Celebrating Yellowstone National Park: Episode II

Between the fur trade and prospecting eras is a brief period of missionary and military exploration which advanced the general knowledge of the Yellowstone region. maps and writings these explorers became the means of preserving important residual and accurate geographical information amassed by the men of the fur trade. Jim Bridger provided most of the information set on paper. The Bridger map is essentially a hydrographic sketch of amazing accuracy.  

The Park’s Early Years

The park’s promoters envisioned Yellowstone National Park would exist at no expense to the government. Superintendents received little or no compensation, little help, and often succumbed to politics. Although they were able to build roads, trails, and struc­tures, they failed to stop the destruction of wildlife. Poachers, squatters, woodcutters, and vandals ravaged Yellowstone.

The Army Arrives

On August 20, 1886, the U.S. Army took charge of the administration and protection of Yellowstone. The Army strengthened and enforced regulations, guarded major attractions, and patrolled the vast interior of the park. However, running a park was not the Army’s usual line of work. The troops could protect the park and ensure access, but they could not fully satisfy the visitor’s desire for knowledge. Moreover, each of the 14 other national parks established during this period was separately administered, resulting in uneven management, inefficiency, and a lack of direction.

The National Park Service Begins

In 1916, Congress passed the National Park Service Organic Act, creating the National Park Service. Yellowstone’s first rangers, which included veterans of Army service in the park, became responsible for Yellowstone in 1918. The park’s first superintendent under the new National Park Service was Horace M. Albright, who established a framework of management that guided the administration of Yellowstone for decades.

The Legacy of Yellowstone

The years have shown that the legacy of those who worked to establish Yellowstone
National Park in 1872 was far greater than simply preserving a unique landscape. This one act has led to a lasting concept—the national park idea. This idea conceived wilder­ness to be the inheritance of all people, who gain more from an experience in nature than from private exploitation of the land. Scores of nations have preserved areas of natural beauty and historical worth so that all people will have the opportunity to reflect on their natural and cultural heritage and to return to nature and be spiritually reborn. Of all the benefits resulting from the establishment of Yellowstone National Park, this may be the greatest.

Courtesy of http://www.yellowstonenationalpark.org/blog/yellowstone-history/

About our Wyoming historian and narrative from Jeremy Johnston:

Growing up in Wyoming

Jeremy M. Johnston was born in Powell, Wyoming. He was fortunate to be raised near his paternal and maternal grandparents, as well as two great-grandmothers who resided in Cody, Wyoming, and a great-grandfather who lived in Arizona. Johnston’s maternal grandparents, the Bevers, homesteaded on the Garland Division of the Shoshone Irrigation district in 1913. His paternal grandparents, the Johnston and Spaulding families, settled near Cody, Wyoming, in the late 1890s. His great-great-grandfather was John B. Goff, a hunting guide for Theodore Roosevelt in Colorado who later managed Buffalo Bill’s Wapiti stage stop located on the Cody to Yellowstone road. As a young boy, Johnston listened to numerous stories about his family’s past experiences and began to see how their past experiences tied him to Wyoming and how the history of the region shaped current sociopolitical issues and the culture of the State of Wyoming. This experience led him to become a professional historian.

For More Information

Indians of Yellowstone Park, revised edition, 2002. Joel C. Janetski
Journal of a Trapper, 1997. Osborne Russell
Myth and History in the Creation of Yellowstone National Park, 2003. Paul Schullery and Lee H. Whittlesey
Restoring a Presence: American Indians in Yellowstone National Park, 2004. Peter Nabokov and Larry Loendorf
Yellowstone Resources & Issues, (annual). Yellowstone National Park staff
The Yellowstone Story, 2 vols., 1996. Aubrey L. Haines


This post incorporates text from:

Yellowstone – A Brief History of the Park, 2006 www.nps.gov/yell/planyourvisit/upload/Yell257.pdf

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Emy Romero (00:01):

Welcome to Winds of Change. I am your host, Emy DiGrappa. Winds of Change is centered on the people, places, history, and stories of Wyoming. We talk about identity, community, land, and the winds of change, and what it means to thrive in our state. How does someone identify with wide open spaces and big personalities in small towns? Listen to folks from across our state share their connection to Wyoming and home, brought to you by Wyoming Humanities.


