Yellowstone National Park Act (1872)

views updated May 11 2018

Yellowstone National Park Act (1872)

Brian E. Gray

On March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed into law the Yellowstone National Park Act (17 Stat. 32), which withdrew from settlement, occupancy, and sale a vast expanse of public land along the continental divide where the states of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho intersected. The act "dedicated and set aside" the land "as a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people." Congress placed the land and resources of the park "under the exclusive control of the Secretary of the Interior" and directed the secretary to set forth rules and regulations "to provide for the preservation ... of all timber, mineral deposits, natural curiosities, or wonders within said park, and their retention in their natural condition." It also declared that the secretary "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." As one historian put it, the "reservation of this large tract of over 2 million acres of landlarger than a couple of the smallest stateswith its wealth of timber, game, grass, water power, and possible minerals barred from all private use, was so dramatic a departure from the general public land policy of Congress that it seems almost a miracle" (Ise 1961, p. 17).

In 1864 Congress had set aside the lands and resources of Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Sequoia Redwoods for "public use, resort, and recreation." But it gave title (ownership) and management responsibility for the Yosemite Park to the State of California. While the Yellowstone Act was not the earliest reservation of park land, Yellowstone became the first national park to be administered by the United States for the preservation and enjoyment of its scenic wonders.

Congress' principal purpose in creating Yellowstone National Park was to preserve the geysers and hot springs of the region and to protect the herds of bison, elk, and other wildlife that inhabited the park. They did so by closing the land to entry under the Homestead Act, mining laws, and other public lands statutes. With little knowledge of the geography and hydrogeology (the study of the geological formation and the movement of ground water) of the area and only sketchy maps, the sponsors of the legislation simply drew a square that would encompass the most important natural featuresOld Faithful, Mammoth Hot Springs, the Norris and Midway Geyser Basins, Yellowstone Falls and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River, the meadows of the great central plateau, Yellowstone Lake, the Absaroka Range, and the headwaters of the Missouri and Snake River systems.

Yet the park stands at the top of a much larger ecosystem that has been divided into seven national forests and three wildlife refuges. It includes Grand Teton National Park to the south and a mixture of state and private lands that abut Yellowstone's boundaries on the north, west, and east. As an island resting at the pinnacle of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, Yellowstone National Park has been a testing ground for contemporary park policy. Oil and natural gas drilling in the Targhee National Forest to the west, and geothermal (heat generated from the Earth's core) exploration on private lands to the north, have threatened the groundwater basin that supplies the geysers and hot springs of the park. Clear-cutting in the national forests on all sides of the park has disrupted grizzly bear habitat and mating. Bison that stray across park borders in search of winter pasture have been slaughtered by hunters licensed under state law. Snowmobiles have so fouled the air that rangers at park entrances are forced to wear gas masks. With more than 3 million visitors annually, Yellowstone's roads, campgrounds, and most popular tourist destinations are overcrowded and overused. The great fires of 1988, and former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt's decision to reintroduce wolves to the park in 1995, sparked bitter debates over the National Park Service's resource management policies.

For all of its controversies, Yellowstone remains the keystone of our national park system. Its mountains form the spine of the continent. Its geysers, hot springs, lakes, rivers, and waterfalls are the font of our greatest waterways. Its alpine meadowsalive with bison, elk, antelope, deer, grizzly bear, peregrine falcon, bald eagles, kingfishers, pelicans, trumpeter swans, cutthroat trout, graylings, and an occasional cougar and wolfmake Yellowstone the nation's greatest wildlife haven.

See also: National Historic Preservation Act; National Park Service Act.


Chase, Alston. Playing God in Yellowstone: The Destruction of America's First National Park. Boston, MA: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1986.

Chittenden, Hiram Martin. The Yellowstone National Park. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1964.

Ise, John. Our National Parks Policy: A Critical History. Washington, DC: Resources for the Future, 1961.

Keiter, Robert B., and Mark S. Boyce. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem: Refining America's Wilderness Heritage. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991.

Runte, Alfred. National Parks: The American Experience, 3d ed. Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press, 1992.

