Saved Our National Parks
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Chapter 5:
The Saving of a Park and a System: 1886-1889

MILITARY PROTECTION of the Yellowstone National Park was thought to be only a temporary expedient, and temporary it was, but the troops remained in the Park for thirty-two years. The administrative problems faced by the civilian Superintendents were, to a certain degree, still present under the military administration. No well-defined policy of protection had been promulgated; no judicial machinery had been provided. The average cavalryman had no previous training in protecting nature from man and some vandalism occurred under the very eyes of the new military guardians. The arrival of the military, however, did serve to remove the administration of the Park from the political arena; and under the direction of energetic and conscientious military officers the rules and regulations governing the Park were revised and enforced, various threats to the very existence of the Park were met and overcome, policy was determined, a precedent was established for a national park system, and punitive legislation was finally obtained from a reluctant Congress.

Notwithstanding the earnest efforts of the last civilian Superintendent, the military administration of the Yellowstone Park did, in a very real sense, save the Yellowstone Park from physical and legislative destruction. Congress had in effect ended the civil administration of the Park. Joseph K. Toole, delegate to Congress from Montana, was quoted as saying that the leading men of both Houses "felt as if there was a sort of ring there [in Yellowstone] that ought to be broken up. They therefore went to the opinions of Generals Sherman and Sheridan, and concluded to turn over the park to the War Department." Delegate Toole thought that "the change will work well." [1] The change in administration did work well, but the first troops assigned to duty in the Yellowstone found that they had inherited all of the charges of negligence and ineptitude that had previously been directed toward the hapless civilian administrators.

When Captain Moses Harris arrived with his command, Troop "M," First United States Cavalry, at Mammoth Hot Springs, late in the evening of August 17, 1886, he found the Park practically deserted by its staff. When word was received that Congress had failed to appropriate funds to continue their salaries, several Assistant Superintendents simply quit their posts and left the Park in the hands of the tourists and hunters. Superintendent Wear, finding that he no longer had a protective force, frantically wired the Secretary of the Interior that "lawlessness in [the] park has rapidly increased," and that his few remaining assistants were "anxious about their pay," but, that he would do all that he could to preserve and protect the Park. A second telegram to the Secretary stated: "Three large fires raging in the Park beyond my control."[2]

The arrival of the military was immediately reported to the Secretary of the Interior, [3] who telegraphed that Captain Harris was to assume the duties "heretofore performed by the Superintendent." More definite instructions were to follow by letter, but the transfer of the responsibility for protection and administration of the Park became effective as of August 20, 1886. [4] Harris, accompanied by Wear, at once set our upon a tour of the Park and stationed detachments of his troop at the six stations previously occupied by the Assistant Superintendents. Harris and his remaining troopers then undertook to extinguish the many forest fires then raging uncontrolled throughout the Park; Wear asserted that they had been started maliciously by some of his personal enemies. Harris, admitting that there might be some truth in this statement, believed that most of the fires were caused by careless camping parties. Those fires which appeared to have been started intentionally he attributed to "unscrupulous hunters," who, having been prevented from hunting in the Park, resorted to this method of driving the game beyond the Park limits. "The Park," he asserted, was "surrounded by a class of old frontiersmen, hunters and trappers, and squaw-men" who had no respect whatever for the rules and regulations established by the Secretary of the Interior. These men, in addition to the destructive seasonal tourists, were to be his adversaries, and Captain Harris immediately set about establishing the ground rules for the expected conflict. [5]

Camp Sheridan, Wyoming, [6] was established at Mammoth Hot Springs, and the following orders set forth the regulations to be enforced by the members of Harris' command:

I. (1) The cutting of green timber, or the removal or displacement of any mineral deposits or natural curiosities, is forbidden.

(2) Hunting or trapping and the discharge of firearms within the limits of the Park is prohibited. Fishing is forbidden except with hook and line, and the sale of fish so taken is also disallowed.

(3) Wagon tires on all wagons used for freighting purposes on roads . . . are required to be at least four inches in width.

(4) Camping parties will only build fires when actually necessary.

