Yellowstone National Park Act

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Yellowstone National Park Act


By: United States Congress

Date: March 1, 1872

Source: U.S. Congress. 17 Stat. 32. "Yellowstone National Park Act." March 1, 1872.

About the Author: The Congress of the United States was established by Article 1 of the U.S. Constitution of 1787. It is the legislative arm of the U.S. Federal Government. Although the actual text of the act creating Yellowstone National Park is legislative boilerplate, fashioned anonymously by the staff of a congressional committee, the real authors of the act may be regarded as a number of men who explored, mapped, and brought the Yellowstone area to the attention of the American people. The first expedition was undertaken by mine workers David E. Folsom, Charles W. Cook, and William Peterson in 1869. After thirty-six days in the Yellowstone region, they told of wonders that strained credibility, such as waterfalls shooting upwards (geysers). Reputable magazines refused to publish their accounts. Henry P. Langford was one of the members of the second expedition of 1870. It was led by Henry D. Washburn, surveyor-general of the Montana territory and comprised nineteen men, including several journalists. Afterwards, Langford traveled east to give public talks about Yellowstone. Ferdinand V. Hayden, head of the newly formed U.S. Geological Survey, after hearing him speak in Washington, D.C., convinced Congress to allocate $40,000 for a government scientific expedition into Yellowstone. This party included geologists, botanists, zoologists, the artist Thomas Moran, and the photographer William H. Jackson. It was the culmination of Langford's campaign to make the region a park. Hayden submitted a 500-page report to Congress, and soon the Congress passed a bill making Yellowstone a national park preserve; President Ulysses S. Grant signed it into law. Langford, however, was not a disinterested environmentalist. An employee of the Northern Pacific Railroad, he combined environmentalism and development, marketing the park as part of a campaign to promote the railroad and encourage its use.


The Congressional Act of 1872, making Yellowstone a National Park under the control of the United States Secretary of the Interior, is divided into two sections. The first, relying on the work of the expeditionary parties, defines the boundaries of the park and declares it federal property. The second section outlines what it means for a tract of land to be so designated and lays down a set of environmental guidelines. It put the newly created park under the "exclusive control" of the Secretary of the Interior and specified his responsibilities, first and foremost the creation of a body of rules, inside the congressional guidelines, to govern the use and determine the development of the park.

By creating Yellowstone National Park, the U.S. Congress recognized the wonders contained in that tract of land. They also recognized and accepted two responsibilities. The first was to preserve the land in its natural condition and protect its resources from alteration or despoliation. The second was to develop it in accord within the limits of the Act. These two responsibilities were not always compatible.


SECTION 1. 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, and described as follows, to wit, commencing at the junction of Gardiner's river with the Yellowstone river, and running east to the meridian passing ten miles to the eastward of the most eastern point of Yellowstone lake; thence south along said meridian to the parallel of latitude passing ten miles south of the most southern point of Yellowstone lake; thence west along said parallel to the meridian passing fifteen miles west of the most western point of Madison lake; thence north along said meridian to the latitude of the junction of Yellowstone and Gardiner's rivers; thence east to the place of beginning, is 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; and all persons who shall locate or settle upon or occupy the same, or any part thereof, except as hereinafter provided, shall be considered trespassers and removed therefrom.

SECTION 2. That said public park shall be under the exclusive control of the Secretary of the Interior, whose duty it shall be, as soon as practicable, to make and publish such rules and regulations as he may deem necessary or proper for the care and management of the same. Such regulations shall provide for the preservation, from injury or spoliation, of all timber, mineral deposits, natural curiosities, or wonders within said park, and their retention in their natural condition. The Secretary may in his discretion, grant leases for building purposes for terms not exceeding ten years, of small parcels or ground, at such places in said park as shall require the erection of buildings for the accommodation of visitors; all of the proceeds of said leases, and all other revenues that may be derived from any source connected with said park, to be expended under his direction in the management of the same, and the construction of roads and bridle-paths therein. He shall provide against the wanton destruction of the fish and game found within said park, and against their capture or destruction for the purposes of merchandise or profit. He shall also cause all persons trespassing upon the same after the passage of this act to be removed therefrom, and generally shall be authorized to take all such measures as shall be necessary or proper to fully carry out the objects and purposes of this act.


By creating Yellowstone National Park, the federal government became active in matters of environmental conservation and management regarding designated areas deemed in need of oversight, and took such land out of the direct control of the private sector. Not only a significant political act, establishing the park seemed to guarantee that parts of the North American continent would remain in their natural condition despite whatever alterations the advances of technology and industry might bring. However, it did not quite turn out that way. Commercialization of the Yellowstone area was inextricably joined to the cause of environmental conservation from its inception, and by the 1950s Yellowstone National Park was contributing nearly $20 million yearly to the economies of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho and was the center of litigations in the three states over ownership of park concessions.

From the time of its creation as a national park, the Yellowstone area was seen as a rich source of income from tourism and as a recreational area. While private industrial development or construction that encroached upon and altered the land was forbidden by law, the government could and did award contracts for building roads, dining, lodging, and other tourist facilities such as gift shops. Yellowstone Park was promoted as a collection of must-see wonders, and by 1917, five thousand cars a year drove through it. In 1990, the pollution from snowmobiles at peak times surpassed pollution levels in Los Angeles.

Since the environmentally conscious 1970s, there has been a great deal of contention about how the Yellowstone ought to be treated. Some advocated scaling back its function as a recreation site. In 1974, fishing from Fishing Bridge was prohibited in order to protect the spawning of the native cutthroat trout. In 1976, the park was designated a Biosphere Reserve, and in 1978 a World Heritage Site. Other forces, however, have advocated exploiting Yellowstone's resources for profit. In 1996, President Bill Clinton opposed plans to mine for gold near Yellowstone, which would have endangered the ecosystem. Throughout its history, the Yellowstone area has been not only a site of nature's marvels but a center of environmental and commercial controversies.



Nabokov, Peter, and Lawrence Loendorf. Restoring a Presence: American Indians and Yellowstone National Park. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 2004.

Olliff, Tom, Kristin Legg, and Beth Kaeding, eds. Effects Of Winter Recreation on Wildlife of the Greater Yellowstone Area: A Literature Review and Assessment, Washington, D.C.: Greater Yellowstone Winter Wildlife Working Group, 1999.

Wakefield, Sophia, and Angele Ferre. Cleaning National Parks: Using Environmentally Preferable Janitorial Products at Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks. Denver, CO: U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, Region 8 Pollution Prevention Program, 2000.

Wallace, Linda L., ed. After The Fires: The Ecology of Change in Yellowstone National Park, New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2004.

Web sites

Whittlesey, Lee, and Beth Kaeding. "Early Expeditions to Yellowstone," March 1997. 〈∼dmonteit/explore_hist.html〉 (accessed March 16, 2006).

Johns, Joshua. "Thomas Moran and the American Landscape," April 1, 1996. 〈∼CAP/NATURE/cap3.html〉 (accessed March 16, 2006).

Gourley, Bruce, Russ Finley, and Tim Gourley. "National Park History," Yellowstone Net. 〈〉 (accessed March 16, 2006).