name given to this geyser by the 1870 team whose survey of these exotic wilderness lands helped inspire Congress to make Yellowstone a national park — the first land to get that designation. And names given by those early chroniclers still adhere to the geothermal phenomena they cataloged: Beehive Geyser, Mastiff Geyser, Old Faithful.

In this unearthly landscape — where gray mud pots emit burbling bubbles, where sickly blood-orange fluids seep into otherworldly green pools, where eye-burning sulfurous mist hisses from dim crevices — Old Faithful is almost mundane. It is neither the tallest geyser nor the most remarkable. It simply promises routine reliability. That means audiences know when to come and go.

And they do, in great numbers. The National Park Service, which maintains elaborate records, says that four out of five visitors to Yellowstone come to see Old Faithful; last year, that meant 80 percent of 3.3 million tourists. There is even a live Webcam so millions more can follow Old Faithful’s doings.

But as the symbol of one of the country’s most visited national parks, Old Faithful actually seems least faithful — least suggestive of untrammeled nature. From its measured eruptions to its paved surroundings, it can seem a manufactured extravaganza. Three hotels have grown around it, the most famous of which, the 1904 Old Faithful Inn, probably inspires far more gasps, with its fanciful, rustic, pine-log construction, than the famed geyser’s jets of water. And as for spectacle, the Bellagio’s Las Vegas fountains outdo nature, at least in this case.

Maybe that taming is part of the point: there is something about Old Faithful that seems to encapsulate all the passions and paradoxes of national parks. The Old Faithful Visitor Education Center acknowledges that: you enter the new building (designed by CTA Architects Engineers of Billings, Mont., to echo the inn and other park architecture) and you face a 36.5-foot-high pentagonal window space looking out on Old Faithful as if the geyser were the altar of a new form of cathedral.

Homage is being paid. The geyser is the center of attention as you enter the 26,000-square-foot building; its spacious entrance hall and peaked roof lead the gaze outward and upward. But the geyser is so carefully framed here, it can seem almost denatured. The center contains a bookstore, a gift shop, a theater for introductory films, a research area and a 4,500-square-foot exhibition space. It is grander than many Park Service facilities; the park has a private fund-raising associate, the Yellowstone Park Foundation, which collected $15 million in donations, matched by $12 million in federal money. Nature is here being presented for the delight of millions, and if it isn’t seen from behind glass, it might as well be.

The building is also meticulously deferential to nature. Signs explain its LEED certification as a “green” building with minimal environmental impact. Almost all the construction waste was recycled; the floors and exhibition components are made from renewable resources. The building’s shallow foundation does not interfere with the subterranean hydrothermal systems that produce the exquisite effects outside. Nature is deferred to and seems to return the compliment.

A happy balance, then? Not really, and this is the tension of the park experience. In the lobby, displays present maps of geyser activity, but also show warnings: “Danger! Hot Water Can Kill.” Bears, we learn, attack; bison gore. One book sold here is “Death in Yellowstone: Accidents and Foolhardiness in the First National Park” by Lee H. Whittlesey. There is the 1981 incident of the man who leapt into a 202-degree hot spring to rescue his dog, both perishing, and the 1970 tragedy of the 9-year-old boy who fatally jumped or slipped into another pool. In Yellowstone, whose geothermal areas are generally seen by driving from one hot spot to another, it can be easy to forget this is not a theme park.

The center, though, reminds us that this is nature tamed, not nature made harmless. And for all its fierceness, we learn, nature is also fragile. Soldiers housed in the park a century ago used Old Faithful to do their laundry with no lasting ill effects, but other geysers have been stifled by human carelessness. Springs and pools are viewed by walking on boardwalks, protecting nature and humans from each other.

So nature here is carefully packaged. And the center’s exhibition shows why, examining the fearsome geological forces that have shaped this section of the park. Designed by Christopher Chadbourne & Associates of Boston and shaped by Linda Young, Yellowstone’s chief of interpretation, and other park educators, the exhibition could have been stronger had it been more ambitious. But as is, it clearly explains the phenomena. It shows in patient (and sometimes repetitive) displays that Yellowstone is not only on a 40-some-mile-wide caldera — the crater from a volcanic eruption about 640,000 years ago — it actually also lies on the surface of a live volcano, its land mass undulating on a chain of magma.

That molten rock’s interactions with waters seeping downward create a topography with more hydrothermal phenomena than any other site in the world. Pressurized waters are heated well over the boiling point and then periodically burst through constricted channels. Gases of subsurface boilings escape through rocks like steam from radiator valves; mild eruptions and earthquakes are regularly felt. Yellowstone is a laboratory of geological change, which is how, some displays here show, it is also being studied.

