‘For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People’
Those words are chiseled into history atop the Roosevelt Arch on the north entrance to Yellowstone National Park. Taken from the 1872 legislation establishing it as the United State’s first national park, the park’s founders and advocates took that mission statement literally in their quest to preserve the land. Theodore Roosevelt laid the arch cornerstone in 1903 and as an avid outdoors-man in the same vein as renowned naturalist John Muir, he hoped that everyone would benefit from the natural splendor and knowledge that Yellowstone had to offer. Muir was captivated by the region’s beauty:
“However orderly your excursions or aimless, again and again amid the calmest, stillest scenery you will be brought to a standstill hushed and awe-stricken before phenomena wholly new to you.”John Muir, ‘The Atlantic, April 1898’
Today, Yellowstone National Park sees over a million visitors a year, many of them international tourists (probably not in 2020 with the COVID-19 pandemic taking a sledgehammer to the tourism industry). It’s one of the top ten largest parks in the National Park Service, outranked only by those in Alaska. Yellowstone is on many people’s bucket list; seeing Old Faithful, capturing pictures of the wildlife, fishing for rainbow trout, and camping in one of North America’s most beautiful square sections of nature. From when you enter and leave the park, you’ll see erupting geysers, bison, all kinds of birds, rolling green forests, and maybe even some bears. The geological formations such as the paint pots, prismatic basins, and bacterial mats are astounding with their vast range of vibrant colors and smells. In winter, these geothermal wonders are brightly contrasted with the pale white snow, illustrating the natural power and elegance of our earth.
The history behind Yellowstone stretches back thousands of years concerning human activity. Archaeologists and anthropologists unearthed evidence of hunting and foraging by paleo-Indian tribes during the Clovis period. Later, Shoshone, Crow, and Nez Perce tribes hunted and fished in the Yellowstone region. The geysers and geothermal springs were revered by the tribes as spiritually significant landmarks, giving them a deep respect for the natural landscape and reverence for the ‘land of smoke.’ As Europeans traversed westwards, mountain men and fur trappers passed through Yellowstone and recorded their observations. Many people rejected their accounts, thinking they were delirious or mythical. John Colter, a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition, returned west in 1807, making him the the first European descendant to see the hot springs and geysers. ‘Fire and brimstone’ was the first thought that came to Colter’s mind as the daunting sights and sounds must have left him speechless to something unlike anything he’d seen in life.
Because Yellowstone was situated so remotely beyond the borders of the United States for most of the 19th century, it was left untouched by white pioneers. Settlers in the Washington, Oregon, and Utah territories were familiar with the landscape of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho, but for most of the 19th century, it was a wild, lawless region where criminals fled and Native American tribes resisted incursions by Europeans and U.S. citizens. Independent explorers and surveyors like Jim Bridger and William Raynolds explored the mountains and valleys, but a full-scale expedition into the Yellowstone was not a high priority for federal government. The Civil War put a damper on any army expeditions as troops were occupied with fighting guerrillas and Indian tribes. Following the conflict, interest in exploring Yellowstone resumed and two major expeditions to the region became pivotal in setting aside the land for public use as a national park; the Washburn Expedition of 1870 and the Hayden Geological Survey of 1871.
