The Bozeman Letter: Early Citizen Activism to Save a National Treasure

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 and described as follows, to-wit: Commencing at the junction of Gardiner’s River with the Yellowstone River and running east . . . is hereby reserved and withdrawn from settlement, occupancy, or sale under the laws of the United States, and dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and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.

On March 1, 1872, Yellowstone National Park came into being – a national park, not a private park or reserve; land held by the public, more specifically by their representatives on our behalf, dedicated “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people,” as opposed to private settlement and exploitation. Born of increasing public concern over rapidly deteriorating conditions and disappearing wildlife in Yellowstone, and over time for scores of other lands – also inspiring national treasures – we now have a National Park System which is the envy of the world. Yellowstone was the first.

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Landscape painting of Pulpit Terrace at Mammoth Hot Springs, by Ernst Heyn (1841-1894)

However park status alone did not prevent continuing abuse and vandalism of Yellowstone’s geothermal features and the wanton slaughter of its wildlife. Just a year and nine months after the park’s dedication, seventy citizens of Bozeman, Montana, and one individual from nearby Central Park – many of whom had earlier raised their voices for establishment of the park – signed a historically important petition to the Secretary of the Interior, the “Bozeman Memorial”:

We, the undersigned, respectfully represent that the preservation of the great national Yellowstone Park demands the appointment of a salaried commissioner and assistants, and an appropriation by Congress for the building of roads through and for protecting said park.

We are urged to this request by the vandalism that is rapidly denuding the park of its curiosities, driving off and killing game, and rendering it a disappointment to all those who desire to see this grand domain left in a state of nature. (Bozeman Avant Courier, 12/12/1873)

An over-arching theme of my book, Voices for the Earth, (in manuscript) is the absolute necessity for an alert public – everyday citizens, the citizens at Bozeman – to watch over our protected lands and resources and the quality of our environment. No matter how noble and uncompromising the protective statutory and regulatory language – the operable law – very often it is not enough; there must be a mechanism for enforcement of the law. Advocates must be on the scene ready to expose errant ways and damaging practices. Legislative or regulatory draftsmanship is critical, but without effective enforcement, the words will likely just fill pages of statute books and regulatory promulgations – merely tantalizing promises of what might have been.

As requested by the citizens of Bozeman, the Department of the Interior did appoint a superintendent for Yellowstone, but the results were extremely disappointing. Weak regulations were promulgated, made weaker by generally deficient management, perceived inability to enforce the regulations, and lack of funding on the part of a parsimonious Congress. The struggle between those who wanted the park protected and those seeking unfettered access, privilege, or advantage – in brief, unrestrained economic exploitation and development – continued unabated for another thirteen years.

Lucius Lamar

Secretary of the Interior
Lucius Lamar

In 1886, the Secretary of the Interior, out of funds and left with no effective way to administer Yellowstone, turned the park over to the Secretary of War. On August 17, Captain Moses Harris, commanding fifty men of Company M, First United States Cavalry, road into the park. Pursuant to Special Orders No. 79, Headquarters, Department of Dakota, the cavalry had arrived. Captain Harris assumed the superintendency three days later, and the Army pitched in right away drafting a new and more effective regulatory structure. Finally, forceful and effective administration had come to Yellowstone. And the military carried out this mission faithfully for 32 years until Yellowstone was turned over to the fledging National Park Service in 1918.

I like this early example. Just eighteen months after that noble act of Congress in 1872, concerned citizens were actively engaged in protecting their new park. Having worked hard in the halls of Congress to dedicate Yellowstone, they immediately had to work equally hard to preserve it. It is worth reflecting for a moment on the number of generations who have stepped up to defend the world’s most famous national park. This is no recent phenomenon; citizens protecting our parklands and our environment date back to the earliest formative years. And we stand today on the shoulders of many a valiant citizen campaigner, much as the next generation must stand upon your shoulders and mine.

The Sigg Canister

The environmental lawyer must get out and experience the lands and values he labors to save. Of course, in common with most, I have photographs and partially completed journals, notes in old calendars, and several shelves of maps and hiking and climbing books. And then I have the Sigg Canister. Vintage: mid-’60s; light quality metal; durable. It was actually made to hold fuel for the back country stove I packed in. Somehow, this particular canister never held fuel; rather it attracted many varieties of brandy – a medley of brandies, really – several whiskeys, and the occasional scotch. More specialized fuels. It was bright red – easy to find in the fading light of evening in the mountains.