(5) The sale of intoxicating liquors, except by hotel proprietors to their guests, for their own use, is strictly prohibited.

(6) Trespassers within the Park for illicit purposes, or persons wantonly violating the foregoing rules, will be summarily removed from the Park.

(7) No stock will be allowed to run loose in the vicinity of the various points of interest within the Park frequented by visitors.

(8) No rocks, sticks, or other obstructions must be thrown into any of the springs or geysers within the Park.

It is enjoined upon all soldiers . . . to be vigilant and attentive in the enforcement of the foregoing regulations, and to see that the stage drivers and other employees of the hotels do not use abusive language to, or otherwise maltreat, the visitors to the Park . . . They will in the enforcement of their orders conduct themselves in a courteous and polite, but firm and decided, manner. They will not hesitate to make arrests when necessary, reporting at once . . . to the Commanding Officer.

II. All loose stock found in the vicinity . . . will be driven into corral . . . and held until proper guaranty is given that they will not again be turned loose. [7]

Even though the new military administrator considered "it beyond his province to originate any new policy," yet by the issuance of these orders and regulations, he in fact instigated new elements of policy. [8] Henceforth, alcoholic beverages could be dispensed by hotel proprietors in the Park (much to the relief of the thirsty, and much to the discomfort of the temperate guests); livestock was no longer allowed to wander over the sometimes fragile geyser formations; and "persons wantonly violating" the rules were, for the first time, made aware of the expulsion provisions of the Park regulations. Two persons were expelled by the military authorities when it was discovered that they had illegally settled within the Park, and two others were ejected for violation of regulations. Harris' Regulation Number Three, requiring four inch wagon tires, was suspended indefinitely when it became apparent that it only produced "much inconvenience" to the visitors rather than reducing the destruction of the Park roads. [9]

Yosemite NP
Yosemite Valley from Inspiration Point, 1855; lithograph from drawing by Thomas A. Ayres. New York Public Library.

Captain Harris realized that his cavalry troops lacked the proper training required for the performance of their new duties; hence he requested authority to employ three "scouts or guides" who were acquainted with the intricate trails and hunting grounds frequented by trespassers. Approval was given for the employment of one scout, with the admonition that one should be sufficient as "Capt. Harris' men must learn the country." [10] This was the first indication that the military control of the Park might be of more than temporary duration. The military commander of the troops stationed in the Park was designated "Acting Superintendent" rather than the Superintendent; and since no provision had been made for quartering the troops in the Park, Camp Sheridan was a military establishment in name only. When Harris asked whether his troops would remain in the Park during the winter, he was told that they would; the Quartermaster General, Department of Dakota, was directed to "provide such temporary shelter for the command as may be necessary for the comfort of the troops and the protection of public property."[11] When preparing the estimate of appropriations required to administer the Yellowstone Park during the fiscal year ending June 30, 1887, Harris assumed that the civil administration would be resumed, as did the Secretary of War, the Secretary of the Interior, and a majority of the Senate. [12] The military administration was indeed never made permanent by Congressional legislation but was continued year after year because Congress did not provide the appropriations necessary to support a civil administration. The historian who best chronicled the history of Yellowstone National Park wrote in 1912: "it is not probable that public opinion will ever sanction a return to the old order [civil administration]. The administrative machinery has completely adjusted itself to the present system . . . and it is not likely to be disturbed." [13]

Recognizing the seemingly temporary nature of his assignment, and in the absence of any detailed instructions from the Secretary of the Interior, the new Acting Superintendent attempted to enforce the regulations for the protection of the Park. Since he still had no legal means to punish offenders, he wrote the Secretary of the Interior about the expulsion of trespassers from the Park, admitting that the military methods "may at times appear harsh and arbitrary," but he maintained that such procedure was "indispensable to the proper protection of life and property." Less than two months after assuming control of the Park, Harris could report that, owing to the vigilance and constant scouting on the part of the guide, Baronett, and the soldiers, "there have been no depredations of any magnitude," and confidently added, "the game has been well protected." Somewhat less confidence was exhibited when he wrote of the protection afforded the geysers and their deposits:

