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Episode 2: Why are public lands important?

Kids Ask Why?
Kids Ask Why?
Episode 2: Why are public lands important?

Photo: Mack H. Frost

Over half of the state of Wyoming is owned publicly by federal or state governments. Molly Stanton, Hannah Bertalot, and Sunday Schuh explore why public lands are important to the people of Wyoming, and the rest of the country. Molly explains the importance of public lands for hunting and mule deer conservation as she interviews Joshua Coursey, the founder and CEO of Muley Fanatic Foundation. Hannah interviews geologist Gretchen Hurley and learns about the protected mountain ranges of Wyoming. And Sunday discusses her love of Yellowstone National Park, as she interviews retired Superintendent Dan Wenk about tourism in Yellowstone. 

Molly Stanton

Molly is 13 years old. She has grown up in Southwest Wyoming and has been exposed to all things outdoors. She and her family go fishing, camping, and hunting frequently. They also own a cabin which they use all the time for all activities outdoors. Some of her hobbies indoors include, playing volleyball, doing all things 4-H and hanging out with family. Most of the time you can find her working with her turkeys for 4-H or playing outside with her sister. She loves being outside and in the WILD!!  

Joshua Coursey

Joshua W.D. Coursey is a Wyoming native who upon graduation from Rock Springs High School in 1992 served in the U.S. Army as a Photo Journalist for four years. His education includes an Associate of Science from WWCC, a Bachelor of Science in Emergency Management from Grand Canyon University and is a graduate of Leadership of Wyoming with the Class of 2019. An avid sportsman, Josh’s reverence for God, Family, and Country embodies the passion that spurred his efforts to co-found the Muley Fanatic Foundation, a 501 C (3) non-profit conservation organization that was established in 2012. Headquartered in Green River, Wyoming with 17 Chapters operating across 6 states, the Muley Fanatic Foundation aims to ensure the conservation of mule deer and their habitat and to provide such supporting services to further the sport of hunting and sound wildlife management.

Hannah Bertalot

Hannah is a sixth grader in Park County, Wyoming. She is an avid animal lover and enjoys the great outdoors. She spends much of her time mountain biking, skiing, and camping often providing her ample opportunity to go rock-hounding with her siblings. Hannah has enjoyed searching for crinoid stems and gryphaea at both Red Lake near Cody and Red Gulch Dinosaur Track site in the Big Horn Basin.

Gretchen Hurley

Since graduating from the University of Wyoming, Gretchen Hurley has worked as an environmental scientist and geologist for the past 38 years. She began her career in the oil field working throughout the Rocky Mountain West, and since then, has worked in the fields of synthetic fuels research, groundwater restoration, water quality sampling and analysis, and water rights adjudication. Since 2004, she has worked full time for the Bureau of Land Management as a Geologist, managing the solid minerals, abandoned mine lands, and paleontology programs for the Cody Field Office, as well as participating in land use planning, and public outreach. She is also a licensed Wyoming Professional Geologist. She loves working with people of all ages to promote a love of nature and appreciation for the outdoors.

Sunday Schuh

Sunday is in 7th grade and lives with her family in her native town of Cody, Wyoming. Even as a child Sunday was struck by the natural beauty of Wyoming. She loves long-distance running, cross country skiing, hiking, biking and camping, but her biggest love is alpine skiing. On most winter weekends she can be found at Cody’s local ski area, Sleeping Giant, where she first started skiing at the age of 4.

Dan Wenk

Dan Wenk worked for the National Park service for 35 years. He began his career in 1975 as a landscape architect at the Denver Service Center. From 1985-2001, Wenk was superintendent of Mount Rushmore National Memorial in South Dakota. And in 2011, he took the helm at Yellowstone National Park, America’s first national park, established in 1872. Wenk retired in 2018. Wenk’s career accomplishments have been recognized with numerous awards, including the Meritorious Service Award, the second highest honor awarded by the Department of the Interior. Wenk earned a bachelor of landscape architecture from Michigan State University.

Photo Wyoming Public Media

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NARRATOR: Welcome to the Kids Ask WhY podcast, where kids ask the questions. This is a collaboration between Wyoming Public Media and the Buffalo Bill Center of the West.

MOLLY STANTON: Hi, my name is Molly Stanton and I live in Green River, Wyoming.

HANNAH BERTALOT: Hi, my name is Hannah Bertalot. I live in Cody, Wyoming.

SUNDAY SCHUH: Hi, I’m Sunday Shuh, and I live in Cody, Wyoming. Today we’re talking about Wyoming’s public lands. Molly, what are you talking about today?

