New History of Wyoming

Chapter 11: Conservation and National Parks

By the middle of the 19th century, some Americans were becoming increasingly concerned that the "wilderness" of the American West might eventually disappear. The seemingly unlimited forests did not even exist in the Great Plains or much of the desert southwest.

During the same years, American writers were turning attention to nature and the environment on a continent where resources were seemingly inexhaustible. Among these writers about environmentalism were two "Easterners"—Henry David Thoreau and George Perkins Marsh. Thoreau’s 1845 experiment with living alone with nature led to his classic work, Walden. Three visits to Maine in the 1840s and 1850s were the subject of his book, The Maine Woods. In these works and others, Thoreau argued that "wildness" was something to be preserved rather than to be plundered for the resources these areas contained.

Marsh’s writing, less lyrical and more "scientific" in tone, was published two decades later. Marsh, a native of Vermont, served three terms in Congress before he was appointed ambassador to Turkey in 1849 by President James K. Polk. During the next four years, he traveled to Greece, Egypt and Palestine, taking particular note of the environmental conditions of the places he visited.  In 1854, he returned to the U. S. and lectured, taught, and promoted the new Republican Party as it was formed just before the 1856 Presidential elections. He worked for Abraham Lincoln’s election in 1860. The first Republican President appointed Marsh to be U. S. ambassador to Italy where he spent the next 21 years until his death.

His classic work was Man and Nature, published in 1864. In the book, Marsh drew from his observations of the environment around the Mediterranean, pointing out that the once lush lands had been turned to deserts by human action over the millennia. He argued that because of human abuse of the forested resources, the impoverished countries continued to suffer from the ecological negligence. He concluded that America needed to assure continued existence of forests if it were to remain a vibrant country.

Railroad construction required substantial amounts of wood for the railroad ties as well as large wooden beams for construction of the numerous trestles. During the latter half of the 19th century, historians have estimated that as much as ¾ of all timber production went toward railroad construction. Combined with housing needs and the clearing of forested lands to make way for plowing, America’s vast forests were starting to disappear. Marsh’s worst fears seemed imminent.

Even before Thoreau and Marsh were writing about wilderness, George Catlin packed his art supplies and took five trips to the West to paint portraits of American Indians. Born in Pennsylvania in 1796 and trained as a lawyer, he went west, beginning in 1829.  He lived among 48 different tribes over the next decade. Unlike most Americans who portrayed Indians as evil, Catlin admired them as "the embodiment of the Enlightenment" and the ideal of "natural man."  In the 1830s and 1840s, he displayed the paintings in the East and in Europe. After a trip to Dakota in 1831, he wrote of his dream: "by some great protecting policy of the government a magnificent park...a nation’s park, containing man and beast, in all wildness and

freshness of their nature’s beauty!"  Catlin’s park would have included much of the American West. All inhabitants—the Native Americans—would need to stay in what Catlin believed would be a "state of nature." The idea gained little support from fellow Americans who were intent on Western expansion.

Already, tourists had discovered the West. Sir William Drummond Stewart, for instance, made two trips with rendezvous trading parties in the 1830s, paying $500 for the first opportunity. On the second trip, he brought artist Alfred Jacob Miller to chronicle the wondrous sights. As Miller’s paintings and the reports of earlier travelers swept east, more people became curious about what the West was like.

Meanwhile, the buffalo that had numbered between 100 and 500 million before 1800 on the Great Plains, were being hunted almost to extinction. As late as the 1850s, mountainman Jim Baker reported seeing so many buffalo that it appeared to be a "sea of brown" near Savery, Wyoming, in 1858. 

