The idea of setting aside land for the public’s benefit was revolutionary when President Ulysses S. Grant signed the bill creating the first national park in the world—Yellowstone National Park, on March 1, 1872.
It covered two million acres in the northwest corner of Wyoming Territory and spilled into Idaho and Montana territories. The bill protected Yellowstone from private greed and ordered the area to be “dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people,” notes David A. Clary in The Place Where Hell Bubbled Up, published by the National Park Service in 1972.
But the idea of a national preserve continued to be controversial and Yellowstone had none of the protection found today for the national park system. It was defenseless to “poachers, squatters, woodcutters, vandals and firebugs,” Clary reports. In 1883 Congress debated the value of such publicly owed land with some arguing that private enterprise should be in charge. In 1886 Congress stripped all money to protect Yellowstone and the Secretary of the Interior called on the Secretary of War for help. The U.S. Army stepped in to protect the land.
Although strong federal laws now protect the nation’s vast system of public parks, the debate continues to this day. Each year, the National Park Service must fight for a decent operating budget—and Congress often raids the money it earns itself with visitor fees. There is still constant pressure by land speculators who see all that pristine property—not a value to everyone, but a goldmine for a few. And there are still politicians in Congress who think they’re right.