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Lesson Plan

Ecology: The Yellowstone Wildfires of 1988

About this Video
This 10-minute video explores the lessons from the Yellowstone fires of 1988 that gave rise to a national political controversy about the relationship between fires and sustainable forestry. The video shows students how public attitudes towards fire and forestry had been molded for decades toward preventing and fighting forest fires, and how the Yellowstone fires led to a reevaluation of these ideas. Useful as an introduction to the context and complexities of forestry policy, the video helps students see recent debates over wildfires within a larger historical framework.

Students will:

  • Learn about how the Yellowstone fires of 1988 created a national controversy over forestry policy and wildfires.
  • Examine how the federal government’s policy towards the role of fires in forestry management has evolved since 1910.
  • Learn how fires affect forest ecosystems.
  • Social Studies
  • Environment
  • Geography
  • U.S. History
  • Journalism
  • Science
  • Earth and Space Science
  • Cultural and Social Change
  • Domestic Policies
  • The Environment and Natural Resources
  • 1980s America
  • The Modern Era (1980-Present)
  • News Literacy
  • Media Literacy
For Teachers
Introducing the Lesson

In 1988, wildfires burned out of control in Yellowstone National Park and virtually destroyed a national landmark.

That, at least, was a message broadcast by the national news media. But the reality proved more complex.

The wildfires did burn nearly a third of the park, but it wasn’t destroyed, nor were park officials to blame.

For decades, federal park policy put out every fire as soon as it started, a message driven home since the 1950s by advertisements featuring Smokey Bear.

But that policy allowed underbrush to quietly build up across the country’s national parks, providing dangerous fuel for potential wildfires.

To reduce that threat, park officials in 1972 began to let natural fires burn out unless computer models predicted a threat to life or property.

By the summer of 1988 in Yellowstone, that “natural burn” policy had failed to reduce the underbrush. Worse, a severe drought had turned the dead leaves and fallen limbs into tinder, ready to burn.

That summer, rare fierce winds ravaged the park, so when lightning ignited a series of small fires, they quickly spread, and soon rendered all existing fire-control models obsolete.

For two months, an army of firefighters fought daily to contain the spreading wildfires, but they were only put out with the help of a snowstorm in September.

The real lesson of 1988 was that naturally-caused fires are necessary to control the buildup of underbrush, and reduce the threat of devastating wildfires. But letting the fires burn isn’t always an option near some developed areas.

Essential Questions
  • How did Yellowstone’s superintendent respond when lightning strikes started a series of small fires in 1988?
  • After the “Big Burn” of 1910 destroyed three million acres across the Northwest, what was the federal government’s policy toward fires and forestry? How did this policy start to shift in 1972?
  • What is the Lodgepole Pine’s evolutionary “strategy” for coping with fire?
  • How did the Yellowstone fire affect public attitudes towards fire and forestry?
Lesson Procedure
  • In the video, Robert Barbee, former superintendent of Yellowstone, says, “Fire’s important. It is as important as sunshine and rain. The forest ensemble that is present in the greater Yellowstone is there not in spite of fire but because of fire.” Why did Barbee say this? What role does fire play in a forest ecosystem?
  • In recent years, wildfires have increased dramatically in both size and number. What’s your hypothesis about the factors that might be causing this sudden upswing?
  • The Yellowstone fires in 1988 changed public perceptions about the role of fire in forestry management, just as the “Big Burn” had changed public perceptions back in 1910. Can you think of any other examples of a shocking or sensational event that had the effect of changing public attitudes on environmental policy? Why do you think the public often needs a big event to reconsider long-held attitudes?
  • How does increased human settlement at the edge of forests complicate policy towards wildfire management and forestry? From a policy standpoint, how should we respond to increased human population at the forest periphery? Humans want to live there, but forests need to burn. How do we reconcile or balance these competing priorities?
Additional Resources
Transcript for "The Wildfire That Burned Yellowstone and set off a Media Firestorm" Retro Report
Lessons From the Yellowstone Fires of 1988 The New York Times

Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.

Analyze a complex set of ideas or sequences of events and explain how specific individuals, ideas, or events interact or develop over the course of a text.

Evaluate the consequences of human-made and natural catastrophes on global trade, politics, and human migration.

Skill 7.F: Justify a proposed solution by explaining potential advantages.

Big Idea: Sustainability (STB)

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