The idea of the national park is 150 years old today. On March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed an act setting aside Yellowstone as a public park. It wasn’t the plan, but it ended up being the first of many. Over the century and a half that followed, the United States added another 62 parks and hundreds more federally-protected scenic areas, monuments, seashores and rivers.
The concept of the national park has been called “America’s best idea,” but as Yellowstone has shown, the idea itself has evolved dramatically over the years.
The idea was initially about preserving especially spectacular scenery and it was driven by the failure to save other special areas in time. Niagara Falls was the poster child for what can go wrong when entrepreneurism is left to its own devices. Expedition after expedition documented its wonder in the 1600 and 1700s. By 1801, people were already honeymooning there — Aaron Burr’s daughter, Theodosia, claims to be the first. By 1870, there were no public views left. If you wanted to see the falls, you had to pay a private developer.
President Abraham Lincoln thought he was getting ahead of this problem with the Yosemite Valley. Carleton Watkins took pictures of the valley and the waterfalls that so moved Lincoln that he signed the Yosemite Grant in 1864. The grant declared Yosemite “inviolable” — a land that was to remain a natural sanctuary. Problem is, two developers were already there. Their fight to continue operating their businesses went to the Supreme Court.
As the Yosemite Grant became law, explorers were surveying Yellowstone. Nathaniel Pitt Langford, who would go on to become the first superintendent of Yellowstone, wrote a cover story for Scribner's Monthly describing his expedition to check out the “strange and marvelous” stories told by trappers and mountaineers. Visual artists gave the wonders even more exposure. Painter Thomas Moran produced vividly colorful works that brought the unique terrain and geothermal features to life. Lest anyone think those works were figments of his imagination, William Henry Jackson provided photographic proof.
By the time debate over the future of Yellowstone made it to Congress in 1872, lawmakers had already seen the art and read explorers’ accounts.
“It has been ascertained within the last year or two that there are very valuable reservations at the headwaters of the Yellowstone, and it is thought they ought to be set apart for public purposes rather than to have private preemption or homestead claims attached to them,” Senator Samuel Pomeroy of Kansas said when introducing the bill. “There are valuable hot springs and geysers. ... This bill is to set apart that whole tract, about forty miles by fifty, as a public park and put it under the direction of the Secretary of the Interior to keep it from preemptions and homestead entries and from sale.”
Debate in the Senate was not about whether Yellowstone was special — everybody understood that — it was about whether the federal government needed to protect inhospitable land that was hard to reach.
“If it cannot be occupied by man, why protect it from occupation?” asked Senator Cornelius Cole of California. “I see no reason in that. If nature has excluded men from its occupation, why set it apart and exclude persons from it?”
Senator Lyman Trumbull of Illinois reminded him of what happened with Yosemite.
“I think our experience with the wonderful natural curiosity, if I may so call it, in the Senator's own State, should admonish us of the propriety of passing such a bill as this,” Trumbull said. “Now this tract of land is uninhabited; nobody lives there; it was never trod by civilized man until a short period. Perhaps a year or two ago was the first time that this country was ever explored by anybody. It is now proposed, while it is in this condition, to reserve it from sale and occupation in this way. I think it is a very proper bill to pass, and now is the time to enact it. We did set apart the region of country on which the mammoth trees grow in California, and the Yosemite Valley also we have undertaken to reserve, but there is a dispute about it. Now, before there is any dispute as to this wonderful country, I hope we shall except it from the general disposition of the public lands.”
The bill passed. The geysers were saved. They would be there for generations of people to enjoy. “For the benefit and the enjoyment of the people,” was written into the act and later on the arch standing over the main entrance to the park.
Preserving Yellowstone was ultimately about us. Wildlife was barely a consideration. Senator Henry Bowen Anthony of Rhode Island was one of the few to even talk about animals.
“This park should not be used for sporting,” Anthony said during the Senate debate about the bill. “If people are encamped there, and desire to catch fish and kill game for their own sustenance while they remain there, there can be no objection to that; but I do not think it ought to be used as a preserve for sporting.”
There was minimal debate. Lawmakers decided to trust park managers to set appropriate policies. They saw no need for Congress to explicitly protect wildlife.
Within two years, Yellowstone’s managers banned the hunting of ungulates — moose, elk and bison. Perhaps 60 million bison roamed North America before the mid-1800s. Due to hunting, by 1889 there were less than 300 bison in the United States. About three-quarters of them lived in Yellowstone National Park.
But the move didn’t put an end to all hunting. The park actively killed predators that hunted bison. President Theodore Roosevelt, who we now praise as a conservationist, tried to hunt mountain lions in the park. In 1901, he wrote to the Yellowstone superintendent: “What is the practice about killing mountain lions? If I get into the park next June, I should greatly like to have a hunt after some of them — that is on the supposition that they are ‘varmints’ and are not protected.”
His request ran into some snags. Secretary of War Elihu Root raised the issue that it would tarnish Roosevelt's public image. The public wasn't allowed to hunt in Yellowstone. If he were to lead a hunt, it might appear he was abusing his presidential authority. Roosevelt traveled instead to Colorado where he killed a dozen cougars. The other members of his party managed to kill two more.
A hunt in Yellowstone, however, still called to him. Two years later, Yellowstone managers identified a group of cougars living just outside the park, which they said posed a threat to elk. And they found a way to sell the public on the idea. “These lions have simply got to be thinned out,” Major John Pitcher wrote to Roosevelt, “and if you will lend us a hand in the matter, you will be of great help to us and no one can offer any reasonable objection to your doing so.”
But that hunting trip fell apart, too. Only half the hunting dogs Roosevelt had ordered arrived. And none of those dogs was trained.
Roosevelt went to Yellowstone anyway, but mainly just to observe. One of the things he noticed was that the elk population had exploded since he was last there. And elk carcasses were all over the park, but not because of predators but because of starvation. Elk had overgrazed the land. He began to see the cougars not as ‘varmints,’ but as critical members of an ecosystem.
But by the time the management approach had changed, Yellowstone killed all the wolves living in the park and cougars were nearly eliminated. They tried to kill all the coyotes, too, but they’re highly adaptable and managed to outsmart humans and found remote parts of the park to hide.
The idea of park management is ever evolving. Forest fires could be a topic of their own. But just before Yellowstone’s big birthday, I spent a little over a week in the park. I saw geysers, hot springs and fumaroles. I saw waterfalls and a spectacular canyon comprised of yellow stone. I saw bison, elk and moose. And I saw red foxes, wolves and coyotes.
Yellowstone today is undoubtedly a bit different than if nature had been left alone to do its own thing. That said, the fact that such an ecosystem still exists today, let alone hundreds of other special places, is one of our country’s best ideas. But let Yellowstone be a lesson that conservation is always a work in progress. The work is never done.