Hi, everyone.

Jeremy Johnston (00:53):


Chloe FLagg (00:54):

Hi, Emy.

Lucas Fralick (00:55):


Emy Romero (00:55):

We're going to continue our conversation about Yellowstone. We had our celebration, and we're having our celebration of 150 years of Yellowstone National Park being the first-ever national park in our US history. That's exciting. I don't even know if that's a world record, but it's definitely a national record. But Jeremy will probably fill us in later.


Last time, just to recap, we talked about Wy. How was Yellowstone formed? How did it become a national park? And just the politics behind that. But now, in this episode... I don't know if we want to call it Crisis in our National Parks. But when I think about where we are right now, in our national parks... And I don't want to blame everything on COVID, but it feels like that: that we had this huge, huge surge of visitation, not just in Yellowstone, which has reached its highest records than ever. But also, as I've been doing a little bit of research, the other thing that has made national parks, national monuments, and tourism places like that is social media. They have said in different articles that I've read that people go to different spots. They do all these selfies. They post them on Instagram or Facebook or TikTok, and, all of a sudden, this place becomes really popular. Have you seen that in your social media channels, Lucas and Chloe?

Chloe FLagg (02:28):

Absolutely. It's definitely a thing. I mean, it might be an American thing to do. But it's happening all over the world. Greece has very similar tourism issues, if you will, that we do with regard to that exact kind of thing you're talking about, Emy. Yeah. Absolutely. I see it all the time.

Lucas Fralick (02:53):

Yeah. I have not much to add there. I'd say that, in some ways, it almost takes away from the actual experience, just being there, in a lot of ways, if that makes sense. I hate to be that guy in the group that's like, "Put away your phones," fist in the air, leans back in the rocking chair type thing. I think it does seem to take away from stuff.

Emy Romero (03:19):

I was thinking also not just the selfies and social media, even though it has contributed to people flocking to different places that maybe they would have never known about before, but also the fact that our love for nature, our wanting to be outside. That's where I think is the COVID comment that I made earlier; is that people just wanted to get out of the city. They wanted to get away. They were just escaping the whole mandates that were happening in the city and just wanting to drive and be outside and be out in the open air.

Chloe FLagg (03:58):

Absolutely, Emy. No, I absolutely agree. I mean, I even experienced that right in our beautiful community of Laramie. I absolutely wanted to be outside all day, every day during that time. Had I had any opportunity to travel, I would've definitely been interested in going to a place like Yellowstone, especially if I'd never been. Absolutely. Yeah. Tourism was huge, especially... What do they call it now? Eco-tourism: where you're going for nature specifically.

Emy Romero (04:39):

Well, not just that, but I think what's also very popular is how people are treating the national parks. I think sustainable tourism is becoming a thing. I think sustainable marketing is becoming a real thing. As I was reading this article that said, "By the time Yellowstone centennial in 1972, the grizzly bears were just getting out of the dumps, literally. They were hunted down outside the park and hooked on garbage, to the joy of bear crazed-tourists. The region's grizzly population hit a nadir of 136 animals in 1975, shortly after the Endangered Species Act was signed into law, charting a policy path for conservation." This is like where we're going to flip and talk with Jeremy about after Yellowstone became a national park. Then, what happened?

Jeremy Johnston (05:33):

Yeah, and that's a great question, Emy. I think a lot of people assume that in 1872 when Yellowstone was set aside as a national park, it was this magical event, and this corner of northwest Wyoming was preserved for future generations. Actually, Yellowstone... Its history really demonstrates a long ongoing struggle between humans and the environment and how the two interact with one another.


