|Tourists visit the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone about 1900 on a typical coach tour.|
Today is a milestone in conservation/preservation history, one with deep personal connections for me. On March 1, 1872 President Ulysses S. Grant signed into law the act creating Yellowstone National Park. It was the first National Park not only in the U.S. but in the world. It became a model for conservation and habitat protection as well as an example of the huge economic impact on local economies such parks could provide.
The park occupies the northwest corner of Wyoming and strips of Montana and Idaho. It contains the most active area of geothermal vents—hot springs, geysers, mud pots—in North America.
The region was a center of trade from Clovis Culture era for fine arrowheads made from local obsidian found at archeological sites along Mississippi River in Missouri and Illinois. Much later it was a hunting ground for Native American tribes, notably the Nez Perce, Shoshone, Crow and Blackfoot.
In the winter of 1807-08 John Coulter, a young trapper who had left the Lewis and Clark Expedition in search of furs, encountered some of the geothermal sites. After he was injured in a fight with the Blackfoot and made an epic “naked run” over hundreds of miles to escape, he stumbled into Saint Louis. His tales of boiling mud and water shooting out of the ground were widely dismissed as the ravings of a mad man and derided as Coulter’s Hell.
The legendary Jim Bridger himself confirmed the reports after an 1856 expedition causing the government to decide on an official survey. In 1860 Bridger guided a small party led by Captain William F. Reynolds and including geologist Ferdinand Vandeveer Hayden which tried to enter the area from the Wind River Range but was turned back by heavy snow.
The Civil War prevented further exploration until the privately funded Cook, Folsom, and Peterson party followed the Yellowstone River to Lake Yellowstone. Their notes guided another expedition by Montana Surveyor General Henry Washburn, Army Lt. Gustavus Doan, and Nathaniel P. Langford. Reports from that trip generated support in Montana for somehow protecting the unusual area.
In 1871, eleven years after his first failed attempt, F. V. Hayden was finally able to get into the area as the head of the Hayden Geological Survey. His party included pioneering landscape photographer William Henry Jackson and landscape painter Thomas Moran. Hayden’s official report and the striking images of Jackson and Morn convinced Congress to withdraw the area from sale as public land and to create the new National Park.
Langford was appointed the first Superintendent of the Park but Congress did not vote him any funding or staff. In fact they didn’t even pay his salary. Langford was helpless as poachers roamed the Park threatening the large herds of elk, mule deer, antelope, and bison. Langford was reduced to pleading for funds and trying to arouse public support.
In 1875 an Army expedition under Colonel William Ludlow reported the wide spread decimation of wild life by hide hunters. His report caused the removal of the hapless Langford. His replacement, Philetus Norris was granted a salary and a small budget with which he build crude roads into the Park and some permanent facilities. Despite the addition of Harry Yount, sometimes called the first Park Ranger, as “official game keeper” in 1880, there was still not enough staff to prevent poaching.
Native Americans, including a small band of Shoshone who lived within the park boundaries and others who used it as traditional hunting ground were excluded from the Park. Chief Joseph’s band of Nez Perce was pursued across the Park in their attempt to reach Canada.
In 1886, with the Indian Wars largely behind them, the U.S. Army was charged with policing the Park and preventing poaching. They built their first post at Mammoth Hot Springs and later established Fort Yellowstone. They slowly made progress against poachers while creating policies enabling other visitors.
Tourism to the park grew, especially after the Northern Pacific created access from a spur from Livingston, Montana in the 1880s and the Union Pacific connected via West Yellowstone, Montana 1908. Visitors traveled the park by stage coach or horseback and could stay at crude campgrounds and rustic lodges or beginning in 1908, the historic Old Faithful Inn. By 1915 1000 automobiles a year were making the trip.
The newly created National Park Service assumed control of the Park from the Army in 1918.
During the Depression the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) built the current road system, visitor centers and improved campgrounds.
In August of 1959 the Park was the epicenter of an earthquake measured between 7.3 and 7.8 on the Richter scale. The quake caused a huge landslide resulting in over 28 fatalities, blocked the flow of the Madison River resulting in the creation of Quake Lake, and left $11 million in damage. German scientists studying the quake have recently concluded that the event was one that was likely caused by human activity.
The Hebgen Lake area in the northwest corner of the Park has also experienced earthquakes again in 1964, 1974, 1977 and 1985. The Park remains a seismic hot spot. A swarm of moderate quakes hit the park in October 2012.
The whole area essentially sits on top of an enormous potential volcano whose pressure dome is growing. When it eventually bursts, the eruption could be one of the greatest and most devastating of all time.
Today the park boasts of having saved the bison from extinction—the largest surviving herd found refuge and protection within the park and has been used to repopulate the species elsewhere. In a controversial move, wolves were re-introduced and have successfully rebounded.
Local ranchers have pushed back on both preservation efforts, shooting bison and wolves that wander out of the Park. The state of Wyoming has even asked the Park Service to allow hunting of wolves in the park and bounties on ears.
The Park draws over three million visitors a year. Despite this more than a decade of deep cuts to the National Park Service has left facilities in deteriorating conditions. Damage to the ecosystem by the exhaust of nearly a million vehicles a year has caused the Park Service to limit the total number admitted each year and implemented steep visitor fees. But with the formerly excellent rail and motor coach services to the Park gone, that limits its accessibility to many families
On a personal note, my father was licensed as a hunter to thin the elk herds—their natural predators having all been eradicated—and ran a guide service to the Park out of his West Yellowstone sporting goods store 1946-48. We traveled frequently in the Park with him in the 1950’s when he was Secretary of the Wyoming Travel Commission. Somewhere there are black and white snap shots of Old Faithful erupting that I captured on my Kodak Brownie.