It is apparent from the most casual observation that the means heretofore employed for the preservation of the natural objects of wonder and beauty in the Park have been entirely inadequate. It may be said without exaggeration that not one of the notable geyser formations in the Park has escaped mutilation or defacement in some form. . . . A lead pencil mark seems to be a very harmless defacement, but names bearing the date of 1880 are still discoverable . . . names with the date of June, 1886, have been chiseled into the solid geysertie so deep that . . . many years must elapse before this mutilation will be obliterated . . . efforts are constantly being made to destroy the geysers . . . by throwing into them sticks, loggs of wood and all sorts of obstructions. . . [14]

In his report to the Secretary of the Interior, the Acting Superintendent suggested the construction of a road system which would enable tourists to visit the principal objects of interest "without discomfort—and without passing twice over the same road." After discovering that many "irresponsible persons" were acting as guides and furnishing transportation and pack outfits to the tourists, Harris stated that in his opinion "no person should be allowed to do business of this character . . . without first obtaining permission from the Superintendent and registering their names in his office," and that tariff charges for all forms of transportation should be established on a uniform base. It was from this suggestion that the policy of "controlled monopoly" was adopted first by the Department of the Interior, and later by the National Park Service. [15]

Noting, as had his predecessors, the paucity of rules and regulations governing the Park, Harris maintained that even the few regulations in effect were no longer applicable because of the "changed conditions in the Park," and he appended a list of new rules "for the consideration of the Department." [16] He realized, however, that the mere adoption of new regulations would not save the Park from destruction and added the old plea for legal machinery:

The enforcement of . . . rules and regulations will be difficult until some more effective penalty for their infringement is provided than expulsion from the Park. The necessity of a form of government for the Park is becoming, year by year, more urgent, as the number of visitors to the Park increases. All sorts of worthless and disreputable characters are attracted here by the impunity afforded by the absence of law and courts of justice.

Evanston, the county seat of Uinta County, Wyoming, more than 250 miles distant, with a rugged and mountainous region intervening, is the nearest point at which even a justice of the peace with the necessary jurisdiction can be found. [17]

Soon after their arrival in the Park the military personnel, like their civilian predecessors, were charged with negligence and ineptitude. The Saint Paul Pioneer Press, September 10, 1886, published an interview with the last civilian Superintendent, D. W. Wear, in which Wear allegedly stated that "the troops in charge are not taking proper care of the Park, [they are] allowing the indiscriminate killing of game and the desecration of the formations about the mineral springs, and, unless some change is made soon, great damage will result." When Harris heard of the charge, he declared that the statement was untrue in every particular, that he had personally "made a very careful investigation as to the manner in which the . . . soldiers . . . performed their duties," and he was positive that there had "been no game killed or other depredations of any magnitude committed" since the troops had arrived in the Park. [18] W. Hallett Phillips, the former special investigator for the Secretary of the Interior, also condemned the military guardianship when he wrote that "the beautiful geyser cones and formations ... were more hacked and injured while the soldiers were stationed there, than at any time since 1882-3." Captain Harris, however, impressed him as "an officer of character and determination," and the destruction was, according to Phillips, due to the fact that the soldiers "previous training and duties were not of the category that qualified and prepared them to protect the wonders of nature." [19]

Even before the first year of military administration was up, another attack appeared in the Chicago Evening Journal of July 18, 1887. Captain Harris maintained that the article was filled with "untrue and malicious statements concerning the National Park" and vigorously defended the activities of the military. [20] The entire governmental policy in respect to the Yellowstone Park was branded as "curiously stupid" by a contributor to Scribner's Monthly, who castigated the men and officers guarding the Park, criticized the Interior Department, and even berated Congress for its "cheese-paring policy." [21] The management of the Park was obliquely questioned by the Boone and Crockett Club, which passed a resolution calling for the appointment of a committee of five to promote useful and proper legislation toward the enlargement and better management of the Yellowstone National Park." [22] Petitions for the better protection of the Park were presented to Congress by residents of some thirty-seven states and Territories. [23]

