Saved Our National Parks
NPS Arrowhead logo


LATE IN THE EVENING OF AUGUST 17, 1886, Troop "M," First United States Cavalry, marched into the Yellowstone National Park. Three days later the military commander relieved the Park Superintendent of his duties and inaugurated a new era of National Park administration. Established in 1872 in response to the urgings of a few dedicated men, the Park had been administered by civilian appointees who were provided with neither physical nor legal force to stop the endemic vandalism, poaching, and trespassing which threatened its existence. Some Congressmen, faced with this apparent administrative failure, labeled the park concept an absurdity. Congress declined to appropriate money for the continued operation of the Park in 1886, and the Secretary of the Interior was forced to request sufficient troops to protect the Park. The resulting military management was extended to the Yosemite, General Grant, and Sequoia National Parks, and continued in the Yellowstone until 1918. Thus these parks were preserved for posteriity, and thus were laid the foundations of the National Park Service.

The present-day interest in conservation and preservation of natural resources and natural beauty is a direct legacy from those farsighted individuals who were responsible for the formation and protection of these early national parks. That these persons were few in number is not surprising; the predominant nineteenth-century attitude toward natural resources was one of use and not preservation. Unfortunately, we have an almost overwhelming tendency to judge our forebears by the standards of the present. Today we accuse the men responsible for the extinction of the passenger pigeon, the near extinction of the bison, and the virtual destruction of millions of acres of virgin timber for thoughtless or even malicious destruction of the nation's resources. Yet the many persons who cut the forests, or allowed them to burn, or who indiscriminately killed the game, did not consider themselves either criminal or immoral. Most of them were sincere in their belief that America's natural resources were, in fact, unlimited. Fortunately, attitudes toward land and forests changed, and so did governmental policies. In late nineteenth-century America, laissez faire was the predominant philosophy; exploitation of the nation's resources was a way of life. Americans worshiped the practical and the useful, and generally held altruism and aestheticism in disdain. Their governments traditionally reacted to environmental crises rather than anticipating and avoiding them, and their laws not only lagged behind new needs but resisted change when those needs were outmoded.

Given this background, it is surprising that a mere handful of prescient men could convince Congress, and ultimately the people, that some elements of the nation's natural heritage were worth preserving.

The period of military administration of the National Parks is unique in American history. Before 1894 in the Yellowstone, and throughout its administrative career in the California Parks, the cavalry operated without a legal framework or means of law enforcement. Yet during the thirty-two years of military guardianship a National Park policy was evolved and administrative procedures were formulated. Moreover, when the National Park Service began operating in 1918, it took over from the military a previously trained cadre of men. Even more important, the National Park Service, when organized, had something to administer: the Yellowstone, the Yosemite, the General Grant, and the Sequoia National Park. In a very real sense, the cavalry saved these parks, and in so doing, saved the National Park idea.

Old Faithful
Old Faithful, Yellowstone Park. National Park Service.


How the U.S. Cavalry Saved Our National Parks
©1971, Indiana University Press All rights reserved.
This text may not be reproduced in any manner without the express written consent of Indiana University Press.
hampton/introduction.htm — 09-Apr-2004