Learning How to Manage Yellowstone
and Its Visitors

Although Congress and President Grant possessed the best intentions for Yellowstone when the Yellowstone Park Act was enacted in 1872, little thought was given to the actual management of the large tract of land. Most government officials assumed that the Department of the Interior would be able to manage the park with ease, despite receiving no budget and possessing no instruction about how to preserve a wilderness area. On the contrary, the west’s frontier spirit wreaked havoc on Yellowstone during its early years, and the Department of the Interior was unprepared for the ensuing years of park abuse.

Accustomed to American homesteading policies that allowed pioneers to stake a claim and virtually destroy their land if the urge arose, Yellowstone’s first tourists had anything but preservation on their minds. Greedy poachers slaughtered Yellowstone’s precious elk, deer, and bison, sawing off valuable antlers and ivory teeth while leaving the carcasses to rot under the scorching blue skies. Tourists wealthy enough to travel to Yellowstone in its early years arrived with shovels and axes, ripping apart geysers for ancient pieces of geyserite and travertine while hauling away huge chunks of petrified trees. Other visitors chose to experiment with the power of Yellowstone’s geysers. Logs, clothing, rocks, and a myriad of other natural items and personal belongings were shoved down the geysers in twisted delight of watching the articles spew heavenwards. As tourists skinny-dipped in the park’s hot springs, laundry concessionaires dumped soap into the colorful pools and streams to create a profitable cleaning business.

Despite such travesties, little was done to stop the visitors’ destructive behavior between 1872 and 1877. Congress had appointed Nathaniel Langford to an unpaid park superintendent position when the Yellowstone Park Act was passed. During his employment, however, Langford only visited the park three times and compiled just one report regarding the park’s status. Officials in Washington, D.C. had little idea of the chaos plaguing the park, and almost no thought had been extended to building a road system that would generate profitable tourist dollars. When Philetus W. Norris assumed the park superintendent position in 1877, the pioneering scientist lobbied Congress and finally received a miniscule amount of funding. Funds were used to create the Norris Road, campaign against poachers and vandals, and excavate and ship valuable geological items to the Smithsonian. Although Norris himself maintained a preservation attitude, he found it difficult to foster the same appreciation in Yellowstone’s visitors. Upon Norris’ abandonment of the superintendent position, three other civilians with damaging management philosophies filled the position between 1882 and 1886. Greed and apathy allowed illegal concessionaires to operate throughout the park, and the arrival of the Northern Pacific Railroad at the park’s North Entrance brought more tourists hungry to hack away at Yellowstone’s most valuable resources. By 1886, the situation had become so grim that Congress withdrew funding for the park. The U.S. Military was now the park’s only hope for survival.

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