History of the First National Park

History of the First National Park

Today we can enjoy any of the 63 congressionally designated National Parks that are monitored and protected by the National Park Services. These parks exist on federally protected land, designated as such to preserve elements of natural environments specifically for the recreational enjoyment of visitors. As recently as 2020, New River Gorge, located in West Virginia, was the newest addition to the United States National Parks. National Parks are not only important in providing an outdoor recreational environment for humans, they are also for the preservation of the natural landscape and wildlife, on top of the scientific research conducted on the environments and ecosystems. But this was not always the case, and even after the formation of the first National Park, it would take decades to create the National Park Services as we know them today. 

The very first National Park was signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant on March 1st, 1872 - designating Yellowstone National Park as a federally protected area. This is significant for the time, as this was during the industrial revolution era of expansion, the period of Manifest Destiny. The government had the foresight that there should be federal protection of natural wonders. The law forbade any settlement, occupancy, or sale of any land within the park, maintaining the natural landscapes for the enjoyment of the people. But for a country still coming into its own identity, at a time where discovery could only be shared to the masses through printed text, it took the work of many explorers several decades to get to the formation of Yellowstone National Park. 

The first man of European descent to set foot into Yellowstone was a man by the name of John Colter, a member of infamous Lewis and Clark expedition. After his journey with the famed explorers, Colter sought his own adventures, living in the wilderness alone for months at a time. When he stumbled upon Yellowstone in 1807, the descriptions he provided of the geothermic activity and visages were taken as fiction. It was difficult for 'civilized' folk to take the ramblings of the dubious 'mountain man' to heart, and even more difficult for them to imagine the sights he had seen, with nothing they had seen in their lives able to provide a similarity for them to draw against. It wouldn't be until the Washburn Expedition in 1870 that the truth of the unique natural phenomenons would be widely published, and accepted. 

Thomas Moran, The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, 1872

The Washburn Expedition in 1870 returned geological surveys, detailed maps, in-depth descriptions of the geothermal activity, and even paintings of the sights seen by the exploration party. It was this group that would dub the name 'Old Faithful' to the world-famous geyser that draws visitors around the world today. With multiple accredited sources, including several respected media outlets at the time reporting the discovery to the masses at large, more momentum began to build, and with that, interest for visitors to come and see the sights for themselves. It would be members of that expedition petitioning congress to protect this area of land, and President Grant would do just that 2 years later. However, this was not the beginnings of the park as we know today, as the early formation of this park was met with push back from locals and zero federal funding to actually protect the land they designated as theirs. 

Yellowstone would see multiple superintendents in the early years, each of them attempting to build an infrastructure to truly respect and protect the land. As many that lived on the frontier relied on hunting to survive, poachers were a common occurrence in the early years of the park. With no rangers to patrol or even enforce protection, this duty fell upon the Superintendent. With so much land to patrol, it quickly became clear that in order to truly provide a conservation effort to the park, federal funding and regulations would be required. Philetus Norris, the second superintendent, had begun building roads and early structures, as well as hiring staff to assist in preservation. This proved to not be enough either, as the park was still plagued with poachers, squatters, and woodcutters. 

By 1886 Congress no longer wanted to continue sinking money for an administration that was ineffective. Knowing that poachers posed the greatest threat to the park, the US Army was sent in to protect and patrol the park. Utilizing the powers provided to the military at the time, troops were more effectively able to patrol and enforce the rules of the park, notably arresting and evicting several trespassers. While this did provide the security needed, one major component was lacking - knowledge, both of the environment and the natural denizens within. At this point in time, many other National Parks had been established, but each was monitored by a separate administrative body. It wouldn't be until 1916 when President Woodrow Wilson would sign The National Park Service Organic Act, creating the National Park Services as a federal enforcement entity, focused on the conservation and protection of federally marked land. Yellowstone's first park rangers would become responsible for the park in 1918.

In 1932 the park would be expanded, adding more than 7,000 acres under President Hoover. This was for the benefit of the animal populations, giving them more protected areas for grazing and growing, maintaining healthy population levels of the local wildlife in an effort to protect the environment. This is the true reality of what National Parks stand for, and why the Park Ranger's job is so important. Not only is it a protected, natural environment for humans to visit and remember a time where the tallest structures were trees and mountains, it also serves to protect the animals who are displaced from constant human expansion. If we, as a country, were able to understand the necessity and importance of maintaining these types of environments as early as 1872, it stands to reason that the importance grows as time passes. Visiting these parks and paying the fees required for visitation goes a long way to making sure these parks can continue to receive the attention they deserve. But this is just one part of the big picture, as it's also up to each individual to respect the land they step on, so that it can continue to be enjoyed for centuries to come.

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