Yellowstone's Precarious Early Years

When Yellowstone National Park was established in 1872, it was the first preserve of its kind in the United States, and no blueprint existed for its maintenance. There was no funding for the park, no salary for its first superintendent, and no means to enforce protection of its wildlife. With the arrival of the Northern Pacific Railroad at the north entrance to the park, tourism exploded from 300 visitors in 1872 to approximately 5,000 in 1873; however, by 1876, the park was in grave danger, with poachers slaughtering wildlife, squatters living in the woods, souvenir vendors destroying geological formations, and delicate thermal springs being used as wishing wells or collecting garbage. The secretary of the interior requested help from the secretary of war, and the U.S. Cavalry was deployed to restore order. While the troops strictly enforced park regulations, they had little ability to control poachers, as their authority was limited to confiscating a poacher's belongings and escorting him from the parkwhereupon most snuck right back in. Poachers in Yellowstone freely hunted the last remaining herd of free-ranging bison in the United States, with devastating results, until an article in the magazine Forest and Stream publicized the situation. The resulting public outrage inspired Congress to pass the National Park Protection Act, which permitted the prosecution of poachers, and the tide was turned. By 1914 there were thirty national parks and monuments in the United States, two years later the National Park Service was formed to manage them, and in 1918 the cavalry turned over protection of the park to this new service. Today the flat-brimmed hats of the National Park Service rangers still pay tribute to the cavalry's role in safeguarding Yellowstone during its early years.

Yellowstone National Park

views updated May 14 2018

Yellowstone National Park

Yellowstone National Park has the distinction of being the world's first national park . With an area of 3,472 sq mi (8,992 sq km), Yellowstone is the largest national park in the lower 48 states. This is an area larger than Rhode Island and Delaware combined. Although primarily in Wyoming (91%), 7.6% of the park is in Montana and the remaining 1.4% is in Idaho.

John Colter, a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition of 18031806, was probably the first white man to visit and report on the Yellowstone area. At that time the only Native Americans living year-round in the area were a mixed group of Bannock and Shoshone known as "sheepeaters." In 1859, the legendary trapper and explorer Jim Bridger, who had been reporting since the 1830s about the wonders of the
region, led the first government expedition into the area. The discovery of gold in the Montana Territory in the 1860s brought more expeditions. In 1870, the Washburn-Langford-Doane expedition came to verify the reports about the wonders of the area. They spent four weeks naming the features, including Old Faithful, the most famous geyser in the world. Legend states that while the 19 members of this expedition sat around a campfire, reflecting on the beauty of the area, they came up with the idea of turning the region into a national park. The truth of the legend is debatable, yet there is no doubt that it was the lecturing and writing of these men that prompted the United States Geological Survey to send a follow-up group to the park in 1871. Reports and photographs from the U.S. Geological Survey expedition stimulated the drafting of legislation to create the first national park. Because of the prevalent utilitarian philosophy and the country's poor economic condition, the battle for the park was difficult and hard-fought. Eventually the park proponents were successful, and on March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the bill establishing the park.

Because Congress did not allocate any money for park maintenance or protection, the early years of the park were marked by vandalism, poaching , the deliberate setting of forest fires, and other destructive behaviors. Eventually, in 1886, the U.S. Army took responsibility for the park. They remained in the role of park managers until the National Park Service was formed in 1916.

Water covers about 10% of the park. The largest body of water is Yellowstone Lake, with a surface area of 136 sq mi (352 sq km). It is one of the largest, highest, and coldest lakes in North America. The park has one of the highest waterfalls in the United States (Lower Yellowstone Falls, 308 ft; 93.87 m) and the top three trout fishing streams in the world. Approximately 10,000 thermal features can be found in the park. In fact, there are more geysers (200250) and hot springs in the park than in the rest of the world put together.

The park has a great abundance and diversity of wildlife . It has the largest concentration of mammals in the lower 48 states. There are 58 species of mammals in the park, including two species of bears and seven species of ungulates. It is one of the last strongholds of the grizzly bear and is the only place where a bison herd has survived continuously since primitive times. Yellowstone is noted also for having the largest concentration of elk to be found anywhere in the world. Besides mammals, the park is home for 279 species of birds, 18 species of fish, five species of reptiles, and four species of amphibians.

