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 is hereby reserved and withdrawn from settlement, occupancy, or sale under the laws of the United States, and dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and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.
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.
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.