Friday, February 26, 2016

Silent Cal Signs Grand Teton National Park into Existence

The Cathedral Group of the Teton Range, Mount Moran center in the fall when the aspens turn.

Calvin Coolidge was something between an empty suit and a place holder at President of the United States.  Even his succession to office was accidental—roused from his bed in a New Hampshire cabin by the news that the rascal Warren G. Harding had croaked in far away California and sworn into office by kerosene lamp light by his Justice of the Peace Father.  He was also probably the most deeply in a profound old fashion way the most conservative Republican ever to hold the office.  His main claim to fame which had landed him on the 1920 GOP ticket was breaking the Boston Police Strike the year before.  Cal got his well deserved nick name for not saying much because he didn’t have much to say. He carried that same philosophy into governance where he did as little as possible because he didn’t think that the government should do much.  Instead be became best remembered for being willing to pose for pictures and newsreels in Indian bonnets, cowboy hats, and silly outfits in honor of various White House visitors.  Yet the country rolled on in a period of unprecedented prosperity and the wild excitement of Prohibition, speakeasies, and the jazz age and Coolidge was elected in his own right in 1924 could probably been reelected by a landslide four years later.  But Cal would have none of it and famously said “I do not choose to run for President in 1928 opening the door for Herbert Hoover.
But on February 26, 1929 just days before Hoover took over, Coolidge did something totally uncharacteristic—he signed into law the creation of Grand Teton National Park over the vehement objection of Wyoming’s solidly Republican Congressional delegation and state government as well as Western cattle, timber, and mining interests who hated any real or imagined interest in restricting exploitation of natural resources.  Despite enjoying spending his lengthy vacations at a Summer White House in the Black Hills of South Dakota and enjoying fishing at his New Hampshire get-a-way, Coolidge was never an ardent conservationist in the style of his Republican predecessor Theodore Roosevelt.

President Calvin Coolidge and one of his funny hats.
In approving the bill Coolidge preserved one of the most stunningly beautiful gems in the growing National Park System.  And as a boy growing up in Wyoming, one of my favorite places.
The awesomely majestic Teton Mountain Range is the youngest in the vast Rocky Mountains.  It was up thrust a mere 7 to 9 million years ago.  It runs for about 40 miles south of the Yellowstone high plateau and includes ten peeks.  The Grand Teton towering 15,775 feet is the tallest looming above Jackson Lake and with its near neighbors  Nez Perce Peak, Middle Teton, Mount Owen,  and Teewinot Mountain together forming the Cathedral Group which has long inspired artists and photographers.
The Tetons are unusual in that no foothills obscure their rise.  From the east they can clearly be seen in their blue snow-capped majesty from their bases.  That is because deep and wide Jackson Hole, the bed of an ancient sea lies at their feet.  Run-off from the annual winter mantle of snow and glaciers on the mountain sides feeds numerous streams which have carved a series of u-shaped valleys and canyons which cut deep into the range between the peeks.  The streams feed several lakes at the base, the largest being Jackson Lake.  Others include Leigh, Jenny, Bradley, Taggart, and Phelps Lakes which are all part of the flowage of the Snake River as it descends into Jackson Hole.  In addition at higher elevations there are nearly 100 small alpine lakes the highest being Lake Solitude more than 9,000 feet up.
Paleo-Indians were visiting the Tetons and Jackson Hole at least 11,000 years ago following migratory herds of elk and bison.  They made summer camp in Jackson Hole but established no year-round villages.  They were known to have made spear points and arrowheads from locally found obsidian, some of which they may have traded to the Clovis people who in return traded some of their tools.
At the time of first contact with Whites, eastern Shoshoni peoples were following the same pattern.
That first contact came in the person of the legendary John Coulter, often called the first mountain man.  Coulter was a member of Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery who left the expedition during the return from the Pacific with the approval of the two captains to explore on his own the territory south of the rout.  His main interest was the discovery of areas rich in furs.   Most famously Coulter entered what is now Yellowstone Park and observed the geysers and hot springs there.  His description of what he saw was ridiculed as a hoax or elaborate tall tale by many when he got back to St. Louis.  The Yellowstone country was called derisively Coulter’s Hell.
Despite the derision, some were intrigued by his accounts.  The St. Louis based Spanish fur trader Manuel Lisa who had opened a trading post called Fort Raymond at the mouth of the Big Horn River in what is now Montana hired Coulter lead a small party of trappers in a  second trip west.  On this trip during the winter of 1807-08 Coulter passed through Jackson Hole and was the first White man to see the Teton Range.  He groped his way along the base of the range until he discovered the relatively easy-to-navigate Teton Pass near the southern end of the chain which allowed him passage into what is now Idaho.  In the Tetons’ cold streams and crystal clear lakes he did find probably the richest beaver territory in North America completely unexploited by European trappers or natives trapping for trade.
Coulter met Clark in St. Louis in 1810 and provided the Captain a detailed account of both of these trips, possibly drawing crude maps for him.  Based on this information, Clark included a map of the Yellowstone and Tetons for inclusion in his long awaited official report.  Although some still doubted Coulter’s accounts the discovery of a stone crudely carved into the shape of a skull and inscribed “John Coulter” on one side and 1808 on the other which was found just beyond Teton Pass in Idaho in the early 1930’s.  Although it cannot be conclusively proved that it was left by Coulter, weathering of the stone and inscriptions are in line with the time frame.
Soon competing fur trading companies were sending expeditions into the area.  Early American trapping parties called the mountains the Pilot Knobs because they could be seen clearly at such a great distance and were like a beacon calling the Mountain Men to the richness of their waters.