When Yellowstone was set aside in 1872, the concept of a national park was really new across the world. This was a whole new concept. People had a lot of different ideas of how to benefit from the environment there. One thing I have to say is, when it was set aside, the Northern Pacific Railroad was eager to get in there and develop resorts, establish a monopoly for their railroad customers that wanted to get in there and escape the cities and enjoy nature.


However, 1873, there was a financial panic, and the railroad construction was halted. The only people that came into Yellowstone were basically local tourists, people from Montana, Wyoming. They had the whole part to themselves. But there was no one there to really enforce any rules or regulations. You could catch as many fish as you wanted. You could shoot any animal you wanted. You could carve your name into the hot springs. If you wanted to do your laundry in Old Faithful geyser, you could do that. You could walk up to the geyser cone and throw all your dirty handkerchiefs and clothing in there. Whatever else you wanted to see shoot up in the air, just dump it in there.


On top of that, they were leaving their campfires burning. Forest fires were really prevalent this point in time because of uncared-for fire pits. The park was really being damaged by these early visitors. Then, the market hunters moved in as well. I mean, this was one of the last few places in the American West where there was still a pretty significant wildlife population. People came in here to harvest elk, deer, other big game animals to sell in the butcher shops and some of the mining communities that we're developing in Montana. People wanted bison heads, elk teeth. All these market hunters were making quite a profit off of killing the wildlife in Yellowstone.


In fact, our last podcast, I mentioned one group of brothers, just in one season alone, killed over 2000 animals within the Yellowstone ecosystem. That was just one group of hunters. The wildlife populations were significantly reduced. In fact, it was estimated, by the turn of the century, there was probably only around 50 to 25 bison that still resided within the park boundaries.


It took a while for people to realize we needed to protect this area. One of the first to really strongly advocated protecting the wildlife was the naturalist George Bird Grinnell. He came in on a government expedition in 1875 and noticed all this destruction and wrote about it and advocated for greater protection of our national park. He steadily worked on this with other people. In fact, in 1880s, he partnered with another naturalist and politician by the name of Theodore Roosevelt. They set up the Boone and Crockett Club. The Boone and Crockett Club became one of the first environmental groups to advocate for the protection of Yellowstone's wildlife. Not only did they advocate for protection of the park wildlife. They also stopped railroad development because you got to keep in mind, 1883, the Northern Pacific Railroad was created, and concessions were coming in. The railroad was trying to establish Monopoly and George Bird Grinnell and his lobbyists put an end to that.


In fact, there was one attempt to create a railroad that would go through the Lamar Valley to the mines of Cooke City. This was going to be an electric railroad powered by a generator that was going to be established at the brink of the lower falls of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. If you imagine viewing it today and seeing a generator on the top there, it would be a very different experience than we enjoy today. When that was defeated, actually the railroad lobbyists tried to cut down the boundaries of Yellowstone National Park, which the Boone and Crockett Club stopped as well.


One thing that was also done at this time, because federal government wasn't setting aside any money to enforce rules or regulations or have a ranger patrol within the park, was in 1886, it was transferred over to the war department and the military was overseeing the protection of Yellowstone National Park. Our army was really the first effective ranger force. But this was out of their professional training. They had no idea how to interact with tourists. They were challenged because the nearest court to send people who did violate rules and regulations in the National Park was Evanston, Wyoming.

Emy Romero (11:03):

Oh my god.

Jeremy Johnston (11:05):

You imagine hauling people down there to face any charges? A lot of people realize this was a challenge. Even though hunting had been banned in the park in 1881 after firearms were prohibited, basically, poachers tale kept coming into the park and killing off the wildlife. The Boone and Crockett Club... One of the things they successfully accomplished was establishing a judicial system within the park that made it possible to punish not only poachers but also infractions from tourists that were coming in, carving their names into geothermal features or chipping off souvenirs from the geyser formations to take home with them.


