Yellowstone, the First National Park

In 19th century America the West was seen as a vast treasure trove of logs for logging, fish and game to be hunted, rich land to be settled and farmed, and minerals to be mined for man’s use. The Yellowstone area inspired Americans to create what the Public Broadcasting System called America’s best idea: a national park open to all, where the wilderness would be preserved forever.

Explorer John Colter walked through the Yellowstone area alone in 1807 in search of animals to hunt for furs. Not much more was heard about the area in Washington D.C. until Osborne Russell wrote about it in the 1830’s. More than three more decades would pass before David Folsom, Charles Cook, and William Petersen spent a month exploring the region in 1869. They explored many areas and landforms now familiar to fans of Yellowstone Park including: Yellowstone River, Gardner River, Black Canyon, Tower Falls, Lamar Creek, Sour Creek, Rescue creek, Hayden Valley, Excelsior Geyser, the Great Fountain Geyser and many more. Their journals and descriptions inspired Henry Washburn, Surveyor General of Montana Territory, to launch another expedition the following year. Information from the Washburn Expedition inspired Ferdinand Hayden, head of the U.S. Geological Survey of the Territories, to launch an even more comprehensive expedition in 1871. Photographs, artistry and specimens from that expedition so powerfully affected Congress that America’s best idea became a reality the following year.Perhaps it was the almost impenetrable forests that kept Yellowstone pristine long enough for the best idea to come about, or maybe Europeans were afraid or even superstitious about the strange boiling springs and geysers. Whatever the reason, the area stayed untamed after much of the West was settled.

The lined, now slightly wrinkled, paper and carefully hand-written script on the act setting aside the Yellowstone region for a park might seem almost quaint to us now. It was written by the Forty-Second Congress of the United States and signed by Schuyler Colfax, Vice President of the United States and President of the Senate, James Blaine, Speaker of the House of Representatives, George Gorham, Secretary of the Senate, and Ulysses S. Grant, President of the United States. Quaint as it might seem, the document provided not only millions of acres of land for the enjoyment of millions and a place where the wilderness could still be the wilderness, but it would be the first of many such parks in the United States and around the world.

Now 58 areas bear the title National Park; from California’s Sequoia and Yosemite, set aside in 1890, to the Great Sand Dunes designated in 2004 in New Mexico. The Forty-Second Congress probably never dreamed of Hawaiian Volcanoes National Park, founded in 1916, where 150 miles of trails include volcanoes, rainforest, desert, beaches, and a lava tube, or Glacier Bay in Alaska with its tidewater glaciers and arctic life. We truly have a heritage left to us from those inspired men.

Now countries as far-flung as Costa Rica, with its diverse bird species, Israel with its ancient history and biblical animals, and countries throughout Asia, Europe, South America, the Caribbean, Australia, New Zealand and Fiji have set aside land for careful preservation and enjoyment for generations to come. Yellowstone, the first national park, was truly one of America’s best ideas.

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