Mountain men entering Jackson Hole with the Tetons in the background and Snake River below them.
But the British also had claims on the region considering it part of Oregon.  Donald Mackenzie led a North West Company expedition made up largely of veteran French and Métis voyagers and trappers into the region in from the west in 1818-19.  It was the French trappers who gave the range their name from the three main peeks in the Cathedral Group—les trois tétons (the three tits.)
The British challenge was answered in from the mid-1820’s by the Rocky Mountain Fur Company organized by Jedediah Smith, William Sublette, and David Edward Jackson, names fans of this year’s Oscar favorite movie The Revenant might recognize in the story of Hugh Glass.  Davy Jackson oversaw operations around the Tetons and Jackson Hole giving his name to the broad valley and the largest of the Lakes.
Intensive trapping depleted even the rich streams of the Tetons by the late 1830s and beaver hats, the main driver of the trade, were going out of fashion.  By 1840 the glory days of the fur trade were over.  The trading companies stopped sending companies into the mountains.  A few stubborn and grizzled individual trappers continued to visit the area, but except for transient Native American hunting parties region was nearly devoid of human activity for nearly 20 years.
      In 1859-60 the U.S. Army sponsored an exploratory expedition led by Topographical Engineer Captain Capitan William F. Reynolds and guided by Jim Bridger, the boyish trapper in Tbe Revenant, entered Jackson Hole.  The expedition failed to make headway exploring the Yellowstone territory to the north and the Civil War interrupted follow-ups.  But naturalist F. V. Hayden who was with Reynolds would return to lead his own expeditions beginning with the Hayden Geological Survey of 1871.  While Hayden mapped Yellowstone his subordinate James Stevenson led the Snake River Division into and around the Tetons.  Accompanying Stevenson as photographer was William Henry Jackson who took the first dramatic pictures of the mountains.
1871 photo by William Henry Jackson.

Among the charges to the Hayden and Stevenson expeditions was searching for possible mineral wealth—gold, silver, or copper which could be exploited.  Fortunately for future preservationists they found none allowing the Yellowstone and Tetons to remain relatively undefiled. 
By the late 1870’s Hayden’s reports and Jackson’s photographs began to lure wealthy tourists to the region and rustic lodges were established for them and crude roads laid out to accommodate talley-ho coaches for visitors.  Tourism became the first economic activity in the region since the collapse of the fur trade.
In the 1884 a handful of homesteaders began to settle in Jackson Hole.  By 1890 about 50 of them and two years later the construction of Menor’s Ferry which allowed access to the west side of the Snake River by wagons.  Around the turn of the 20th Century and the approach of rail service led to large scale cattle ranching displacing hardscrabble homestead farming in Jackson Hole. 
The construction of automobile roads along the old military trails and roads in the region began a new surge of tourism in the ‘20’s and ‘30’s. 
Yellowstone had become the first National Park way back on March 1, 1872 when Ulysses S Grant signed the legislation creating it after at campaign led by F. V. Hayden.  As early as 1900 conservationists began attempts to add the Tetons and Jackson Hole to the park.  They were met with fierce local opposition, some of which still hoped to have Yellowstone Park dissolved and made available for commercial development.  The waters of the Snake River Water shed were also coveted.  In 1907 the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation dammed the outlet of Jackson Lake eventually raising its level 39 feet to provide agricultural irrigation water to Idaho.  When the Bureau began to advance a plan to do the same to same to other lakes and alarmed Yellowstone Park Superintendent Horace Albright renewed the campaign to extend the park south. 
Local opposition remained fierce, but a proposal to create a separate park pretty much confined to the peeks themselves and most of the lakes at the base, was put forward as a compromise that would leave most of Jackson Hole in private hands.  It was the bill accomplishing just that that Coolidge signed in 1929.
Albright was not done with his hopes of preserving more land.  He made contact with America’s richest man, John D. Rockefeller  of Standard Oil who built a summer lodge for himself in Jackson Hole in the mid-‘20’s.  Albright convinced the millionaire to quietly start buying up land in Jackson Hole with the aim of transferring it to the National Park Service.  To this end he created the Snake River Land Company.  He acquired significant holdings but in 1930 locals got word of what was going on and raised a stink.  For more than a decade expansion of the Park was in limbo with fierce opposition in Congress.
In 1942 a frustrated Rockefeller threatened to sell his holdings to developers unless Park expansion was approved.  Interior Secretary Harold Ickes recommended that President Franklyn D. Roosevelt use the Antiquities Act to create the Jackson Hole National Monument adjacent to the National Park using Rockefeller’s donation and transferring land from the Teton National Forest.  The Monument also came under the management of the Park Service but lacked a funding allotment requiring the Park Service to re-direct funds from elsewhere to operate it.
Despite continued local opposition, there was growing public support nationally for bringing the Monument into the Park.  That was finally accomplished in 1950.  In 1972 24,000 acres north of the Grand Teton Park was added making it contiguous at last to Yellowstone.  In 2007 the Rockefeller family donated their private retreat, the JY Ranch to the Park expanding it to the southwest and establishing the current boundaries.   The park today includes 480 square miles and 310,000 acres.

In 2014 Grand Teton National Park had 2,791,392 visitors.  But heavy usage and years of Park Service cut or frozen budgets have left the park with rundown physical facilities.  Environmental threats to the pristine waters and traditionally clean, clear air are mounting.  Many sunny days now find the mountains shrouded with haze.
Even more dangerously the old cry for elimination, sale, and private exploitation of the National Parks has been raised to new level by Tea Party Republicans in Congress and by the armed and dangerous so-called patriot militias in the West. 
Calvin Coolidge’s good deed could be undone by a Republican President and Congress.

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