However, one of the continuing difficulties at Yellowstone and other national parks is that Yellowstone is not a self-contained ecosystem . Its boundaries were established through a variety of political compromises, and lands around the park that once provided a buffer against outside events are being developed. Airsheds, watersheds, and animal migration routes extend far beyond park boundaries, yet they dramatically affect conditions within the park. Yellowstone is but one example of the need to manage entire biogeographical areas to preserve natural conditions within a national park.

[Ted T. Cable ]



Frome, M. National Park Guide. 19th ed. Chicago: Rand McNally, 1985.


Yellowstone Fact Sheet. National Park Service, U.S. Department of Interior, 1992.


Yellowstone National Park, P.O. Box 168, Yellowstone National Park, WY 82190-0168 (307) 344-7381, Email: [email protected], <>

Yellowstone National Park

views updated Jun 11 2018


YELLOWSTONE NATIONAL PARK. Yellowstone National Park encompasses 3,468 square miles (2,219,823 acres) of Rocky Mountain terrain in Wyoming, Idaho, and Montana. Its enabling act, signed 1 March 1872 by President Ulysses S. Grant, withdrew lands from the public domain for use as a "public park or pleasuring ground" for the "preservation, from injury or spoliation, of all timber, mineral deposits, natural curiosities, or wonders…and their retention in their natural condition." The Yellowstone National Park Act established a significant conservationist precedent, leading to the formation of more than twelve hundred parks and preserves in more than one hundred countries. The national park idea represents one of the major, original contributions of the United States to world thought.

Native Americans utilized Yellowstone for hunting and fishing hundreds of years before whites frequented the region. In 1807 the trapper John Colter became the first Euro-American to visit Yellowstone. Information regarding Yellowstone's natural features remained scarce until the late 1860s, when several exploring parties surveyed the area. Cornelius Hedges, a Massachusetts-born Montana judge and member of the Washburn-Langford-Doane expedition in 1870, has often been credited with proposing Yellowstone as a national park, although historians have since questioned the validity of his claim. The Yellowstone National Park Act was drawn up by William H. Clagett, a Montana territorial delegate in Congress; Nathaniel Langford, territorial revenue collector and later first park superintendent; and Ferdinand V. Hayden, a member of the U.S. Geological Survey, whose 1871 expedition showered Congress with illustrations and photographs of Yellowstone's fantastical landscape. Yellowstone

was under military stewardship from 1886 until 1918, when the newly created National Park Service (1916) took responsibility for its operation. California lawyer Horace M. Albright became Yellowstone's first civilian superintendent.

Yellowstone remains the largest national park in the contiguous United States. Its three thousand hot springs and two hundred geysers, including Old Faithful, signify the world's largest concentration of geothermal features. Yellowstone Lake represents the largest high-mountain lake in North America, covering 137 square miles at an elevation of 7,730 feet. There the Yellowstone River starts its 671-mile journey to the Missouri River, bequeathing the park its famous 1,200-foot deep Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone River and its Upper Falls and Lower Falls; the latter, almost twice as high as Niagara Falls, drops 308 feet. The park supports an array of wildlife, including grizzly and black bears, elk, bighorn sheep, moose, antelope, coyotes and more than two hundred varieties of bird. Yellowstone's protected wildlands provide vital habitat for threatened species, notably the once endangered trumpeter swan and the country's only continuously wild herd of bison.

Shifting biological theories, increased visitation, and external threats present decisive challenges for Yellow-stone's managers. In the summer of 1988, 45 percent of the park was razed by fire, fueling criticism of official natural regulation policy. Affected areas have since recovered. In January 1995, following two decades of protracted debate and capacious biological studies, federal agencies reintroduced wolves to Yellowstone under the terms of the Endangered Species Act (1973). Wolves had been absent from the park since the 1920s, when they were eradicated as part of an official campaign to remove predatory animals. Yellowstone National Park, which observed its 125th anniversary in 1997, attracts more than 3 million visitors a year.


Bartlett, Richard A. Yellowstone: A Wilderness Besieged. Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1985.

Chase, Alston. Playing God in Yellowstone: The Destruction of America's First National Park. San Diego, Calif.: Harcourt Brace, 1987.

