Preserving Nature in the National Parks
A History
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Chapter 1
Creating Tradition: The Roots of National Park Management

It is important to do something speedily [about the Yellowstone park proposal], or squatters and claimants will go in there, and we can probably deal much better with the government in any improvements we may desire to make for the benefit of our pleasure travel than with individuals.—JAY COOKE, October 30, 1871

On March 1, 1872, Congress established Yellowstone Park-the world's first "national park," more than two million acres located mostly in the northwest corner of present-day Wyoming-to be preserved and managed by the federal government for the enjoyment and benefit of the people. In the midst of the Gilded Age's rampant exploitation of public lands, the concept of federally managed parks protected from the extractive uses typical of the late-nineteenth-century American West abruptly gained congressional sanction. Yellowstone's awesome natural phenomena had inspired a political phenomenon.

Despite its eventual worldwide implications, the Yellowstone Park Act attracted minimal public attention; Congress only briefly debated the bill, giving little indication of what it intended for the park. The act came during an era when the federal government was aggressively divesting itself of the public domain through huge railroad land grants and, among others, homestead, mining, and timber acts. Although a few Americans were voicing concern about the preservation of nature and decrying the exploitation of natural resources, no broad, cohesive conservation movement existed in 1872. Yet the proposal to save the wonders of Yellowstone (principally the great falls of the Yellowstone River and the spectacular geysers) triggered legislation creating what was until very recently the largest national park in the contiguous forty-eight states.

The origin of the national park idea-who conceived it, and whether it was inspired by altruism or by profit motives-has been disputed. One account became a revered part of national park folklore and tradition: that the idea originated in September 1870 during a discussion around a campfire near the Madison Junction, where the Firehole and Gibbon rivers join to form the Madison River in present-day Yellowstone National Park. Nearing the conclusion of their exploration of the Yellowstone country, members of the Washburn-Doane Expedition (a largely amateur party organized to investigate tales of scenic wonders in the area) had encamped at Madison Junction on the evening of September 19. As they relaxed and mused around their wilderness campfire, the explorers recalled the spectacular sights they had seen. Then, after considering the possible uses of the area and the profits they might make from tourism, they rejected the idea of private exploitation. Instead, in a moment of high altruism, the explorers agreed that Yellowstone's awe-inspiring geysers, waterfalls, and canyons should be preserved as a public park. [1] This proposal was soon relayed to high political circles, and within a year and a half Congress established Yellowstone Park.

Through the decades, as the national park concept gained strength and other nations followed the American example, the Madison Junction campfire emerged as the legendary birthplace not just of Yellowstone but of all the world's national parks. Although the Yosemite Valley had been established as a California state park from federally donated lands in 1864 and the term "national park" had been occasionally used in the past, the belief that the national park idea truly began around a wilderness campfire at the Madison Junction evolved into a kind of creation myth: that from a gathering of explorers on a late summer evening in the northern Rocky Mountains came the inspiration for Yellowstone National Park, the prototype for hundreds of similar parks and reserves around the world. In the wilderness setting and with a backdrop of the vast, dramatic landscape of the western frontier, the origin of the national park idea seemed fitting and noble. Surely the national park concept deserved a "virgin birth"-under a night sky in the pristine American West, on a riverbank, and around a flaming campfire, as if an evergreen cone had fallen near the fire, then heated and expanded and dropped its seeds to spread around the planet. [2]

The campfire story may be seen in another light, however. Romantic imagery aside, the element of monopolistic business enterprise is notably absent from the traditional campfire story-the profit motive obscured by the altruistic proposal for a public park. In fact, corporate involvement with America's national parks has its roots in that same 1870 Washburn-Doane Expedition and campfire discussion. Amid the great rush to settle the West after the Civil War, the Northern Pacific Railroad Company was by 1870 planning to extend its tracks from the Dakota Territory across the Montana Territory. With easiest access to Yellowstone being from the north, through Montana, the company believed that once it extended its tracks west it could monopolize tourist traffic into the area.

