Yellowstone National Park Turns 150 in 2022; Here’s a Brief Summary of the Park’s History and Lasting Legacy
CODY, Wyo., Sept. 30, 2021 – The world’s first national park is turning 150 next year, and visitors from around the world are expected to travel to Yellowstone National Park to mark the anniversary and seek inspiration in its vast and multi-faceted wonders.
Approximately 96 percent of the park is located in the northwestern corner of Wyoming and small parts of Montana and Idaho. The 2.2 million-acre park is visited by more than 4 million people every year. The park is known for its stunning wilderness landscapes; abundant wildlife such as bison, elk, pronghorn, wolves and raptors; geothermal features including geysers, hot springs, fumaroles, travertine terraces and mudpots; and compelling human history.
“The creation of a national park to protect it from development was a remarkably novel idea in 1872, but those of us who love our national parks and are committed to protect them are eternally grateful for the forward thinking members of Congress who advanced what’s been called ‘the best idea we ever had,” said Ryan Hauck, director of Cody Yellowstone, the marketing arm for the region that includes parts of the park as well as the gateway communities of Cody, Meeteetse and Powell.
Hauck is referring to the famous quote by novelist, environmentalist and historian Wallace Stegner, who was known as the “Dean of Western Writers.” Of national parks, Stegner wrote: “National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”
The park’s story, in brief
Archaeological evidence of early inhabitants from more than 11,000 years ago has been discovered throughout the region, and many tribes – including Crow and Sioux – are known to have wandered and lived in the area. Fur traders arrived in the region in the late 1700s to trade with Native Americans. It wasn’t until the 1800s, however, when organized expeditions of explorers began to study the area seriously and systematically.
History gives credit to three particularly successful expeditions for effectively shining the spotlight on the wonders of the region. Members of the 1869 Folsom-Cook-Peterson Expedition observed the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, calling it “this masterpiece of nature’s handiwork.” That expedition updated and promoted an earlier explorer’s map, prompting renewed excitement that participants in the expedition described as a place “…that man had not desecrated.” A year later, members of the Washburn-Langford-Doane Expedition explored a vast area including the Upper Geyser Basin, where they observed and named Old Faithful Geyser. And in 1871, the Hayden Expedition – including several scientists, painters Thomas Moran and Henry W. Elliot and photographer William Henry Jackson – documented and reported their discoveries to scientific communities and to Congress.
Birth of a national park
Inspired by Jackson’s photographs, Moran’s paintings and Elliot’s sketches, Congress passed the “Yellowstone National Park Protection Law,” which was signed on March 1, 1872 by President Ulysses S. Grant.
The eloquently written act states …” the headwaters of the Yellowstone River…is hereby reserved and withdrawn from settlement, occupancy or sale…and dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”
The National Park Service (NPS) would not be established until 1916, and since the U.S. government oddly envisioned that the park could be managed without any funding, the park’s first superintendents were unpaid park promoters such as Nathaniel Langford of the Washburn Expedition. During his five years in office, he entered the park only twice. The second superintendent, Philetus W. Norris, was equally ineffectual in the big picture, although he did manage to lay out road system and developed a park headquarters at Mammoth Hot Springs (where the park headquarters remain today). Norris was ousted in 1882, and three more superintendents followed with similarly tepid results. Meanwhile, poachers, squatters and crooks found increasingly creative ways to pillage the park’s resources. Clearly, the unpaid management idea wasn’t working.
In marches the Army
Still unwilling to commit funding to administer the park, Congress asked the Secretary of the Interior to allow the U.S. Army to manage it beginning in 1886. The Army managed Yellowstone for 30 years.
National Park Service Established
President Woodrow Wilson signed the National Park Service Organic Act on Aug. 25, 1916, creating an organization whose only purpose was to manage national parks. The move was widely lauded. The park’s first superintendent under the new agency was Horace M. Albright, who is credited for laying a strong foundation that positively impacted the park’s management for many years.
Infrastructure, boundaries, neglect and resurgence
Throughout the 1900s, Yellowstone evolved right along with a growing nation, with the park’s fortunes – and misfortunes – often mirroring the evolution of the country. Infrastructure was markedly improved upon the arrival of the Civilian Conservation Corps in 1933. A year later, the National Park Service further upped its commitment to protecting wildlife with a decree prohibiting killing predators. The Historic Sites Act of 1935 added a protective layer for buildings and sites.
Visitation increased year by year. In 1904, only 13,727 visitors entered the park. The park first surpassed 1 million visitors in 1948, and visitation has steadily increased year-to-year with only a few exceptions.
With the approach of the National Park Service’s (NPS) 50th anniversary in 1966, national parks everywhere were suffering from decay and neglect. Emboldened by the important date, NPS in the mid-1950s launched and funded a series of bold infrastructure initiatives, known as Mission 66. In Yellowstone, this push resulted in the creation of Canyon Village, a modern visitor facility with cabins, restaurants and stores surrounding a massive parking lot to accommodate enthusiastic post-World War II road-trippers.
During the latter half of the 20th century, the National Park Service enhanced protection of wildlife, with a new bear management plan in 1970 and the reintroduction of wolves to the park beginning in 1995. Congress also enacted a law permitting a percentage of park entrance fees to be kept by the park rather than redistributed to less visited parks. That new funding source allowed for even further improvements.
Numerous environmental laws added more park protections, including the Wilderness Act of 1964, the National Environmental Policy Act of 1970, the Clean Air Act of 1970, Clean Water Act of 1972 and Endangered Species Act of 1973.
During the first two decades of the 21st century, Yellowstone’s continued evolution has often mirrored national concerns, focus and ever-changing political winds. For example, grizzly bears were removed from the federal threatened species list in 2007 but returned to the list two years later.
Park visitation has steadily increased as well, prompting continued infrastructure projects such as a massive renovation of the Fishing Bridge RV Park to accommodate the increased popularity of RV travel. That project will be completed next year in time for the 150th anniversary. There is also a focus on development of sustainable visitor structures. A terrific example of this approach was the two-year redevelopment of Canyon Lodge and Cabins. Originally developed in the 1950s as part of the Mission 66 initiative, the cabins had become decrepit. Instead of replacing them, NPS in partnership with concessioner Yellowstone National Park Lodges reimagined the facility and built five sustainably produced lodge buildings.
Yellowstone management will certainly continue to respond to the challenges – such as a global pandemic – as the park prepares for its next 150 years.
Home of the Great American Adventure, Cody Yellowstone is comprised of the northwestern Wyoming towns of Cody, Powell and Meeteetse as well as areas inside of Yellowstone National Park and the valley east of the entrance. The region is known for rodeos, authentic guest and dude ranches, world-class museums and recreational adventures that reflect the adventurous spirit of the visionaries and explorers who brought the remote region to the world’s attention.
Mesereau Travel Public Relations