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Yellowstone Superintendent Holds Fast In Midst Of Political Storm

September 26, 1988

YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK, Wyo. (AP) _ As Yellowstone National Park superintendent, Bob Barbee has endured a political, emotional and ecological firestorm.

Because of the summer blaze that ravaged much of the oldest national park, his once-bright future seems as cloudy as the pall of smoke over Yellowstone, where fires continue to smolder.

A 30-year National Park Service veteran who rose through the ranks, the 52- year-old Barbee holds a highly visible, prestigious post.

In June, he played host to park service Director William Penn Mott, a score of dignitaries and nearly 400 of his peers and others, as he presided over the first general superintendents’ conference in 12 years.

During the four-day meeting, gossip buzzed that if the next president looked toward the career ranks for his new director, Barbee had a strong chance of heading the National Park Service.

But that preceded three months of flames and political flak, insults and cartoon caricatures.

″I have the best job in the world,″ Barbee said in an interview, using his standard line since he became overseer of the 2.2 million-acre park in 1983.

But in a season of drought and flames around the West, it is almost a throwaway line, a touch of bravado wedged between a defense of park policies and a recitation of climatological conditions that surprised his seasoned scientists.

At the center of the controversy is the park service’s policy of allowing naturally caused fires to burn as long as they don’t threaten life, property or historic sites.

″By anybody’s reckoning these fires are a catastrophe because of the impact and the anguish they caused,″ Barbee said.

″One million acres burned, threats to communities, power lines burning down, millions and millions of dollars being spent ... No one would promote something like that, for heaven’s sake.

″But the Catch-22 ... is that if we say ‘Look it, there’s another side to this,’ that statement is confused with a celebration of the fire and its impact.

″Yellowstone Park is still all here. There will be a changed face to Yellowstone, but not a devastated face, not a destroyed face - that’s just folly, that’s myth. What there will be is just a different face. This event provides a great educational opportunity to see what a powerful force like fire can do, and how the land responds to it.″

Some of the physical strain of 20-hour days, no time off in months and unceasing criticism of park service policies shows in Barbee’s set jaw and grim tone.

He has become the focus for much of the anger and frustration stemming from the fires. Barbee says such a reaction has left him ″dismayed but not necessarily surprised ... I don’t like it.″

Interior Secretary Donald P. Hodel has called the firefighting policy a ″disaster.″

Wyoming Sens. Alan Simpson and Malcolm Wallop, both Republicans, have attacked the ″let-it-burn″ policy, with Wallop suggesting Mott should be fired.

Sen. John Melcher, D-Mont., has called for congressional oversight hearings about the origins of the fires and the way they were fought.

No one knows better than Barbee that he’s become the butt of jokes in the communities that ring the park and depend on it for economic survival.

″Did you hear that Bob Barbee had a fire in his kitchen?″ goes one such joke. ″No, how did he put it out?

″He started a backfire in the living room.″

″What are the fires in Yellowstone Park called?″ begins another. ″Why, they’re called Bar-bee-ques.″

And then there are the newspaper cartoons depicting drooping bears with singed fur and a caption identifying them as ″Barbee Dolls.″

Barbee has stressed repeatedly that he did not make day-to-day firefighting decisions, but added, ″I clearly, because I am sitting here, am responsible, and I accept that.″

And he expects the controversy the blazes have ignited to continue for months to come.

″Yellowstone draws fire because it is the ‘Mother Park,’ it has a symbolic aura about it,″ Barbee said. ″We who care for it have a sort of sacred charge. People here take it seriously, and they don’t like being maligned for not taking it seriously.″

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