Buttercups, monkey flowers, shooting stars and glacier lilies are sprouting up through the ashes beneath the charred skeletons of once towering pines.
A heavy winter snowpack and a moist spring have park officials predicting a "very, very lush early summer." That, plus the hundreds of thousands of acres that were unaffected by 1988's ravaging fires, is bringing back tourists.The spring's new growth marks Yellowstone's "rebirth," which researchers say eventually will roll a lush, green carpet over the areas consumed by last year's firestorms.
The National Park Service has also decided to combat any fires that flare up in Yellowstone this summer. A moratorium placed last year on the agency's "let burn" policy, under which naturally sparked fires are not fought unless they threaten structures or people, will remain in place at least through the end of 1989 while the Interior Department ponders the wisdom of the policy.
"It's gradually coming," park spokeswoman Marsha Karle said of the greening of Yellowstone. "The grass is coming up. It should be a beautiful spring and summer. This year, we will see bright green grass. With a background of black, that will really be a nice contrast. It will stand out more."
Even during the height of the fires that involved almost half of Yellowstone's 2.2 million acres, biologists promised the flames would clear the way for growth not seen since the early 1700s, when extensive forest fires spawned much of the vegetation now seen in the park.
And though much of the burned areas appear at first glance to be sterile, the nutrient-rich ashes are simply hiding new growth.
"We are right now in the tail end of winter," said John Varley, the park's chief researcher. "If you go to the lowest elevation areas, the stuff that burned around 6,000 feet, what is coming up is gorgeous. In addition to grass, all of our old friends (trees and brush) are coming up, popping up out of the soot. Nature is on schedule."
In some areas, such as the road between Old Faithful Geyser and Norris Junction, it is hard to believe regrowth is occurring. Charred trees cover the hillsides right up to the road; in places the leaping flames created mosaics of life and death in the forests.
In addition to new grasses and wildflowers, researchers expect the fires to spur a major regrowth in lodgepole pine forests. Pine cones that require extreme heat to pop and release their seeds did so during the fires, and researchers believe some burned areas could see up to 100,000 new trees per acre.
"The seeds are there, but it takes a little longer than (one year) for them to germinate," Karle said. "Over the next few years, it will occur."
While officials have predicted schedules for regrowth, they are not sure what will replace the dead trees or what will happen to trees that were only singed and now carry an orange tint.