During the next two decades, railroad workers were fed from buffalo slaughtered by hired hunters like William F. Cody. The Iowa-born hunter gained his nickname of "Buffalo Bill" when he out-shot fellow buffalo hunters working for the Kansas Pacific Railroad in the early 1870s. He held a record of 250 bison killed in one day and more than 120 killed in a brief period of 45 minutes. Plains Indians, dependent on bison for their existence, saw the demise and recognized the loss would bring an end to their culture. Visiting European hunters added to the bison demise.  Examples include Sir George Gore, a wealthy British noblemen, who hunted in the west from 1854 to 1856. During the winter of 1855-56, while hunting along the Tongue River in what is now northern Wyoming, Gore’s party killed  6,000 bison, 1,600 elk and deer, and 105 grizzly bears.  Other similar expeditions caused the first territorial legislature in Wyoming in 1869 to pass a game law with bag limits on wildlife and established hunting seasons. Much of the damage, however, was already done.  British "rancher" Moreton Frewen reported in the late 1870s seeing a lone buffalo wander past his ranch home in the Powder River country. After bemoaning the fact that buffalo were fast disappearing from the plains, Frewen writes that he immediately grabbed his rifle, ran out to his porch, and shot the animal dead!

As settlement encroached on more and more of the wilderness West, travelers discovered places unique in the world. Some historians assert that these areas were economically "useless" and, therefore, had not other value except to remain as tourist curiosities. Certainly, railroad officials recognized the tourist value of places like Yellowstone.

A series of military expeditions mapped out the Yellowstone area and further described what John Colter initially encountered in 1808.  Mountainman Osborne Russell kept a journal of his Yellowstone travels. Capt. W. F. Raynolds submitted a report to Congress about it after his 1868 expedition. (In the same year, however, the first homestead entry in Yellowstone was filed). Expeditions led by Folsom, Henry and Washburn followed.

 The most famous of the expeditions, made under the direction of the U. S. Geological Survey, was led by Ferdinand Hayden. Charged with surveying and mapping the mountainous areas of the Rockies, Hayden took with his expedition two men who would help popularize the West—photographer William Henry Jackson and artist Thomas Moran.  In the summer of 1871, Jackson and Moran photographed and painted scenes of Yellowstone.  (It was common in those days for expeditions to have both a photographer and an artist. In the days before color photography, the artist would provide the color details while the photographer would capture the scene on fragile glass-plate negatives taken with a bulky camera).

Meanwhile, the Northern Pacific Railroad officials found themselves in a difficult spot. The first transcontinental railroad (the Union Pacific-Central Pacific line) had been completed in May, 1869. Their road, built across northern Dakota and into Montana had a long way to go to completion. What freight and passengers they could haul on the uncompleted portion of the road was dependent on continued growth of Montana’s mineral industry. Some railroad officials thought something needed to be done to augment those numbers. Was there a "tourist destination" from which the railroad might profit?  Certainly, upper-class Americans who took train journeys had a curiosity about the West and the "wilderness."

In the summer of 1871, Nathaniel Langford, and others employed by the Northern Pacific Railroad, concluded that the landscape of Yellowstone was too unique not to be set aside as a park. While the railroad could gain passenger business by hauling tourists close to the park, the company did not have the ability to purchase or manage such a huge "park."  Only the federal government had the ability to preserve the park in its natural state. Private companies, such as the railroad, could provide hotels and lodges for visitors who expected comfortable accommodations when they came to view the park’s wonders. Actually, the railroad could provide both the transportation and the lodging—if the federal government could preserve the park.  That fall, Langford led a team of lobbyists to Washington to lobby Congress to preserve this unique national treasure.

Meanwhile, Jackson’s photographs and Moran’s paintings were presented to Congress in the fall of 1871. They were compelling visual proof of Yellowstone’s unique wonders.  Just seven months after the photos and paintings had circulated through the capitol, Congress set aside Yellowstone as the nation’s (and world’s) first national park. The artwork contributed to this rapid decision. Moran’s "Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone" showed the spectacular colors of the canyon.  Almost a year after his trip and a few months after Yellowstone was established, Moran’s painting was purchased by Congress and displayed in the U. S. Capitol.

