A house sits in Rock Creek after floodwaters washed away...

A house sits in Rock Creek after floodwaters washed away a road and a bridge in Red Lodge, Montana, June 15. Credit: AP/David Goldman

Raging rivers are compelling. Perhaps you saw the videos or perused the photos. 

The floodwaters that recently ravaged Yellowstone National Park caused a lot of visually striking damage. Entire stretches of roads were swallowed up, rendering them impassable and parts of the park inaccessible. Bridges were swept away like toothpicks by the current. Structures as big as bunkhouses were lifted off their foundations and escorted downstream.

In towns outside the park along the Yellowstone River and its branches, homes and businesses were hit hard, lives and livelihoods upended.

The flooding indeed was devastating — for humans. For nature, it was part of a cycle. A very dramatic part and perhaps in its intensity somewhat infrequent, but nevertheless part of an ancient cycle.

It's a matter of perspective.

The flooding that shut down the world's first national park was the latest chapter in a cautionary tale that's had far too many chapters added lately. The plot revolves around the problems that arise when we humans encroach too far on nature, or disturb its intricate operations, and then get overwhelmed by it.

It's not surprising that when we build on riverbanks that overflow, in floodplains that flood, on coasts that get battered by storms, in brittle forests prone to ravagement by fire, or in deserts with too little water to sustain humans, we increase the possibility that nature is going to intersect with us in a very distressing way.

We've seen that over the last few years in California, where the threat of wildfires has been made worse by humans pushing into areas we might be better off visiting than settling in. And so mounts the toll from fires measured by homes destroyed, lives lost, and communities wiped out.

We've seen it in Louisiana in settlements being swallowed by the sea, and in swaths of the West where governments are contemplating previously unthinkable systems of water rationing.

Yes, a warming climate exacts a greater price for our encroachments — which was the case in Yellowstone, where record rains and a melting snowpack were calling cards of another cautionary tale being written chapter by ever-more-alarming chapter.

But set against all that is another tale worth telling, and understanding. This one is about how fires and floods are healthy for forests and rivers and all the flora and fauna that inhabit them. Yellowstone is a magnificent laboratory.

Cottonwoods, the dominant riverside tree, need wet soil for their seeds in order to propagate — like the sediment left behind from a flood or trapped as sandbars by fallen trees. Floodwaters carry along torrents of insects beloved by Yellowstone's cutthroat trout, who also take advantage of the higher waters in a flood to access more tributaries in which to spawn. More and healthier cutthroat trout benefit ospreys and eagles and bears, for whom trout is a principal food source.

Fire, too, is a positive. In Yellowstone, such heat is the only way to melt the resin that seals the cones that must release the seeds of the lodgepole pine that comprises most of the park's forests. Fire also opens the forest canopy, allowing sunlight in and other vegetation to thrive. That creates better grazing for bear, elk, bison and deer. Dead trees provide more nesting opportunities for birds that seek hollowed trunks and limbs, and those birds can more easily find worms and ants.

We tend to judge natural cataclysms by how they affect us humans. And we have been taking a beating.

But when we do that, we see it so narrowly that we miss a vital part of the story. There is balance in nature; there should be balance in how we exist with it. Better we learn to harmonize with it than fight against it.

Columnist Michael Dobie's opinions are his own.


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