Some heed was paid to these criticisms, for with the opening of the 50th Congress Senator Vest introduced for the second time a bill providing for the restoration of the civil administration. His bill provided for the appointment of a Park Commissioner who would have the authority to have arrested, and bind over to a federal court, any persons charged with an indictable offense. Vest's bill passed the Senate, but in the House an amendment was added to grant a right-of-way through the Park to the Cinnabar and Cooke City Railroad and no further action was taken. [24]

Despite all these trials, Harris and his command attempted to introduce an element of respect for the rules and regulations governing the Park. The reduction of tourist activity in the fall allowed Harris to direct his military force to the "important duty of affording protection to the large game." He initiated periodic boundary patrols in an attempt to keep animals in and hunters out. [25] Increased vigilance resulted in several expulsions. On April 23, 1887, William James was apprehended, his belongings were confiscated, and he was expelled from the Park "for trapping beaver." A similar fate befell Frank Chatfield "for killing an elk," and on September 10, 1888, William Moore was expelled "for repeated acts of drunkenness and disorder." Three days later Thomas Garfield was arrested and expelled from the Park "for trapping beaver on Willow Creek." [26] Expulsions from the Park did not always have the salutary effect desired. One person, expelled for poaching, wrote a friend, "As I am ordered out of the Park I am determined to go and taken up a homestead on the South Boundary line, for the purpose of being a nuisence to the Park and its Officers." [27]

Since no other form of punishment was available, however, expulsions continued. Between July 4 and July 10, 1887, Harris expelled sixteen men "of suspicious appearance, who were destitute of means of subsistence and were without employment." Of this mass expulsion, the Acting Superintendent hastened to note that no discrimination "has been or ever will be made by me for the rich and well dressed, as against the poor or working classes." He maintained that the Park was to be enjoyed by all alike and that there were many working men "out of employment" who traversed the nation's Park on foot, "with pleasure and satisfaction and with the same protection afforded to others." [28] This effective policing and patrolling did not go unnoticed, and Professor Charles S. Sargent, an eminent dendrologist of Harvard, suggested that, because of the excellent example established in protecting the Yellowstone, the guardianship of all the nation's forests should be confined to the Army and "that forestry should be taught at West Point."[29]

If the military government seemed at times to be rather harsh and arbitrary, this applied only to those who flagrantly violated the regulations. Many careless visitors were merely admonished for their transgressions; and law and order, so far as the imperfect legal machinery would permit, were rapidly being established. For the first time since its inception, the Park was being patrolled by well-mounted and well-equipped soldiers, poachers were being arrested and expelled, and during the tourist season, points of interest within the Park were being protected against wanton vandalism. Through the activities of the military and the suggestions of the Acting Superintendent, policy, later to be adopted and transformed into National Park policy, was evolving piecemeal. The first military commander echoed earlier visiting Congressmen when he advised the Secretary of the Interior that "this 'wonderland' should for all time, be kept as near as possible in its natural and primitive condition." He believed, however, that some money was required to allow the cleaning up of rubbish, the destruction of shacks, and the painting of signs directing tourists along paths to the various attractions. [30] Another element of policy was established when, in reply to a letter offering the sale of buffalo to the government for the purpose of placing these rapidly disappearing animals in the Park, Harris stated:

It is not the policy of the government to endeavor to make this Park attractive, by making a collection of domesticated animals, but rather to preserve the reservation in its natural condition and to protect the existing game animals so that they may breed in security. [31]

A decision that saved innumerable wild animals from slaughter and aided in the protection of game within the Park was made when Harris categorically denied permission for game killed outside of the Park, ostensibly for use of lessees of hotels within the Park, to be brought into the Park. Despite angry cries from the lessees who maintained that this was their only supply of fresh meat, the Secretary of the Interior declined "to interfere with any action" taken by the Acting Superintendent. [32]