MOLLY: Today, I’m talking about how I use the public lands. Typically in my family, we go hunting. I grew up hunting and it is my favorite way to use the public lands. It’s a great way to spend time with family and put food on our table. Hannah, what are you going to be talking about today?

HANNAH: My specific topic today is geology. One time when I was going to Yellowstone, we saw hoodoos, which are the curvy rocks with holes in them. Then when we arrived, we looked at the Grand Prismatic. There were also smaller geothermal features nearby. Sunday, what are you talking about today?

SUNDAY: Today I’m talking about Yellowstone and how tourism has affected the environment in Yellowstone. I’ve lived near Yellowstone almost my entire life. And I love almost everything about the park. I have so many great experiences like seeing the Old Faithful of the Grand Prismatic pool, and I would hate to see something like the great aspects of Yellowstone be dispersed because of human actions like tourism

HANNAH: Hi, my name is Hannah Bertalot. I live in Cody, Wyoming. I’m speaking with Gretchen Hurley, a geologist for the Bureau of Land Management. I’m speaking with her today because she knows a lot about the geology of Wyoming. I’m interested in rocks and mountains. These are an important part of Wyoming’s landscapes. 

So for the first question, are the majority of the mountains in Wyoming on public lands? Is this important?

GRETCHEN HURLEY: Yep. Virtually all of our major mountain ranges are located on public lands and that means either Forest Service administered lands or lands administered by the Bureau of Land Management, who I work for, so those are what you consider public lands. There are portions of certain mountain ranges that are not located on public lands. Half of the State of Wyoming is publicly administered, which means, of course, that it belongs to the American people. So, it’s great because those mountains are more accessible for folks to enjoy.

HANNAH: How did the Rocky Mountains form? Well, the point in Wyoming?

Photo: Mack H. Frost

GRETCHEN: The formation of the Rocky Mountains began about 100 million years ago, during a period of mountain building called the “sevier orogeny” and continued through 40 million years ago, primarily during an episode of mountain building called the “laramide orogeny”. Most of Wyoming’s mountain ranges formed during the laramide time, which was the result of really deep crustal compression caused by plate tectonic motions, primarily called subduction–where one tectonic plate slides underneath another. In this case, we had the Farallon Plate on the west side, diving beneath the North American plate. It’s almost as if Wyoming-the area that we now call Wyoming-was being squeezed in a gigantic vice. And over time, those mountain ranges were subject to some really powerful erosional forces like running water, wind, ice, Alpine glaciers, and gravity. And those forces of erosion continue today, providing the beautiful scenery that we enjoy in Wyoming’s mountains and basins as well.

HANNAH: So my next question is, where is the tallest mountain in Wyoming?

GRETCHEN: The tallest mountain in Wyoming is called Gannett Peak. And it’s located in the Wind River range of west central Wyoming. It’s named Gannett Peak, which measures 13,810 feet above sea level. So that’s our highest mountain in the whole state of Wyoming. And it was named for a man named Henry Gannett, who is a famous American geographer and he helped form the United States Geological Survey and the National Geographic Society in the late 1800s. So he’s a famous geographer and he did so much work to help the state of Wyoming and its geography and mapping that they named the tallest peak in Wyoming after him– Henry Gannett, Gannett Peak in the Wind River mountains.

HANNAH: Okay, so, I have like one extra question. Can you explain how the Hoodoos are formed?

GRETCHEN: Those hoodoos west of Cody, Wyoming, on the forest are in the Absaroka Mountains and they are fascinating to look at, aren’t they Hannah? They’re located about 27 miles west of Cody. Once you get up onto the Shoshone National Forest, you drive west to turn out to the place called Holy City. I think that’s the area you’re asking about, where you have this really cool array of different rock shapes that have been carved into the andesite which is the volcanic rock. It’s a combination of lots of different rock sized particles, as well as lots of varieties of cementation or the way the rock is held together. And at Holy City, it’s really cool because you can look on the skyline and see how detailed and fragile really these erosional forms are like the “goose rock” and “old woman in her cabin”. It’s really fun to study those and try to figure out how they formed. Enjoy them now because a lot of them are so fragile, they won’t be around for a whole lot longer. 

So Hannah, can you please share with us how you became interested in geology and mountains in particular?

HANNAH: I developed my interest in geology and mountains because when I was younger, and now, we visit Yellowstone a lot, and I know that people, people aren’t like respecting. So I want to help protect when I get old enough to.

GRETCHEN: I’m glad you’re interested in it. And hopefully someday you’ll maybe want to pursue geology as a career because it’s fascinating.

