About seven years after the end of the Civil War, on March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed a law creating Yellowstone National Park, the first of its kind in the world.
The Yellowstone National Park Protection Act “set apart a certain tract of land lying near the headwaters of the Yellowstone River” and withdrew it from “settlement, occupancy, or sale” thereby creating a “pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”
As the result of the forward thinking politicians’ bipartisan agreement, this year Yellowstone National Park will celebrate its 150th birthday.
“Creating the National Park System was one of the best ideas that the federal government ever had, and Montanans are fortunate to have a slice of the oldest park in our backyard,” said Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., in announcing his support for a resolution honoring the park’s anniversary.
Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., said Yellowstone “has been inspiring folks from across the world” since its inception.
“Our parks set us apart from the rest of the world, and they are an essential part of our Montana way of life,” he added.
The Senate resolution designated March 1, 2022, as Yellowstone National Park Day.
Despite the significance we now bestow on the creation of the park, news of the act was slow to be printed in newspapers of the era. The Helena Weekly Herald contained only a single sentence weeks later.
"There was some media interest leading up to the debate in Congress, but once it occurred it was like it went away," said Alicia Murphy, Yellowstone historian. "It does seem as though it was almost an afterthought."
Milford, Nebraska’s Blue Valley Record newspaper waited until May to hail the park as a “field for the artist or pleasure tourist” that would be kept “in the most favorable condition to attract travel and gratify a cultivated and intelligent curiosity.”
The article goes on to describe the park as “on a scale out of all proportion to ordinary experience and conventional habits of thought.” Comparing it to natural wonders in other countries, the author questioned why a traveler would bother with European scenery when Yellowstone offers such a magnificent canyon, waterfall and geysers on a much grander scale.
Once rail travel is established, the writer said, “we may be sure that the tide of summer touring will be perceptibly diverted from European fields. Yankee enterprise will dot the new park with hostelries and furrow it with lines of travel. That the life will for sometime to come be frightfully rough, the inconveniences plentiful, and the dangers many and appalling, is likely enough. But that is just the spice which will most tickle the palate of our adventurous tourists and men of science.”
The idea of the park wasn’t universally praised. Ross’s Paper of Coffeyville, Kansas, criticized state lawmaker Sen. Samuel Pomeroy for voting to create the park, calling the action anti-settler. The newspaper was owned by a former Kansas senator who had a personal feud with Pomeroy.
Business may be as responsible as conservation for the park’s creation.
According to historian Aubrey L. Haines, a banker known as the “financier of the Civil War,” Jay Cooke wanted to drum up business for the Northern Pacific Railroad, which he had invested in. So Cooke (namesake of Cooke City) hired a group of people to give lectures extolling the country the rail line would navigate. Among them was Nathaniel P. Langford.
With Cooke’s help, Langford helped organize the 1870 Washburn-Langford-Doane expedition into Yellowstone. Following the expedition, Langford gave a lecture on the region in Washington, D.C.
“Amid the cañon and falls, the boiling springs and sulphur mountain, and, above all, the mud volcano and the geysers of the Yellowstone, your memory becomes filled and clogged with objects new in experience, wonderful in extent, and possessing unlimited grandeur and beauty,” Langford later wrote, giving insight to the type of presentations he may have made to the public.
In the Washington crowd listening was Dr. Ferdinand V. Hayden, head of the U.S. Geological Survey. Langford’s talk inspired Hayden to launch his own exploration.
With funding from Congress, Hayden went to the park in 1871 accompanied by photographer William Henry Jackson and artists Henry W. Elliot and Thomas Moran. The party returned with photographs, paintings, sketches and tales of the fascinating geysers, mud pots and thermal waters. This evidence was enough to convince Congress to act quickly.
Current Yellowstone Superintendent Cam Sholly praised those early explorers for their vision and ability to sway politicians of the day.
“Keep in mind that at the time of the passage of the Yellowstone Park Act, not a single member of Congress had actually been here,” he said. “So it seems even more remarkable that a landmark congressional action like this would have been taken largely based on paintings and reports from the expedition."
Although Congress established the park, it did not initially provide any money to operate, develop or protect the region.
“If we rewind to 1872, we didn’t have a very good track record on resource conservation,” Sholly said. “It was basically nonexistent. We had no real concept of what it meant to manage an ecosystem. We had no laws or regulations to help us protect critical resources against major impacts of westward expansion.”
Langford was named the first park superintendent, an unpaid position. It wasn’t until five years later that Congress authorized a salary for the next superintendent, Philetus W. Norris, as well as money to “protect, preserve, and improve the park.”
Norris is credited with creating the route travelers still take, the Grand Loop that connects the Lake, Canyon, Norris, Madison and Old Faithful sections of the park. When Norris left in 1882, squatters, loggers, vandals and poachers moved in.
“This small group trying to protect it had a really tough time initially,” Sholly said. “Although it was protected officially by law, there was no formal nomenclature to actually protect the resources.”
The United States “arguably failed miserably initially” to protect Yellowstone, he added.
That became even more difficult as traffic to the park increased in 1883 when the Northern Pacific Railroad arrived in the now-vanished community of Cinnabar, north of present-day Gardiner. To service its customers, the railroad created a concession business to provide services like stagecoaches, boats, camping and to build and staff hotels.
The park’s officials were unable to police the vast park, so in 1886 the Secretary of the Interior asked for help and the U.S. Army moved to Yellowstone, establishing its headquarters at Mammoth Hot Springs. Some of the historic buildings from that era still remain, as well as the parade ground where the troops drilled.