While these measures helped establish fundamental Park policy, Harris realized that the small force of men at his disposal was inadequate to fully protect the Park during the tourist season. To cope with the ever-increasing number of visitors he requested the assignment of two additional scouts and one company of Infantry for duty in the Park during the summer months and asked for "such legislation as will define the jurisdiction of the territorial courts within the Park," as well as "a stringent law for the protection of the game." [33] The requested "stringent law" did not come forth until 1894, but his request for additional troops was answered in the summer of 1888, when the policy of augmenting the Park force in summer was inaugurated. The temporary character of the military administration was noted in this correspondence, and the Department of Dakota Commander approved the seasonal increase only because he thought the military regime in the Park would be temporary. [34]

Even with the added force at his command, Harris found his dual role of Acting Superintendent and commander of Camp Sheridan sometimes exasperating. Appropriations for the purely military activities of his troop were provided through normal allocations by the Quartermaster General's Office; appropriations for the protection and preservation of the Park should have come through the Department of the Interior, but they did not. The previous annual Congressional appropriations of $40,000 had provided for the payment of salaries to the Superintendent and his assistants, for the normal costs of administration, and for the construction of roads and bridges. This money had also allowed the civilian administration to provide signboards, mark the various roads and points of interest, and clean up and remove the debris left by camping parties. The appropriation for the fiscal year 1887 was reduced by half and earmarked for road and bridge work. The officer performing the duties of Superintendent was thus left with no money to expend in connection with the preservation of the Park.

The difficulty of operating without legislative appropriations was highlighted when Harris tried to obtain "a few hundred dollars" to provide a building in which he could transact the public business necessary to the Superintendent's position. When he became Acting Superintendent Harris had found that his office was located in an "old blacksmith shop, built of rough boards full of wide cracks which admitted the wind and dust," a place of so "mean and squalid character" that he found it "humiliating" to have to transact business therein. [35] An appeal for money was made to the Secretary of the Interior, who passed it on to the War Department, stating that he had no funds. [36] The sum of $500 for an office building was eventually obtained from the Quartermaster General. [37]

When Harris learned that the appropriation bill for fiscal 1888 had been reported by the House with $20,000 for the construction of roads and bridges only, he wrote to W. Hallett Phillips asking his assistance in securing a legislative appropriation to meet the needs of the Park administration. Harris included the names of Congressmen and Senators who had previously visited the Park, in the hope that these men would "bear witness to the necessity of the small appropriation" requested by him. [38] This effort failed, however. Harris and the Park had to wait for several years before Congress came forth with the desired appropriation for administrative and protective purposes. [39]

Harris was also hindered, like his predecessors and immediate successors, by the increasingly noticeable lack of laws necessary to punish violators of the Park regulations. Unlike his predecessors, however, Harris energetically made use of that provision of the Act of Dedication that provided for the expulsion of violators from the Park. In addition to expulsion, moreover, violators often had their equipment confiscated and the Department of the Interior soon found itself the owner of assorted equipment, rifles, horses, and animal pelts. Unfortunately this process worked little hardship upon the professional poachers, who did not much mind the loss of a little equipment, which was easily replaced.

Nevertheless, the policy of expulsion did affect the occasional poacher who lived near the Park, for many of them depended on summer employment in the Park as packers, guides, teamsters, or laborers. A man once expelled for violating a regulation could be ejected again and again. This process was extralegal, but it was the only form of punishment available until Congress could be persuaded to establish laws, legal machinery, and well-defined punishments for the violation of those laws. [40]

In the absence of laws and well-defined Park policy, it was fortunate for the future of the Yellowstone National Park that the first military Acting Superintendent was a man of Harris' caliber. A man of less character might have devoted himself wholly to military matters and have performed his Park duties of Acting Superintendent in a perfunctory manner. Harris, however, according to one of his successors, was austere, correct, unyielding," and a "terror to evil doers." He was often disagreeable (as indeed is any man who is always right), and Harris was "always sure that he was right before he acted, and then no fear of consequences deterred him." [41] The protection of the game within the Park had never seriously been attempted before Harris' arrival, but in the three years that he was Acting Superintendent he inaugurated and set in motion most of the protective measures utilized by his successors.


How the U.S. Cavalry Saved Our National Parks
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