HANNAH: Before I spoke with Gretchen, I felt there was very little to know about geology in Wyoming. After I spoke with her, I knew there is tons to know about geology and why it is important to protect the public lands because there could be valuable geologic resources. There’s also wildlife that lives on public lands. There can be endangered species disturbed or hurt by tourists or pedestrians. It is important to protect the land because it can save an endangered species. Some of the rules that protect the wildlife should be enforced for this reason.

MOLLY: Hi, my name is Molly Stanton and I live in Green River, Wyoming. I’m speaking with Joshua Corsey, the founder and CEO of the Muley Fanatic Foundation. I’m speaking with him because his organization is committed to protecting wild places and the wild animals in them. I want to get Josh’s perspective on why public lands are so important to the wildlife and people that live in Wyoming.

Um, first question, why are the public lands so important to you specifically?

JOSHUA COURSEY: Public lands really embodies the very word of freedom, in my mind. Even though I’m a Wyoming native, and it wasn’t until I had been to other places, and had seen something that I had just taken for granted. So for me, when I think about public lands, and particularly in western Wyoming, where we have so much of it, it truly is what, as I stated before, what embodies the very word of freedom. Our ability to be able to wander, to be able to go and enjoy, not only outdoor recreational opportunities, but just the wild things and wild places that living out west affords us and they’re world class in Wyoming in my opinion.

MOLLY: I agree with you completely.

And I don’t know if you covered this a lot already, but what part of the public lands do you think is the most important?

JOSHUA: I’m still, in some regards, I’m just old school in the fact that I like to be able to access places within public lands that you can get to a hilltop or you can get somewhere where you’re not able to pick out any man made structures. Those areas are definitely becoming far and fewer in between. But I really enjoy that. It gives me a sense of that what it must have been like to be a part of the frontier years ago, to know that you’re still on an unchanged landscape from what it was potentially 150 years ago, and the westward development of mankind. Those places still exist and we’re very lucky in Wyoming, we still have a few of them and it takes work to maintain that.

MOLLY: Yeah, I agree with you. And why do you think hunting is so important in our community like on the public lands?

Photo: Mack H. Frost

JOSHUA: Certainly access is a big one. There are many states where there’s very little public land, particularly back east, either you’re a part of a hunting club, or you’re part of an association that allows for access on private land through some sort of membership fee. And that’s just not a way of life for what we know to be the norm in western Wyoming particularly. But I think what makes hunting so important is that hunting when you really think about it, especially when you look at the North American model of conservation, is that wildlife belongs to the residents of Wyoming. And so hunting is a tool of conservation. For us to be able to participate in those conservation efforts administered by the managers of our wildlife in Wyoming- the Wyoming Game and Fish Department- I think that’s the role of the public to be engaged in a duty of civic responsibility. So, for me, hunting is beyond just the recreational enjoyment that I have, or the the effort to want to put clean organic meat on the table as a staple to our family diet. But I think it’s the role that we get to participate in in the effort of conservation

MOLLY:That was a lot of information.

JOSHUA: Probably a lot more than you wanted.

MOLLY: Yeah, no, it’s a good answer, though. It made a lot of sense.

Um, and with your job, do you think that you work most to conserve land or the animals and why?

JOSHUA: So they go hand in hand. Certainly when you look at the critters and carrying capacity of the landscape, that is certainly tied to stainability of the overall population objectives and the overall health of such populations. So really, it’s a matter of both. I mean, certainly when you look at the landscape, much like you learned in hunters education, there are very key components that are required for the animal to be able to be sustainable– shelter and cover and of course, the right quality of forbes and forage and water and access and being able to have those movements.

MOLLY: Thank you so much, you answered all my questions.

JOSHUA: Very good questions.

MOLLY: After talking to Josh, I would describe public lands as being crucial and amazing. Public lands are important to people that hunt for many reasons, one of them being that it gives hunters access to thousands of acres of land to be able to explore.

Another reason is that if there was no public lands, the hunters would be very limited on the areas. Finally, hunters are very grateful for the public lands because of the abundance of wildlife that is offered. 

SUNDAY: Hi I am Sunday Shuh and I live in Cody, Wyoming. I’m speaking with Dan Wenk the former superintendent of Yellowstone National Park. I’m speaking with him because Yellowstone was the first national park and has millions of visitors every year. I wanted to learn how all these visitors are affecting the natural places of Yellowstone. 

So over the last 50 years has there been a significant spike in tourism in Yellowstone?

DAN WENK: You know, I think over the last 50 years, you can see where it’s grown about 3-5%, well 3.5% on average year over year for the past 50 years.  But in the summer of 2016 and 2017, there was a significant spike, it went up about 17%, just in those two years. I think it’s starting to level out again, but tourism was always one of the main aspects of why Yellowstone, if you will, was created. And why they turned over the development of the visitor facilities to the railroads companies. It was about promoting tourism to the Park and to the West.