But anyway, the military continued protecting the park from 1886 until 1915/1916, when the National Park Service started to take over. The National Park Service was a big transition, too, in how the park was managed. You got to keep in mind, being a government agency, one of their greatest concerns was federal funding. Horace Albright and Stephen Mather, the heads of the National Park Service, did their best to bring in more and more tourism. They started a campaign that was See America First. Come see the national parks before you go visit Europe or other places of the world. They did a tremendous job in promoting tourism within Yellowstone National Park, which steadily, through the 20th century, just increased our visitation numbers.


The other thing the military did is, before they left, they allowed automobiles in Yellowstone National Park. This is at the time more and more Americans had access to the Model T through Henry Ford's factories. They could travel all over the United States and through the American West, and Yellowstone became a primary destination.


We go from just having a few thousand visitors at the beginning of the 20th century to having, at this point in time, four million people visiting Yellowstone National Park in one season, which has led to even greater challenges. How do we interact with the wildlife? How do we preserve the natural features of Yellowstone National Park while, at the same time, maintaining this great influx of visitors coming in and forcing how they behave, how they interact with the natural resources? This has been quite an evolution here. Really, how Americans behave, play, enjoy national parks has shifted greatly throughout the 20th century and will likely continue to shift into the 21st century.

Emy Romero (13:48):

Not to take anything away from Yellowstone because it is grand and beautiful, and I've been through it several times, but what are your favorite places besides Yellowstone? Do you have a favorite national park? Do you have a favorite place that you go visit?

Jeremy Johnston (14:06):

Wow. Devils Tower ranks right up there for me. I think it's a very special site, not only for a scenic wonder but just it's unique history, especially when you think about the indigenous cultures and how significant that site is to them, its religious significance. It's really quite overwhelming to think for thousands of generations that place has been a destination for many people.

Lucas Fralick (14:36):

Along that line, I was wondering as you were talking about all the visitors showing up to Yellowstone... And I'm sure this applies to all national parks and most national monuments, that the idea that the contradiction between having a lot of visitors, which bring awareness to its pristine-ness and its reasoning for keeping it that way. But at the same time, you have millions of people going through there every year. How well that can be maintained... I don't know if that's so much of a question. It's more of a statement that seeming contradiction, the maintenance of those things of that, keeping it pristine has to only get more challenging.

Jeremy Johnston (15:17):

Yeah, that's a great point, Lucas, because I think one thing visitors are not aware of is when they go through Yellowstone, they may just be driving through. But yet, they're still having a significant impact on that ecosystem just by stopping to eat lunch, throwing their trash into a garbage can, using the restrooms. I recall when I was teaching an elder hostel class, and we would take them through Yellowstone National Park. One thing I asked my students to do was keep track of the amount of waste they were generating when they were going through the park.


One individual... He was an engineer, so he loved this task. One thing he did is he sat down. It was at a picnic table. He was clipping his fingernails. He was looking at his fingernail clippings. At this time, there was about 2 million visitors coming through the Yellowstone Park area. 2.5 million visitors somewhere in there. He determined that if everybody... 2.5 million visitors going through. If every one of them clipped their fingernails, it would probably generate about two truck-fulls of fingernail clippings that were left behind, which is gross to consider. Again, you think you're having a minor impact there. But when you multiply your impact by four million people, that's very significant. That's significant. It's a challenge for the National Park Service to not only provide services but waste management, law enforcement. It's an ongoing challenge. I think as time goes by and the parks become even more popular, we're going to have to address... How do we handle this extra demand?

Emy Romero (17:04):

Thanks for painting that gross picture in my head.

Jeremy Johnston (17:10):

From wildlife to fingernail clipping.

Emy Romero (17:11):

I know-

Jeremy Johnston (17:12):

[inaudible 00:17:12] podcast.

