2022 is the 150th birthday of the creation of Yellowstone National Park in 1872. The establishment of the park is something to celebrate globally. It is a shining beacon for conservation as well as public ownership. I don’t think most people appreciate today what a remarkable achievement it was.
In the post-Civil War era, the United States was suffering from enormous debt and had onerous taxation. To revive and expand the national economy, Congress enacted laws like the Homestead Act, Mining Act of 1872, Timber and Stone Act and numerous railroad land giveaways to expand settlement and development in the West.
Under this largely pro-development mindset, Congress did something remarkable. It withdrew the Upper Yellowstone River country from commercial and private development.
We may take for granted protecting wildlife and ecosystems as normal, but in 1872 it was revolutionary thinking.
The act creating Yellowstone explicitly called 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.”
Historically at a time when hunting preserves and large landscapes were owned by royalty or the wealthy elite, Yellowstone was also to be open free to the public (and should be again in my view).
Though the original justification of the park was to protect the “curiosities or wonders” — namely the geological features like hot springs, geysers and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone — it soon became apparent that Yellowstone was also the last haven for wildlife. Yellowstone was the first place where the nation attempted to recover a species on the verge of extinction (i.e. wild bison).
Concern for migrating elk also prompted the creation of the Yellowstone Forest Reserve in 1891 (now Shoshone National Forest) on the eastern flank of Yellowstone.
Congress passed The Lacey Act in 1900 expressly to protect wildlife from illegal hunting and poaching of the last wild bison.
Besides banning the sale or trade of wildlife, the law authorizes the restoration of game and birds in parts of the U.S. where they have become extinct or rare, thus making it a forerunner of the Endangered Species Act.
The 1894 Yellowstone Hunting Act banned hunting in the park — the first large area in the entire country closed to sport and subsistence hunting.
Although at times Yellowstone enacted ill-advised policies, many of these programs were eventually discontinued or modified. For instance, after studies done in Yellowstone showed that predators were ecologically important to the ecosystem health, the killing of predators like coyotes and cougars was halted. Eventually, wolves were restored. After decades of feeding grizzly bears, the practice ceased in the 1970s and the park is now the center of grizzly recovery. The park also discontinued the stocking of non-native fish and now works to restore native fish stocks. Yellowstone was also one of the first places to recognize the ecological importance of large wildfires.
Yellowstone has consistently been at the forefront of the nation and much of the globe in practicing progressive wildlife policies.
Yellowstone is also the first place where the idea of a “greater ecosystem” was proposed and is now commonly discussed. That concept is now the anchor of even more ambitious landscape-scale protection strategies such as the Yukon to Yellowstone and the Yellowstone to Unitas.
Yellowstone, due to its international reputation, has been emulated across the globe. We can be thankful that parks modeled on Yellowstone have been established in well over 100 countries. The fact that we still have mountain gorillas or Siberian tigers is in part due to the international adoption of the national park idea.
Americans can justly be proud of Yellowstone and its national park system. It represents one of the best expressions of humanity where we attempt to put Nature first (and largely succeed), instead of human settlement and exploitation.
It is a place where restraint, humility and responsibility toward other creatures and the land is prioritized. We need more parks like Yellowstone, not fewer.