In its early years, Yellowstone National Park required protection. Any number of tourists coming to the unique spots in the park were tempted into vandalism or abuse of the natural beauty. Some chipped pieces off of the hot springs formations while others "soaped" the geysers. Wild game was under threat from poachers. Consequently, the U. S. Army was sent into the park to provide protection of the resources. The army established its headquarters at what is now Mammoth Hot Springs and built a fort there that was named Fort Yellowstone. (Buildings from the original fort still survive).

One could only envy the frontier soldier who was stationed in the park, doing military service in the form of protecting the park’s resources at a time when his fellow troopers were still posted at crudely furnished forts and doing battle with

Indians on a regular basis. While soldiers could protect the animals from poachers and many of the natural wonders from vandalism, they were not equipped to deal with the myriad issues of managing a national park. Nonetheless, itt wasn’t until 1916 that the army’s park duties were turned over to another agency—the newly created National Park Service.

Marsh’s writings on protection of forests gained considerable interest in America in the 1870s. In Europe, the first college courses in forestry were initiated.  One young American, Gifford Pinchot, graduated from Yale and then entered the newly created forestry program at a French university. When he returned, he took a job with the Vanderbilt family, working in their "private forest" at their North Carolina estate. Elsewhere in the country, others were pondering the role of the federal government in protecting the nation’s forests.

In 1891, Congress authorized setting aside federally-owned lands as national forests. The first of these, the Yellowstone Timberland Reserve (now Shoshone National Forest), was created later that year. Pinchot soon went to work for the federal agency in charge of overseeing the forests. As time passed, he became the agency’s director and through his influence, the bureau was renamed the U. S. Forest Service. Eventually, it was moved from the Department of the Interior to under the direction of the U. S. Department of Agriculture. Pinchot’s beliefs were shared by his eventual boss, President Theodore Roosevelt who continued to add vast tracts of forest land to the National Forest system.

Roosevelt, Congress, Pinchot (and the Forest Service) did not intend to "preserve" the national forests—keep them in their "wilderness" condition as the national parks were being kept. "Conservation" was the key word when it came to the national forests.  The forests would be used "for the greatest good, for the largest number of people, for the longest period of time."  Forests, in essence, were to be treated like crops. In national parks, a tree falls and it remains there, to rot away.  In the national forests, however, trees may be harvested—cut and turned into lumber, while new seedlings are planted in the place of the larger harvested trees.

While the goal for national parks is "preservation"—keeping them natural for all time, the goal for national forests is "conservation"—treating the trees as just another crop. The crop needs to be planted, tended, and harvested. The land must not be despoiled, but neither is it left in its natural state.  To best accomplish this goal, scientific principles, much like those being taught in the newly developing forestry schools, needed to be practiced. "Conservationists" admired scientific learning about how best to treat the natural resources.

John Muir was the best known proponent of "preservation" during the period. He once grazed sheep in what became Yosemite National Park in California, but as years past, he became convinced that the only way to preserve wilderness areas for future generations was to deny all use of resources within their boundaries. He did not agree with the "greatest good" philosophy, pointing instead to how important it was to keep the dwindling tracts of unspoiled lands in the United States in their "natural wilderness" state, free from human interference.

 "Conservationists" like Pinchot might have agreed to the extent that Muir’s view was far preferable to the "rip, ruin and run" promoters so prevalent in the West during the 19th century. Both "preservationists" and "conservationists" saw that America’s resources were not infinite and controls had to be placed on indiscriminate logging, town-building, and development. Where these two groups differed, however, was in the treatment of natural resources, conservationists seeing them as "renewable" and preservationists concerned with maintaining "the natural state."  The varying goals between conservationists (Pinchot) and preservationists (Muir) would split the environmental movement in the early 20th century.  The case of  the Hetch-Hetchy valley in California’s Yosemite National Park and the expansion of Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming later in the century would further expose the breeches between conservation and preservation.

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