Alert to this potential, Northern Pacific financier Jay Cooke took special interest in the scenic Yellowstone country. In June 1870 he met in Philadelphia with Nathaniel P. Langford, politician and entrepreneur, who subsequently proceeded to Montana and, with Northern Pacific backing, successfully promoted the Washburn-Doane Expedition. This exploration of Yellowstone began in August, with Langford as a participant. Still supported by the Northern Pacific, Langford followed up the expedition with lectures to audiences in Montana and in East Coast cities, extolling the wonders of Yellowstone, while local boosters in Montana began promoting the park idea. The following year, the railroad company subsidized artist Thomas Moran's participation in the expedition into Yellowstone led by geologist Ferdinand V. Hayden. Moran's sketches from the Hayden Expedition (his impressive paintings were not yet completed) were displayed in the Capitol in Washington as part of the campaign to enact the Yellowstone legislation. [3]

Ever advancing Northern Pacific interests, Jay Cooke sought to ensure that the Yellowstone country did not fall into private hands, but rather remained a federally controlled area. He observed in October 1871, just before the legislation to create a park was introduced, that a government "reservation" (or park) would prevent "squatters and claimants" from gaining control of the area's most scenic features. Government control would be easier to deal with; thus, it was "important to do something speedily" through legislation. [4]

Subsequent to the Hayden Expedition, the Northern Pacific lobbied for the park with swift success: the Yellowstone bill was introduced on December 18, 1871, and enacted the following March. Like most future national parks, Yellowstone remained under the jurisdiction of the Department of the Interior, which managed the public lands of the West. The park's immense size came not because of an effort to preserve vast tracts of undisturbed wilderness, but largely as a result of recommendations by Ferdinand Hayden, who sought to include the lands most likely to contain spectacular thermal features.

From the first, then, the national parks served corporate profit motives, the Northern Pacific having imposed continuous influence on the Yellowstone park proposal, beginning even before the 1870 expedition that gave birth to the campfire tradition. [5] With their land grants stretching across the continent, American railroads were already seeking to establish monopolistic trade corridors. By preventing private land claims and limiting competition for tourism in Yellowstone, the federal reservation of the area served, in effect, as a huge appendage to the Northern Pacific's anticipated monopoly across southern Montana Territory.

Indeed, in historical perspective, the 1872 Yellowstone legislation stands as a resounding declaration that tourism was to be important in the economy of the American West. A matter of considerable consequence in the Yellowstone story, the collaboration between private business and the federal government fostered a new kind of public land use in the drive to open the West. A portion of the public domain was reserved for largely non-consumptive use, with unrestricted free enterprise and exploitation of natural resources prohibited. With magnificent scenery as the principal fount of profit, tourism was emerging in the nineteenth century as an economic land use attractive to business investment. The success of such investment depended in part on the preservation of scenery through prevention of haphazard tourism development and other invasive commercial uses such as mining and lumbering. The possibility of federal cooperation to manage vast scenic areas in the West and control development appealed to the Northern Pacific and soon to other tourism interests.

Over time, accommodation for tourism in the national parks would become truly extensive and have enormous consequences for the parks. It is a significant, underlying fact of national park history that once Yellowstone and subsequent park legislation codified the commitment to public use and enjoyment, managers of the parks would inevitably become involved in design, construction, and long-range maintenance of park roads, trails, buildings, and other facilities. Allowing tourists to stay overnight in the parks meant that hotels, restaurants, campgrounds, garbage dumps, electrical plants, and water and sewage systems would sooner or later be seen as indispensable. The practical necessities for accommodating thousands, then millions, of tourists (the primary constituents of the national parks and a key source of political support) would increasingly demand park management's attention and seriously affect allocation of funds and staffing.

Moreover, such developmental concerns would foster a capitalistic, business-oriented approach to national parks, emphasizing the number of miles of roads and trails constructed, the number of hotel rooms and campsites available, the number of visitors each year, and the need for continued tourism development. Principally in an effort to ensure public enjoyment, nature itself would be manipulated in the national parks; to a large extent, natural resource management would serve tourism purposes.


Preserving Nature in the National Parks
©1997, Yale University Press
sellars/chap1.htm — 1-Jan-2003