Emy Romero (17:13):

...just thinking about two truckloads of fingernail clippings was just... I can't eat lunch now. Well, I was thinking about favorite places. I'm glad you said Devils Tower because that is a phenomenal place. I love Devils Tower.

Lucas Fralick (17:31):

Fun fact: every summer you go to Devils Tower and do one of the longer hikes, you're almost guaranteed to see a red-headed woodpecker.

Emy Romero (17:41):

Oh! Thank you, Lucas. I'll look for those red-headed woodpeckers. But I was thinking. I know that Yellowstone is, a lot of times, people's destination, and it's their favorite place. But my favorite place is Grand Teton National Park. I know a lot you go through Grand Teton... at least from this side. You go through Grand Teton to get to Yellowstone.


I always tell people, "I love Yellowstone. It's so historic. But I love Grand Teton more. I love the Tetons. I never get tired of looking at them." It's interesting because we have family and friends and just relatives always calling and saying, "Oh, we're going to make a trip to Yellowstone. We want to stop by." I say, "Have you ever heard of Grand Teton National Park?" They're like, "No." I'm like, "Oh my gosh! You've never heard of the Tetons." It's funny what your focus is.

Chloe FLagg (18:37):

That's so interesting you say that, Emy, because I totally agree. First of all, I love Grand Teton National. I love it. I love it. But I think a lot of people don't realize or recognize that it's different because it's on your way. It's like you think you're already there. You think you're already in Yellowstone. But it's not. It's its own thing. It's totally different in so many ways. That's a good one, Emy.

Jeremy Johnston (19:05):

Emmy. It is fascinating because I think we get so fixated on national parks and national monuments here in Wyoming, as do a lot of our out-of-state guests. But you consider the other scenic areas such as Shoshone National Forest and my area here. It always strikes me. It just seems like when a lot of visitors... They get to the park boundary, the east entrance there, and they enter the national forest. They think the experience changes. They speed up. They're trying to get out of there as quickly as possible. I'll never forget one time, just right outside on just Shoshone National Forest lands... There was a grizzly bear. I stopped, and I was watching this grizzly bear. If that happened in Yellowstone National Park, there would've been a bear jam of hundreds of vehicles piling up looking to see this bear.


I was afraid I was going to get ran over by the cars who were driving 70 miles an hour trying to reach Cody. I'm sure many of them got to Cody. They were complaining they never did see a grizzly bear in the park. But there it is, right there on Shoshone National Forest lands. This great opportunity to see this wonderful wildlife that they just fly by because they don't really connect national forests to the same level of experience as they did in Yellowstone National Park. We're fortunate in Wyoming. We have a lot of scenic areas, different federal classifications and state classifications, and even private lands. It's interesting. When they do get that national park label, we tend to treat them very differently.

Lucas Fralick (20:52):

That's a really good point because in my youth I often rode horses on BLM land, Bureau of Land Management stuff. I mean, those are never tread upon that much. You're totally right. Off-the-beaten-path stuff. It's just as impressive with less people. It's nice. We're giving away the secret sauce of Wyoming a little bit here. But it's one of the great things. You're totally right.

Emy Romero (21:23):

Yeah, that's true. Well, the next episode that we're going to have is going to be from the Native American perspective because of all the Native Americans that were displaced when they made Yellowstone a national park. That's going to be a really interesting conversation. I hope you look forward to that. We'll talk again soon. Stay tuned for our Wyoming conversations that follow this. Thank you.


Keep listening as we hear from our historian on this episode of Winds of Change, Jeremy Johnston, as he talks about growing up in Powell, Wyoming, born and raised, and his work as a historian in Cody at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. The East Gate of Yellowstone National Park lies about an hour west of Cody. It is quoted that Buffalo Bill and Teddy Roosevelt called this road to Yellowstone the most beautiful 50 miles in America, with stunning canyon and rear views and plenty of wildlife.