Ferdinand Hayden attempted an expedition eleven years prior, but poor weather and logistical mishaps forced him to abandon the mission. This second expedition though, with government sponsorship and financial support from political patrons, produced incredible scientific and artistic results. Hayden’s detailed surveys covered substantial geological findings, but that wasn’t the only goal of the expedition. Prominent figures such as William Henry Jackson (photographer), George Allen (botanist), Cyrus Thomas (entomologist and statistician) and Robert Adams Jr. (botanist and future U.S. Representative) signed onto the company to document and research the vast wilderness that remained largely untouched by modern civilization. Surveyors, photographers, and naturalists recorded intriguing finds on wild flora and fauna, and Hudson River School painter Thomas Moran delivered spectacular renderings of the landscape with his distinctive color palette and painting style. Hayden presented these findings and other reports to members of Congress and superiors in the Department of the Interior, even the White House, arguing the importance of preserving the land for public use and enjoyment. Hayden’s political connections as a result of the expedition were critical in setting in plans in motion; Congressman Henry Dawes’ son, Chester, was a member of the expedition and confirmed to his father that losing the Yellowstone to private speculators and businesses would deplete its natural resources and splendor, leaving nothing behind for the American public. Hayden’s tireless advocacy paid off in December 1871 when both a Senate and House bill was introduced simultaneously setting aside land for the purpose of creating a national park. In the report before the House Committee on Public Lands, the inspiring rhetoric capturing the majesty of the Yellowstone was seen:
“The bill now before Congress has for its objective the withdrawal from settlement, occupancy, or sale, under the laws of the United States a tract of land fifty-five by sixty-five miles, about the sources of the Yellowstone and Missouri Rivers, and dedicates and sets apart as a great national park or pleasure-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”-The Act of Dedication for Establishing Yellowstone National Park
On March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed into law the creation of Yellowstone National Park, effectively creating the first of its kind in North America. This was different from previous legislation of public land; it was used not for commercial development, but for preserving natural resources, wildlife, and allowing people to enjoy the nature for personal fulfillment. However, not everyone was as enthusiastic about the park’s creation. Locals shared harsh criticism and openly opposed the park as it could harm their local economy dependent on logging and mining. Early land management of the park struggled with poachers, vandals, and trespassers flouting government regulations. Native American tribes shared their grievances also because they used the Yellowstone region as seasonal hunting grounds, but were now excluded from visiting the park. In the late 1870s and 1880s as Nez Perce and Shoshone tribes threatened park visitors, General Philip Sheridan authorized the building of an army post in the park which became known as Fort Yellowstone. In 1886, park management transferred from the Department of the Interior to the U.S. Army in a move that many historians argue saved the park and set the gold standard for wildlife management. Army personnel arrested poachers and with the passage of the Lacey Act, the federal government provided funding for legal enforcement and resources that allowed the Army to both protect the park and implement wildlife management programs. These same policies were adopted by the National Park Service following its creation in 1916 and on October 31st 1918, control of the park transferred from the Army to the National Park Service (NPS). The campaign hats worn by military personnel became the official headgear of the NPS Park Ranger, illustrating the park’s legacy.
Yellowstone underwent substantial upgrades and changes during the Great Depression and after World War II. The Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) constructed facility buildings, campgrounds, and hiking trails, along with introducing wildfire protections. In the 1950s when attendance to Yellowstone and other national parks exploded, the same facilities were revamped following their disrepair during the war. Wildlife species protection increased also when programs aimed at managing elk, bison, wolf, and bear populations were implemented under Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall. The resulting Leopold Report recommended new ways of managing animal populations for all national parks, including Yellowstone.
In 1988, a catastrophic wildfire ripped through the park and the resulting damage to wildlife, flora, and park facilities were so severe, remnants of the wildfire can still be seen today. There were a number of contributing factors to the great fire, none of which can be traced to one single source. Much of the American West and Pacific Northwest were experiencing heavy stages of drought in 1988, and infestations of mountain pine beetle were killing acres of trees. Controlled fires were already burning in the park, but a series of lightning strikes and human causes (one was traced to a discarded cigarette butt – another reason you shouldn’t smoke) resulted in large swaths of land being consumed by raging wildfires. Thousands of firefighters from across the bordering states, the NPS, U.S. Forest Service, federal emergency responders, and military personnel all took part in fighting the fires over a six month period. The fire was so big that it forced the park to close to the public for the first time in its history. When the final damage assessment was take following the fire, nearly 800,000 acres were burned, but miraculously a minuscule percentage of wildlife was killed. Many lessons were taken from these fires and wildfire management and prevention today draws heavily on the experiences of the 1988 Yellowstone fires.
Like all national parks, the wonder and amazement of Yellowstone rests with seeing it with one’s own eyes. The history is rich and complex, but nowhere near as complex as the abundant biodiversity and beauty one experiences as they traverse the park. You can’t take it all in at once because of the vastness; perhaps that’s why the basic entry fee is valid for seven days, not just one. Would you be able to see everything Yellowstone has to offer in less than 24 hours? I would argue no. There is still much to see and understand about our planet. Preserving its natural beauty as well as its history is a mission that we as humans can pass onto future generations for the same benefit and enjoyment we have today.