By 1904, the park counted more than 13,700 visitors. In 1908 the Union Pacific added train service to West Yellowstone and in 1915 automobiles were touring the park and visitation grew to more than 51,800.
Although the Army was capable of policing the park, it was not geared to deal with visitors’ needs. In 1916 the National Park Service was created and the first park rangers were hired. In 1918, the U.S. Army left Yellowstone.
“Early on, whether it was the Army or the Park Service, we didn’t get it right in many ways,” Sholly said. “Our government policies were to rid the park of predators, and we did that. We extirpated wolves. We extirpated cougars. We decreased the population of bears. Beyond predators we decimated the bison population from tens of thousands in the park to less than 25 animals. We basically tinkered with the ecosystem. We took it completely out of balance.”
That continued even into the post-World War II era as the park allowed the feeding of bears at garbage dumps as a park attraction.
“So for the first 80 to 90 years of Yellowstone’s existence, we did not set the best example from a wildlife management and conservation perspective,” Sholly said. “We started to get much smarter in the ‘60s and ‘70s.”
The changing ethos of conservation that began in these decades has helped spur the success that park visitors see now – including herds of bison and elk and larger grizzly bear populations. Sholly called the reintroduction of wolves to the park, beginning in 1995, the most successful conservation effort in the history of the United States and possibly the world.
“So although we’re talking about 150 years of Yellowstone … most of the success of us putting the pieces back together in this ecosystem have occurred largely over the last 50 to 60 years,” Sholly said.
In that same time, visitation to the park has more than doubled. As Yellowstone has grown in popularity, the National Park Service estimated that in 2020 visitors spent around $444 million in surrounding communities, supporting more than 6,100 jobs. The cumulative effect on the regional economy was estimated at $560 million.
Last year Yellowstone set a record with more than 4.8 million visitors. The surge has come when park staffing was reduced because of the pandemic. With that in mind, park officials have planned no big celebrations to mark Yellowstone’s 150th.
“It’s already challenging enough to manage this park with increased visitation,” Sholly said.
To avoid boosting tourism for any single event, the park will host smaller activities throughout the year as well as online presentations allowing anyone with a computer and internet service to take part.
With the pandemic ebbing for now, Sholly is also encouraged that seasonal staffing will be higher than the past two summers. More staff raises another issue, however: lack of available housing. That’s especially true in gateway communities where rentals are now more likely to be Airbnbs.
Sholly called employee housing one of the biggest challenges the park faces, something that wasn’t an issue 10 years ago. In response, the park has opened 40 new housing units around the park this year and installing another 25 units this year and next as part of a $40 million parkwide housing improvement project, he said. The pandemic also compounded the situation as the Park Service has attempted to provide private residences for its staff to reduce coronavirus spread, rather than bunking people together.
For visitors to the park, this year will mark the reopening of the Dunraven Pass road after extensive reconstruction. The large Fishing Bridge campground at Yellowstone Lake, which was redesigned, will also be available – a popular destination for RVers.
Compounding the staffing problem for the Park Service and concessionaires like Xanterra Travel Collection – which operates iconic facilities like Mammoth and Lake hotels and the Old Faithful Inn – is a workforce shortage wracking the entire nation.
Despite these challenges, Sholly said the park’s ecosystem is in better shape today than at any time in its 150 year history.
“That doesn’t mean it isn’t under threat,” he added, pointing to the near elimination of Yellowstone Lake’s native cutthroat trout by illegally introduced lake trout as one example of what can happen if park managers are not diligent.
Residents before the park
Although Yellowstone’s anniversary is the proper time to celebrate a nation’s great idea, it’s also an opportunity to reflect on those who came before. Native Americans had been exploring the Yellowstone region going back 12,000 years to the end of the last Ice Age, long before any fur trappers claimed discovery of the area’s natural wonders.
Kiowa stories of the region date to around 1400 to 1700 AD, according to the Park Service. Blackfeet, Cayuse, Coeur d’Alene, Bannock, Nez Perce, Shoshone, Crow, Northern Cheyenne, Umatilla and other tribes are known to have used and inhabited the region while hunting, fishing, gathering plants and obsidian for making stone tools.
“Yellowstone’s significance as an important area for the history and traditions of Tribal Nations throughout the West dates back far beyond its designation as a national park,” Tester said.
With this in mind, the National Park Service has reached out to cooperating tribes to encourage their presence and involvement in this year’s celebrations. That will include a Tribal Heritage Center at Old Faithful and a teepee village near the Roosevelt Arch in August near the park’s North Entrance at Gardiner. Indigenous public art installations, titled “Yellowstone Revealed,” will be displayed in the park, including a May 6 exhibition at the Old Faithful Inn.
“So we are focused on really making sure we are telling these stories right as the steward of these parks,” Sholly said.
The park also continues to support Native American hunts of bison in Montana as well as the transfer of live bison to the Fort Peck Reservation that have so far been distributed to 18 other tribes around the nation.
Sholly said the park’s anniversary is the perfect time to “more fully engage Native Americans and Tribal Nations and recognize their significant ancestral and modern connections to Yellowstone.”
It’s also a good time to consider the next 150 years and what Yellowstone may look like in the future as a warming climate, increasing regional population and invasive species continue to threaten an iconic region of irreplaceable value, beauty and wonder.