Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the tract of land in the Territories of Montana and Wyoming, lying near the headwaters of the Yellowstone River... is hereby reserved and withdrawn from settlement, occupancy, or sale under the laws of the United States, and dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people...
With these words spoken on May 1, 1872, the United States Congress created what has been called America's best and only truly original idea: the world's first National Park.
Native American peoples have been using the rich resources of the Yellowstone region for more than 11,000 years. Obsidian from the caldera of this supervolcano provided the Apsáalooke (Crow) and Shoshone people with material for speartips, arrowheads, and trade with other tribes. Projectile points made from Yellowstone obsidian have been found as far away as the Mississippi. John Colter, a guide for the Lewis and Clark Expedition of 1804-1806, was ostensibly the first white man to see Yellowstone. In mocking tones, an unbelieving public called it "Colter's Hell." As more and more mountain men ventured into the area and returned to verify Colter's story, public condescension turned into pubic curiousity. Three expeditions were launched between 1869 and 1871. The last of these - the Hayden Geological Survey of 1871 - brought in a veritable army of geologists, botanists, zoologists, meteorologists, ornithologists, mineralogists, photographers, entomologists, statisticians, artists, hunters, and guides, along with an actual military escort. In 1872, the indisputable tract of land called Yellowstone was declared a National Park. Afterwards, Northern Pacific Railway attracted the well-heeled with promises of a real-life "Wonderland."
Though the railway station has long since withered away, along with the decline in the railway as a means of mass public transportation across the continent, the town of Gardiner, Montana still serves as the northern gateway to Yellowstone. Carriages would line up along the station's boardwalk to receive the newly arrived tourists, ferrying them to distant points of scenic beauty and wilderness romance within the vast expanses of the park. In 1903, President Teddy Roosevelt laid the cornerstone of the triumphal arch that the carriages would pass through, like Alice through the rabbit hole, demarcating this preternatural landscape from the ordinary. The Roosevelt Arch, inscribed with those words sacred to democracy - "For the Benefit and Enjoyment of the People" - still beckons travelers today.
|The Roosevelt Arch. |
All photos in this article by Cory Gross.
The United States in the mid-19th century had two conditions that were fertile for the development of the national parks idea. One was wilderness, and the other was an impending threat to the sanctity of that wilderness. Unlike the nations of Europe whose civilizations were measured in millennia, the United States was a new country born in the wilderness of North America. Whereas England, France, Spain, and Germany had monumental Gothic cathedrals, crumbling Roman ruins, and lands long-since carved up by feudal aristocrats, North America had pristine forests, expansive prairies, and towering mountains with the perception that they belonged to no man, Indigenous peoples notwithstanding. Americans like Ralph Waldo Emmerson and Henry David Thoreau began to recognize that just as democracy was essential to the political health of the individual, so was nature essential to their spiritual, emotional, and moral health. To quote Thoreau, from his 1854 memoir Walden:
We need the tonic of wildness... At the same time that we are earnest to explore and learn all things, we require that all things be mysterious and unexplorable, that land and sea be infinitely wild, unsurveyed and unfathomed by us because unfathomable. We can never have enough of nature. We must be refreshed by the sight of inexhaustible vigor, vast and titanic features, the sea-coast with its wrecks, the wilderness with its living and its decaying trees, the thunder-cloud, and the rain which lasts three weeks and produces freshets. We need to witness our own limits transgressed, and some life pasturing freely where we never wander.
As the population of America grew and the line of frontier expansion was declared closed in 1890, the nation's collective attention turned from moving outwards to moving inwards and upwards: settlement, development, industrialization. It became apparent to another generation of conservationists and nature transcendentalists like John Muir that America was quickly in danger of losing its natural heritage to the rapacious exploitation of natural resources. The more threatened wilderness spaces became, the more industrialized and urbanized the nation became, the more apparent the need for nature became and the more desperate the need to take legal action to preserve it. Wrote Muir, in the introduction of his 1901 classic Our National Parks:
Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life. Awakening from the stupefying effects of the vice of over-industry and the deadly apathy of luxury, they are trying as best they can to mix and enrich their own little ongoings with those of Nature, and to get rid of rust and disease. Briskly venturing and roaming, some are washing off sins and cobweb cares of the devil's spinning in all-day storms on mountains; sauntering in rosiny pinewoods or in gentian meadows, brushing through chaparral, bending down and parting sweet, flowery sprays; tracing rivers to their sources, getting in touch with the nerves of Mother Earth; jumping from rock to rock, feeling the life of them, learning the songs of them, panting in whole-souled exercise, and rejoicing in deep, long-drawn breaths of pure wildness. This is fine and natural and full of promise. So also is the growing interest in the care and preservation of forests and wild places in general, and in the half wild parks and gardens of towns.
Thus was born the National Park. A wilderness space preserved as inviolate as possible, as a common trust for the common good of the nation and, indeed, the world. Today there are over 3032 national parks spanning over 100 countries. In the United States alone there are 61. The first was Yellowstone National Park.