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The Sigg Canister

For about three-quarters of an hour after dinner – the day having been spent above timberline and on the peaks – sitting by the fire with a full belly from early generation freeze-dried food, and maybe a tin of canned oysters for an hors d’oeuvre, the contents of that canister became the most important piece of backpacking equipment I had. Especially after mellowing a few years. Definitely not the oak barrel quality of the more prestigious wine varietals, but it served its purpose well. And who, after all, was going to pack in an oak barrel? I don’t remember all the stories told during those precious moments after dinner, but I do remember they were excellent stories, adorned with drama or physical triumph, or, on the other hand, an off-color joke or reference – a touch of the bawdy, maybe more than a “touch.” Of course exaggeration was okay. Eventually the fire died down, the cold became more penetrating, and it was time to put out the remaining coals and heed the call of a warm sleeping bag.

After thirty years service, I retired the Sigg Canister to a display case in my home. There are only a few flakes of red enamel left, and it has many dents and a comprehensive number of pock marks. It is still water tight – I should say, brandy tight. But now it no longer emits the wonderful brandy smells; the melody of brandy scents has faded with the passage of time. But, I take it out occasionally and seek them nonetheless. And you know… the melodies play once again, the bouquet is still there—it is!

A Flash of Blue

Gymnorhinus cynocephalus. Pinyon jay: a short-tailed all blue-jay with a long spike-like black bill. A flash of blue – real blue, not the blended, melded, infused blue-green so popular today in our latest outdoor clothing – moving in small groups or flocks through the pinyons and junipers of the high semi-arid plateau and canyon country. They seem in constant conversation calling and chattering to one another.

Several years ago my younger son and I were hiking the backside of the Devil’s Garden loop trail in Arches National Park. It was a clear, bright summer day. The sky was crystalline blue; the red rock formations and the arches all about stood forth boldly. The snow-capped La Sal Mountains – the backdrop of Arches – simmered in the early afternoon sun. We had passed by Landscape Arch, scrambled up to Navajo and Partition Arches, cut across to Double O Arch, then turned to the return loop. We skirted around and negotiated through several striking sandstone fins, stood beneath Private Arch, and then descended to the plateau floor. Now the La Sals were in full view, filling the southern horizon.

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Pinyon Jay (Photo by Harold Stiver)

We heard them first; a small flock on the move, insistently scolding and chattering, bursting from the silence about us. Then they were around us, crossing our path, alighting on snags almost in arm’s reach, demanding to be recognized, but quickly moving on. Then quiet returned. It was as if Arches had shared a special moment with us – even spoken personally to us – through its appointed agents.

The experience of a national park or a wilderness is never just one dimensional – just a scenic backdrop, however impressive that may be. It is exploration, wildlife, and the intangibles of atmosphere, of quiet, of solitude. These values are all the more dear as the press of our crowded lives – the daily grind – in an atmosphere of constant striving, achievement and, hopefully, progress, or what passes for progress, frays our nerves and disturbs our sense of well being.

Wilderness Protection: the Ongoing Struggle

Why do we continue to need a vigorous, well-funded, and widespread force of public interest lawyers advocating on behalf of the environment? Does not everyone, practically, argue for protection of our environment? And, have not environmental lawyers, using a wide range of legislation passed beginning in the 1960s, already achieved notable success?

These questions constantly arise in the public square. They are complicated questions, and they do not yield to simple answers. One blog post cannot begin to address them adequately. Often examples are really the best answers to questions such as these. A glance at the present public land situation in southern Utah speaks volumes.

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Southern Utah Red Rock Country
Photo: Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance

For more than forty years environmentalists have fought constantly for the unique Red Rock Country of southern Utah. Thousands of acres have been protected, and thousands more have been defended. Unquestionably this is an exemplary record, and the lands protected belong to all of us – the citizens of every state – not just Utah. Yet the political opposition in Utah – practically continuous through four decades of struggle – has reached a new intensity. For example –

  • The Utah State Legislature recently passed and the governor signed legislation demanding the United States relinquish 30 million acres of federal land by 2014 so Utah can sell them to developers or lease them to the energy industry.
  • Utah has filed 22 lawsuits in Federal Court seeking control over off-road vehicle routes; in short, the State wants rights to 10,000 miles of primitive unmaintained roads and tracks across federal land.

Protective statutes can determine – or should determine, in present context – the management of public lands, especially those lands protected for their natural values. But the existence of laws does not necessarily mean the enforcement of those laws. Legal recourse is frequently the only option for those seeking to protect the public interest.

Destructive new statutes and regulations are a constant threat, lax enforcement is all too frequent, and existing laws and regulations are always subject to amendment and reinterpretation. Thus citizen environmentalists and their lawyers continue to fight doggedly to protect the public’s interest – to protect treasured lands whose unique and wondrous qualities are the envy of the world. Are these folks needed? You bet they are.