Jeremy Johnston (22:33):

I am Jeremy Johnston, Wyoming history from Park County, Wyoming. I was born in Powell, Wyoming. I was very fortunate to grow up next door to all my grandparents, so my maternal and paternal grandparents. There were two great-grandmothers who resided in Cody that I was close to. Growing up in Wyoming, I was exposed to not only the history of the state but my own heritage over and over again, which, for me, developed a very strong sense of place to this state as well as driving home the relevancy of the past.


Again, with the exposure to my grandparents and my great-grandparents, it really, really developed a strong connection to the past. Just listening about their experiences really drove home to me how this place shapes individuals, how it shapes families, and how it shapes cultures and society. I was naturally drawn to the field of history just because I'd grown up with all these stories and decided to become a professional historian, which gave me a very different perspective of the past.


I consider my role as historian to be very important to the community. I'm always presenting lectures related to Wyoming's past. I've praised a lot of speakers to come to various community events to share their experiences, their research, their views of the past. But I just considered it very important to demonstrate to the community the relevancy of the past and how complex studying history truly is. Just to get them thinking about what shapes who we are today. Because if we don't understand how we got to the present day and those forces that are shaping our culture/our society, we'll never be able to plan for the future.


Think, first and foremost, we need to accept that we have been writing a wave of change that has been going on for hundreds of years. That wave is really driven by the outside demand for Wyoming's natural resources. You go back to the Plains Indian cultures who... When they were reintroduced to the horse and found out that they could make their life better by coming out to places like Wyoming to hunt bison on horseback and trade with other communities, that was a great boom for them.


Then, you get the fur traders coming in that, all of a sudden, decide this little rodent-like creature, called the beaver, is valuable. People start coming out to trade/to trap. They enjoy a boom there for a while that then outside demand lessens. There's no longer a need for those beaver pelts, and we have a collapse. That goes on and on again. We see it today with the coal industry.


You look at a town like Gillette, Wyoming. When I was a young boy, I remember witnessing the boom there, visiting my aunt and uncle who lived there. This was a community that started out with just a little over a thousand people and boomed up to 15,000 people because of outside demand for Wyoming coal. Now, we have a very different response going on with the switching over to wind power, other ways to generate electricity.


I think with Park County... Of course, our connection to Yellowstone has greatly shaped the development of the communities here. The reliance on irrigation/on water for farming and ranching has also shaped Park County in ways that it hasn't in other places of the American West. But again, I think Park County is a good reflection of how people have adapted to these landscapes. I mean, you go from the highest mountains of Park County to the lowest valleys there. There's quite an elevation change. There's quite a striking change between the various ecosystems here in Park County.


It's, at times, a challenging place to live, but it's also a very scenic place. That brings in all sorts of people, starting out with my family. They were lured out here by tales of great potential farmland by a project developed with Buffalo Bill Cody and George Beck. This idea of diverting water from what was then called the Stinking Water River to create farmland. You imagine that: leaving the fields of Iowa to come out to a place watered by the Stinking Water River.


Anyway, they adapted. They set up their farms/their homesteads. Now, we're seeing people come in here that are lured more by the natural beauty of the place. I look at the old family homestead. When my family came out, they were thinking, "Okay, we have a short growing season. We have to get water to the land. This is a lot of work. These elk and predators are a problem because they're heating our grass and taking our livestock." Now, that homestead is basically home to somebody who wants it back in its natural state. They want to see the elk, the deer, the grizzly bears. The mountain view has become priceless. The community's changing. All these different groups coming in... It's always a challenge to see how they interact with one another. Sometimes they find agreement, and sometimes they don't.

Emy Romero (28:29):

Thank you for listening. I'm executive producer Emy DiGrappa. Winds of Change is brought to you by Wyoming Humanities, our co-hosts, and all the people who generously share their stories and their time. For more information, go to thinkwy.org. Subscribe and never miss a show.