Touch screens can lead you through some of the more dramatic Yellowstone features, like Morning Glory Pool, whose spectacular flowerings were thwarted by generations of visitors tossing in coins and clothing, and the Mud Volcano, which erupts rarely but fills the air with the stench of hydrogen sulfide gas.

Some exhibits are less imaginative, including those that survey the remarkable scientific research now taking place or catalog the range of the waters’ acidity across the park. But in the Young Scientist gallery, everything becomes vividly concrete. That room includes an enclosed ceiling-high geyser, with adjustable dials, a model created by the Exploratorium in San Francisco. Another display, using jawbone models, shows why animals in the hydrothermal areas of the park tend to live shorter lives: silica deposits on vegetation prematurely wear away their teeth.

It is here, too, that we learn that Old Faithful’s schedule is estimated from the length of a previous eruption: a shorter display of waterworks means pressure below will build up more quickly. Such examples would have made the main exhibition more compelling as well.

But Ms. Young explained in an e-mail that, unlike most museums, a visitor center is not the main destination; the park is. So people will spend widely varying amounts of time here before rushing out for the real thing. The exhibition seeks to prepare the visitor. It can also act as a supplement, with the Web site offering even more details.

But still, more could have been done. Other visitor centers in the park focus on particular geological features. In this main center, perhaps the history and nature of the park itself could have been explored as well, offering some hint of the strangeness and importance of the enterprise. We visit this park and confront not nature, but managed nature, in the midst of which we find nearly unmanageable human controversies.

The Yellowstone study “Resources and Issues 2010,” for example, examines some of the unexpected consequences of reintroducing animal species once native to the park, like wolves, or the troubling results of the accidental introduction of lake trout. Bear and bison populations, we learn, are not simply left in a state of nature: they too are managed.

And that is not an easy matter. The effects of managed nature can be seen in the walkways, the guard rails and this new visitor center, but also in the landscape: after the 1988 forest fires that scarred almost 800,000 acres — 36 percent of the park — the policy of letting naturally caused fires burn without human intervention was revised. Walk far enough along the trails here, and charred logs can still dominate the barren landscape.

But at least in the area around Old Faithful, it is difficult to interfere much with nature’s own organization. When the pioneering naturalist John Muir visited Yellowstone in 1898, he wrote: “The air is electric and full of ozone, healing, reviving, exhilarating, kept pure by frost and fire, while the scenery is wild enough to awaken the dead.”

He said it was as if nature had gathered from all over the world “specimens of her rarest fountains, to show in one place what she can do” — an exhibition to which any human curatorial effort must defer.

Recycling at Yellowstone
Yellowstone has 5,000 employees, 2,000 hotel rooms and 2,000 campsites. It shattered visitation records in 2009 with 3.3 million visitors and they are ahead of that so far in 2010. Until five or six years ago, the thousands of tons of trash generated by all those people were being hauled to a landfill 100 miles away. But an aggressive effort to divert, reuse and eliminate the waste has Yellowstone composting and recycling so much that it is diverting 80 percent of its waste (including some 1,200 tons of electronics!) from the landfill. The most prolific item in the waste bins is the plastic water bottle. In 2009, 40 tons of plastic water bottles were recycled and Yellowstone is on track to hit a 90 percent diversion rate by next year.

When recyclables hit the concrete floor of Yellowstone’s facility (as big as two football fields) one thing stood out – those one pound propane cylinders used for camp stoves. Visitors typically trash hundreds of them each week - all containing some level of explosive gas. The problem was there was no way to recycle them. Undaunted, the Park set to work developing the first-ever propane container recycling program in the world. First, the propane is purged and used to power a generator and a compressor that punctures and flattens the cylinder. The empty cylinder can then be recycled as raw steel. It’s a closed loop system that spawned a similar effort to recycle bear repellent spray.

Fryer oil is also recycled. Some 10,000 gallons of used cooking oil generated by Yellowstone National Park concessioners is used to create biodiesel that powers everything from hundreds of unmodified vehicles to boilers in the park. The resulting fuel was tested with Washington State University’s family of captive bears to see if they were attracted to the smell (they were not). The gallons of oil that used to be hauled to the landfill now equal a savings of 600 tons of CO2.

Relevant books:
National Geographic Complete National Parks
American Environmental History

Relevant movies:
Yellowstone: Battle for Life
Christmas in Yellowstone


  Yellowstone Old Faithful Visitor Education Center Case Study 2010 (719 kb)


Yellowstone National Park.com

Yellowstone Old Faithful Webcam

CTA Architects (USA)

Yellowstone Park Foundation (USA)

Yellowstone Volcano Observatory

Yellowstone Association

Yellowstone National Park (USA)

Greening Yellowstone