Yellowstone National Park and Change

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Yellowstone National Park and Change

By: John A. Baden, Ph.D.
Posted on April 08, 2015 FREE Insights Topics:

Yellowstone National Park and Change

This and the two following FREE Insights will deal with the changing environments effecting Yellowstone National Park. Yellowstone was created in 1872 as the world’s first national park. Many referred to it as “America’s Best Idea.” Ken Burns produced a 2009 PBS documentary series with that title.  The goal for the national parks was to identify spectacular natural areas and preserve them forever.

Yellowstone involves far more than geology and ecology. Yellowstone and all other parks and wild lands are nested in cultural, economic and political environments. These are constantly changing but often in predictable ways.

As these environments change, the management of the park must adapt or the purpose for which it was created will be lost. These adaptations are led by institutional entrepreneurs. This and the following two Insights will sketch this process.

FREE Insights will keep you advised of additional developments in FREE’s Yellowstone series. In cooperation with several organizations, we hope to soon be available on several additional websites as well.


Yellowstone National Park and the Conservation Movement

People in Bozeman, Montana are remarkably fortunate to have Yellowstone Park in their back yard.  We can reach a Park entrance in any season, usually in less than two hours.  We owe a great deal to the far-sighted conservationists of the late 1800s.   Given certain impending changes and challenges, how might we preserve Yellowstone's values and those of other parks and wild lands?  We can learn from historical experiments with Yellowstone.

The Conservation Movement of the late 1800s to 1920 worked to preserve and protect America's wildlife, wild lands, and other natural resources.   Leaders of that movement included nature writer John Burroughs, ethnographer George Bird Grinnell, geologist F. V. Hayden, ecologist George Perkins Marsh, and the more well known John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, John Wesley Powell, and T.R. Roosevelt. 

Teddy Roosevelt founded the Boone and Crockett Club in 1887.  It was the leading conservation organization of its era.  Membership was a who’s who of patrician sportsmen-conservationists, e.g., G. B. Grinnell, Yellowstone Park geologist Arnold Hague, and Gifford Pinchot. Boone and Crockett worked for the expansion and protection of Yellowstone Park and led the creation of our National Wildlife Refuge system in 1903.  They promoted conservation as an organizing principle of public policy. 

John Lawson Stoddard was a contemporary of these men, living from 1850 to 1931.  He graduated from Williams College and studied at Yale Divinity School for two years.  Proud of descending from Mayflower settlers, he was a social equal of the conservation pioneers. 

Stoddard began traveling around the world in 1874 and by the late 1890s, his books brought the aristocratic Grand Tour of the East Coast elite to popular audiences. His photographs of foreign and distant places and peoples reached millions of Americans.

His works were published in ten volumes as the Stoddard Lectures from1898 to 1907. They cover his world travel experiences through natural history, photographs, and art. He wrote about Yellowstone Park in Volume Ten (All of Stoddard’s quotes that follow are from his Volume 10.)  (FREE is reproducing his Yellowstone commentary and photos. Please advise us if you would like a copy.) He strongly approved of the law establishing Yellowstone.   "An Act to set apart a certain Tract of Land lying near the Head-waters of the Yellowstone River as a public Park," [1872] reads:

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the tract of land in the Territories of Montana and Wyoming, lying near the head-waters of the Yellowstone river, hereby reserved and withdrawn from settlement, occupancy, or sale under the laws of the United States, and dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people...

Stoddard’s 94 page description included photos of Yellowstone in the1890s.  His religious perspective is obvious: "On certain portions of our globe Almighty God has set a special imprint of divinity."  He included Yellowstone as one of these few.   He said it deserved (and I strongly believe it still deserves) special protection.  He favored the U. S. Army as the protector and service provider. 

Stoddard wrote passionately about the marvels of Yellowstone.  Here are his observations on the Liberty Cap formation at Mammoth.

...the hand of Time has stilled its passionate pulsations, and lain upon its stony lips the seal of silence."  Another treasure is the Grand Cañon of the Yellowstone.  "It is as if Almighty God had kept for His own use one part of creation that man might merely graze upon it, worship, and retire.  (p. 223)

Stoddard knew destructive looting and poaching were likely to occur in a remote, unmanaged commons filled with rare and beautiful animals and unique geological features.  He understood that poor people on the frontier are often grasping by necessity while the powerful might opportunistically raid the public weal.  By today's standards America was a poor third world nation.   (In 1890 the U. S. population was 63,000,000 and the average weekly wage was well under $20.00.  Life expectancy for white females was 45 years, males 42 years. )

In short, Stoddard was philosophically and culturally aligned with the patrician conservationists of his time.  In their view, people with elite sensitivities would guide professional experts who manage the Park.  This, he agreed, was a job for the U. S. Army.  At that time in those conditions, it is hard to imagine better counsel.  In sum, the experiment of Army running the Park worked well. As Stoddard said,

"No one who has visited the National Park ever doubts the necessity of having soldiers there....Soldiers patrol the Park continually to see that all the camp-fires have been extinguished.  (When a forest fire erupts, the soldiers put it out with dispatch.)  (p.216)

Another important labor of the United States soldiers is to preserve the game within the Park.....A buffalo head which could formerly have been bought for a mere trifle, commands today a price of five hundred dollars.   [That is nearly $13,000 in today's dollars.]  Hence daring poachers sometimes run the risk of entering the Park in winter and destroying them....Now to protect the few remaining buffaloes , as well as other animals, our troops patrol the Park even in winter." (p.218)

The military was also responsible for the Park's road system. From 1883 to 1918 the U.S. Army's Corps of Engineers built and maintained Yellowstone's roads and bridges. When they left the park in 1918, the Corps had constructed over 400 miles of roads built to uniform specifications. They also built a hydroelectric plant, a water system, streetlights, and concrete sidewalks at Mammoth.

Alas, Stoddard lamented, the government is far too stingy.  "Surely the honor of our government demands that this unique museum of marvels be the pride and glory of the nation with highways equal to any in the world."  The funding problem for Yellowstone and other parks is evident today--and with infrastructure generally not only roads. 

Funding shortfalls for the management of national parks naturally follow increasing competition for discretionary federal funds.  And all the federal funding for parks is discretionary.  Entitlement promises coupled with America's changing demography dictate this outcome.  

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