SUNDAY: And what effect has that had on Yellowstone and the wildlife, and the natural, the geysers, and everything?

Photo: Mack H. Frost

DAN: Well, one of the great things about Yellowstone is it’s over almost two and a quarter million acres in size. Primarily the tourism industry or the tourists that come to Yellowstone, they spend most of their time within about a half mile of the paved roads and developed areas in Yellowstone National Park. So overall, it has an effect, but it doesn’t have an effect that’s really going to change Yellowstone a lot. Now, in order to accommodate up to 4 million visits a year, there has been significant development in the primary resource areas of Yellowstone because that’s what people come to see. They come to see the Grand Canyon of Yellowstone, they come to see Old Faithful and the geysers, they come to the Geyser Basin. So a lot of development occurs in those areas. And it has to be done very carefully, because those are incredibly fragile environments. We believe that 80% of people who visit Yellowstone National Park go to Old Faithful and see the Old Faithful geyser in the Geyser Basin on a particular visit. So that has an effect of extreme crowding in those areas of Old Faithful, the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, with wolves in the Lamar Valley- that’s getting more crowded, Norris Geyser Basin. All those areas have to be managed very carefully to ensure we don’t destroy the resources that people are coming especially to see.

SUNDAY: Yeah. Okay. And then what do you see the future of the park looking like as far as tourism?

DAN: You know, I think one of the things we’re doing now is we’re trying very hard to understand what the level of tourism or level of visitation to the park, and the impact that has on the visitor experience, as well as the resources of the park. One of the relatively new emerging areas of visitation is Grand Prismatic. And if you’ve not been on it, we built a new trail so people can get a bird’s eye view of Grand Prismatic Spring so they can appreciate it. But the day we opened that trail, it was overfull. I mean, we had more people on the trail, and we had more people competing for spaces in the parking lot. So we can’t build ourselves out of the problem. What we have to do is we have to work with visitors, we have to look at how they visit the park, we have to look at different solutions around transportation. I don’t know how a transportation system will work, but we’ve developed a transportation system for the winter. So perhaps there’s something that can be done in the summer. You know, we’ve tried to extend the season so people could visit for a longer period of time and perhaps get some of the concentration in the summer months lower, and extended it into the spring in the fall. All of those things offer some part of a solution. But there’s no one thing that can be done in order to alleviate the crush of visitors that happens in Yellowstone in the summer.

SUNDAY: Okay. And what actions have the National Park Service taken to increase or decrease tourism over the last 10 years?

DAN: Over the last 10 years? I would say we’ve done very little. I think one of the things that you’ve seen in the park is (this hasn’t been to increase or decrease but it’s been to accommodate the visitors) the National Park Service working with our concessionaires, Xanterra and Delaware North who are the two primary concessionaires, have spent a lot of time, energy, and money improving the visitor facilities. Probably the other biggest thing that’s been done is the road system, which Yellowstone was built in the early 1900s. That road system has been improved dramatically. If you’ve been in the park which I’m sure you have many times, you’ve been in what we call wildlife jams. they could be they can be bears, they can be wolves, they can be elk, they can be deer, they can be anything that will attract a large number of people. So we’re trying to build more pullouts and improve the road system throughout the park in order to accommodate those visitors who are visiting Yellowstone.

SUNDAY: Okay. All right. Great answers. Thanks for talking to me today.

DAN: That’s it? You’re easy.

SUNDAY: Thank you.

Before I spoke with Mr Wenk, I thought what an amazing and beautiful place. After I spoke with Mr. Wenk, I thought what an insanely large and amazing and beautiful place worth protecting. Yellowstone National Park is a truly spectacular display of nature- spouting geysers, bubbling mud pots and abundant wildlife. Yellowstone was the first national park founded in at 1872. So it’s been around for quite a while and it’s worth preserving. We need to make sure this spectacular site is around for many years so our children and grandchildren can see this magnificent place and all it has to offer.


Thanks for listening to this episode of Kids Ask why. If you want want to learn more about public lands about the geology about Yellowstone and tourism, or even about hunting on public lands in Wyoming. You can find more resources on our website at Is there anything that you particularly love about public lands? Tell us why. Share your stories with us on Facebook and Twitter and again, thanks for listening.


This podcast is produced by Emily Buckles, Gretchen Henrich, Megan Smith, and Kirsten Arnold. Our executive producer is Kamila Kudelska. Levi Meyer and Anna Rader are our digital consultants. Kids Ask Why is the production of the Buffalo Bill Center of the West and Wyoming Public Media.

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