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Guest Opinion: Geothermal plan won't protect Yellowstone
Clepsydra Geyser erupts in the Fountain Paint Pots, a popular stop for Yellowstone Park visitors.

Imagine a Yellowstone National Park where Old Faithful suddenly starts erupting sporadically - or does not erupt at all.

Imagine Grand Prismatic Spring shrinking. Or Mammoth Hot Springs running dry. Or Steamboat Geyser losing its towering plume.

Such scenarios might seem unimaginable, given that these features have consistently, if unpredictably, awed human visitors in Yellowstone for thousands of years. Yet as America escalates its efforts to address its energy challenges, the very core of the Yellowstone mystique - its 10,000 geothermal features - could be at risk.

Recently, Secretary of the Interior Dirk Kempthorne announced that more than 190 million acres of federal lands in 12 Western states would be opened for development of geothermal resources. More than a half-million of those acres is located in the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, most on Yellowstone's doorstep.

In announcing its decision, the Bureau of Land Management was quick to note that all national parks, wilderness areas and wilderness study areas would remain off-limits to geothermal exploration.

However, in Yellowstone's unique case, the BLM didn't extend protection far enough. The agency ignored reasonable requests from the Greater Yellowstone Coalition and other groups to include a small 15-mile buffer around the park to protect this largest concentration of geothermal features in the world.

As anyone with a rudimentary understanding of geology knows, the geothermal features roiling just beneath and above the surface are not contained within arbitrary political boundaries. Any tinkering with geothermal features outside the park could permanently alter, damage or destroy the flow and function of these hissing, spewing and gurgling icons inside the park.

Make no mistake: The Greater Yellowstone Coalition supports reasonable development of alternative energy sources, including geothermal. It can and should be a part of our domestic renewable-energy equation.

But it must be done responsibly. Such projects should not be located in areas that damage our national parks and wild areas, or compromise special places valued for their wildlife habitat, recreation, hunting and sheer natural beauty.

This is especially true for Yellowstone. The geysers, fumaroles, mudpots, hot springs and terraces are the primary reason the world's first national park was created in 1872, and they obviously remain a major attraction for millions of reverent visitors worldwide each year.

An adequate buffer around Yellowstone - carved out of 190 million acres - seems a small concession to protect the unparalleled natural features that set it apart.

In the mid-1990s, GYC attempted to pass federal legislation that would settle this question and provide Yellowstone the protection it deserves. All three governors from Idaho, Montana and Wyoming supported the effort.

The recent decision by BLM indicates that congressional protection is still necessary - and timely.

It's hard to imagine that we would stop short of ensuring that Old Faithful remains forever faithful.

Amy McNamara of Bozeman is the Greater Yellowstone Coalition's national parks program director.