Haines, Aubrey L. The Yellowstone Story: A History of Our First National Park. Rev. ed. Niwot: University Press of Colorado, 1996.

Pritchard, James A. Preserving Yellowstone's Natural Conditions: Science and the Perception of Nature. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1999.



See alsoNational Park System ; Wildlife Preservation .

Yellowstone National Park

views updated May 21 2018

Yellowstone National Park

Comprising 2.2 million acres of northwest Wyoming, with slight incursions into Montana and Idaho, Yellowstone is the oldest national park in the United States. The park's unique sights originally inspired a nation that had not even fully conceived of what the term "national park" entailed. The park has evolved to stand as the preeminent symbol of the national park idea, whether inspiring the designation of other locations or revealing systematic flaws. Today, Yellowstone serves as an active battleground as Americans strive to define the meaning of preservation and wilderness.

From the outset, Yellowstone's unique attraction derived from its natural oddities. The region was the stuff of rumors; the return of explorers from the northern Rockies in 1810 had piqued the public's attention with stories of odd natural occurrences: thermal phenomena, a beautiful mountain lake, and a magnificent canyon entered into the unconfirmed reports. "Could such a place exist?" Americans asked upon hearing descriptions of "Earth's bubbling cauldron." In 1870, other expeditions set out to explore the sights. In 1871 the Hayden Survey explored Yellowstone. Overwhelmed by the majesty and oddity that they beheld, they were at once overcome by its attraction and potential development. Such economic development, though, could exploit and ruin all that made the site peculiar. During this era of development and the massive harvesting of natural resources, these attributes were not sufficient to warrant preservation; the site also needed to be of no worth otherwise. Hayden repeatedly assured Congress that the entire area was worthless for anything but tourism. Lurking behind such plans were railroad companies eager to find tourist attractions in the West.

The establishment of the park by President Ulysses S. Grant on March 1, 1872, rings hollow by the standards of modern environmentalism. However, such designation, albeit under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Army until 1916, kept the area free of development during some of the region's boom years. As an example, Yellowstone's herd of North American bison is given credit for the species' endurance. While hunters decimated the larger herd by 1880, the park offered sanctuary to at least a few bison. Today, the Yellowstone herd is considered an anchor for the entire species. The present herd, ironically, has also led to controversy as it creeps past park borders.

In 1916, President Woodrow Wilson signed the National Park Act, creating the National Park Service and initiating the search for the meaning of such designation. Tourism rose steadily through the war years, and Park Service Director Stephen T. Mather largely developed and linked the park system. With the Wilderness Act of 1964, the shared cause of the park system became the effort to preserve areas as unspoiled "wilderness." While it had originally been set aside due to geological oddities, Yellowstone became a primary illustration of one of the most unique and secure ecosystems in the United States.

Yellowstone has proven to be an attraction of enduring proportions. Tourist visitation to the park has increased throughout the twentieth century, with the park becoming an international attraction. Massive visitation rates, however, have taken a toll on the remaining wilderness within the park. Many environmentalists call over-visitation Yellowstone's major threat. In addition, fires have repeatedly torn through the park, forcing administrators to consistently revisit their mandate. Proponents of wilderness argue that naturally occurring fires must be allowed to burn, whether or not they endanger tourists or damage park service property; administrators who see their responsibility to visitors argue for fire suppression. Such issues force Americans to consider what a national park seeks to accomplish and reidentify Yellowstone's position as the symbolic leader of the American system of national parks.

—Brian Black

Further Reading:

Runte, Alfred. National Parks: The American Experience. Lincoln, University of Nebraska Press, 1987.

Yellowstone National Park

views updated May 29 2018

Yellowstone National Park Park in nw Wyoming and reaching into Montana and Idaho, USA. Established in 1872, it is the oldest and one of the largest US national parks. Formed by volcanic activity, the park contains c.10,000 hot springs (including the giant Hot Springs) and 200 geysers (the most famous of which is "Old Faithful"). Other scenic attractions include Yellowstone River and the petrified forests. It is one of the world's greatest wildlife sanctuaries. In 1988 large-scale forest fires devastated much of the park. Area: 900,000ha (2.22 million acres).