Preserving Yellowstone

Good morning, it’s March 1, 2018. On this date in 1872, Yellowstone National Park came into existence. The land wasn’t new, of course. Neither was the sense of awe that its many splendors evoked in human visitors. What was new a century-and-a-half ago was the idea that such wondrous places should be preserved by the government in something approaching their natural state for the enjoyment of future generations.

Referring to the great fishing streams in his native Montana, writer Norman Maclean wrote about the river that “runs over rocks from the basement of time.” The Yellowstone River is one of those bodies of water, flowing through a canyon cut by the great glaciers that covered present-day Montana and Wyoming 25 millennia ago.

Much later, perhaps 13,000 years ago, wandering people in search of new lands to settle began crossing the Bering Sea, via a land bridge over a now-submerged continent. They spread out over North and South America, from present-day British Columbia southward all the way to Chile — and eastward toward the other coast. In the last decade, spirited scientific debates have broken out among archaeologists over whether the earliest settlers arrived some other way, perhaps by boat.

The reason is that scientists keep pushing back the timeline of when humans came to the Americas. In the 1920s, near Clovis, New Mexico, the discovery of spear tips from a paleo culture then thought to be 11,000 years old was considered the earliest find. Now we know that “Clovis man” arrived sooner than that, perhaps even before the Bering land bridge and the vast ice sheets below it were rendered hospitable to human migration.

In other words, what are we to make of new evidence that humans in Florida were hunting a New World version of mammoths some 14,500 years ago? I’ll leave that for another day. Instead, I’ll point out that the first known human burial ground was found in 1961 on a Montana ranch about 40 miles northwest of Bozeman.

The people who originally settled in that mountainous country were not into ranching — or agriculture, for that matter. Their descendants, and those from later migrations who were on that land thousands of years later, when recorded history began, would call themselves Shoshones.

The Lewis and Clark expedition passed through their lands; Meriwether Lewis and three others in his party were the first white men the Shoshone people had ever seen — and although they heard volcanic-sounding thunder at regular intervals, the explorers continued on their path to the Pacific Ocean. That noise was a geyser, perhaps the one we call Old Faithful, and its sound stuck in the memory of one member of the Lewis and Clark expedition. His name was John Colter, and he made good on a promise he made to himself: to return to that magical place someday.

Colter was probably the first white man to see Yellowstone’s wonders. His reports were widely disbelieved, however. The hot geysers with their sulfuric smell in a country populated by grizzly bears set among extreme temperatures seemed to flat-landers an apt description of Hades. The region was derisively nicknamed “Colter’s Hell.”

Its inaccessibility and lack of commercial appeal, not to mention the fact that one had to travel through Blackfoot tribal lands to get there, kept Yellowstone isolated. The few who managed to make the journey invariably sent back reports similar to what Colter had described. Writing from what is now called Lamar Valley, future Oregon politician Osborne Russell struggled to find the right words.

“There is something in the wild scenery of this valley which I cannot describe,” he wrote in 1835. “But the impressions made upon my mind while gazing from a high eminence on the surrounding landscape one evening as the sun was gently gliding behind the western mountain and casting its gigantic shadows across the vale were such as time can never efface.”

The approaching Civil War delayed exploration of the area for many years, but when it was finally over, an expedition led by Charles W. Cook and David E. Folsom set out to answer the mysteries once and for all. Like John Colter and Osborne Russell, Cook and his party were nearly overcome with what they saw.

“I sat there in amazement, while my companions came up, and after that, it seemed to me it was five minutes before anyone spoke,” Cook wrote in 1869. “Language is inadequate to convey a just conception of the grandeur and sublimity of this masterpiece of nature’s handiwork.”

Two years later, an expedition led by Ferdinand Hayden mapped out this masterpiece. Hayden was a federal government geologist who had spent the Civil War as a surgeon in the Union Army. He had seen horrors on the battlefield that he knew were hard to imagine for those who hadn’t been there. Conversely, he knew that some wonders of nature seemed to defy description, so Hayden brought with him an artist, Thomas Moran, and a landscape photographer named William Henry Jackson.

Thomas Moran’s paintings and William Jackson’s pictures redeemed John Colter’s reputation as a faithful chronicler, and lent themselves to a powerful cause that had been burbling upwards with the force of a geyser’s underground water supply: make this area a national park. Pushed by Hayden and others, including Nathaniel Pitt Langford, the first Yellowstone superintendent, Congress set aside 2.2 million acres for a national park in Yellowstone, the first such designation in the history of the world.

Waiting for this legislation at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue was President Ulysses S. Grant. As a Civil War general, he had helped preserve the Union. Now, on this date 146 years ago, March 1, 1872, Grant began the process, continued through the decades, of preserving the United States’ version of crown jewels, the natural treasures we call our National Parks.

Carl M. Cannon
Washington Bureau chief, RealClearPolitics
@CarlCannon (Twitter)

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