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Established in 1872, Yellowstone National Park is now known as the world’s first national park. The park’s boundaries were set in the northwest corner of Wyoming and narrow portions of southeast Idaho as well as south-central Montana. Famous for spectacular scenerythe Rocky Mountains, explosive active geysers, crystal clear rivers and springs, still-abundant buffalo, elk, eagles, and other wildlife-the mention of Yellowstone invokes an image of pristine nature, unspoiled by humans. However, Native Americans occupied the area as long as 11,000 years ago.
Some of the first European explorers, including members of the Lewis and Clark expeditions in the early 1800s, encountered Native Americans-called the Shoshone-in the area now known as Yellowstone. A member of their expedition, John Colter, remained in the region and documented his winter journey in the mountains. During the first half of the 1800s, aside from the Lewis and Clark expeditions, the territory remained largely unexplored by anyone other than fur traders and Native Americans.
By the 1850s, a few missionaries had begun to explore the area and made detailed records of what they saw; at that time politicians in the east were still in disbelief about the descriptions they had heard of the Yellowstone region. Military excursions into the region were rare, but not unheard of, and no systematic efforts had been made to validate the claims of those who had seen the area. Gold strikes in Idaho in the 1860s brought prospectors and engineers deep into the area.
Finally, a series of formal explorations of the Yellowstone region took place (the Folsom, Washburn, Hayden, and Barlow parties consecutively from 1869 to 1871) supported by the U.S. government, private donors, and the Northern Pacific railway. Explorers, soldiers, and skilled technicians of all kinds-cartographers, zoologists, botanists, artists, and photographers-were sent out to map, record, and photograph the entire region that had been described by early adventurers and missionaries. Even the U.S. Geological Service sent explorers to document the Yellowstone region for its mining potential-as of this time, lawmakers in the east thought of the vast open spaces of the west as resources that could be used for economic advancement of the country.
By the time of the Hadyen and Barlow parties of 1871, photographs and records of the region had stimulated the interest of scientists from the Smithsonian Institution and other prestigious organizations. The country’s leaders had become aware of the wonders of the area, then referred to as Great Geyser Basin, and had intended to build a railroad into the region. Ironically, it was an employee of Northern Pacific Railroad, Jay Cooke, who promoted the idea of setting aside a reservation or a park for the enjoyment of the public and for its aesthetic and geologic value. In 1872 the U.S. Congress established Yellowstone as the first national park of the country and of the world, setting precedent for human perceptions of nature as wild and uninhabited places.
Unfortunately, the area was not uninhabited, and with the creation of Yellowstone, Native American tribes such as the Shoshone, Blackfoot, and Crow were forcibly evicted from the area or killed. Today, Native Americans who have cultural ties with the park (as with other U.S. national parks) may utilize the park’s resources for traditional practices through agreements with Yellowstone Park and the National Park Service Ethnography Program and as protected by the National Historic Preservation Act and the Native American Free Exercise of Religion Act.
Other current issues affecting the park include a variety of scientific and recreational problems, such as fire management, reintroduction of the wolf, and banning of snowmobiles and other motorized vehicles. In 1988, half of Yellowstone National Park was burned by wildfires. Ecologists who criticize the Park Service’s forest suppression policies have noted that fires are a natural part of ecosystems and should be allowed to burn naturally because they help regenerate plant life and clear natural fire hazards. The 1988 fires led park managers to reevaluate their fire management policies and some “let burn” policies have been implemented.
Beginning in 1995 wildlife conservationists reintroduced gray wolves into the area known as the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem (GYE), which extends beyond the boundaries of the national park. A great deal of controversy preceded the release of the wolves because people feared they would damage livestock or even pose a danger to humans. Objectives of the wolf reintroduction were to “restore natural ecological processes” and reduce prey, as well as help control populations of elk and moose that had grown to exceed the capacity of the land to support them. Although access to park areas has traditionally restricted snowmobiles, recent policies-mandated by Congress-have allowed snowmobiles into some areas of the park. Many national and local environmental organizations, such as the Sierra Club and the Greater Yellowstone Coalition, have continued to fight those policies.
- American Park Network, “Yellowstone: History,” www.americanparknetwork.com (cited May 2006);
- Colchester, “Salvaging Nature: Indigenous Peoples and Protected Areas,” in K.B. Ghimire and M.P. Pimbert, eds., Social Change and Conservation (Earthscan Publications Limited, 1997);
- L. Haines, Yellowstone National Park: Its Exploration and Establishment (National Park Service, 1974);
- K. Meffe and C.R. Carroll, Principles of Conservation Biology (Sinauer Associates, 1994);
- W. Smith, R.O. Peterson, and D.B. Houston, “Yellowstone After Wolves,” BioScience (v.53, 2002);
- Smith, “The Contested Landscape of Early Yellowstone,” Journal of Cultural Geography (v.22, 2004).