bears rummaging through wagon in yellowstone national park true west magazine
Bears rummaging through trash in Yellowstone National Park is as familiar a scene today as it was in this 1905 photo by William Henry Jackson.
— True West Archives —

July is the busiest month for Yellowstone National Park, where vacationers find a cool respite from the sizzling heat. 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, on March 1, 1872.

The first national park, Yellowstone, was signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1872, followed by Mackinac National Park (above) in 1875, which was decommissioned in 1895, and then Rock Creek Park (later merged into National Capital Parks), Sequoia and Yosemite in 1890. The Organic Act of 1916 created the National Park Service “to conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations.”
— Courtesy True West Archives —

Yellowstone 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 that the area 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.

men on horses in yosemite national park true west magazine
Yosemite National Park.
— Courtesy Yosemite Research Library, National Park Service —

But the idea of a national preserve continued to be controversial; Yellowstone had none of the protection found today for the national park system. It was defenseless from “poachers, squatters, woodcutters, vandals and firebugs,” Clary reports.

rock creek park river and houses true west magazine
Rock Creek Park.
— Courtesy Library of Congress —

In 1883, Congress debated the value of such publicly owned land, with some members arguing that private enterprise should be in charge. Three years later, Congress stripped all money allocated to protect Yellowstone. The Secretary of the Interior called on the Secretary of War for help. The U.S. Army stepped in to protect the land.

president chester a arthur and associates in yellowstone national park true west magazine
President Chester A. Arthur toured Yellowstone National Park in August 1883. The first president to visit the park, he rode horseback across its expanses and fished its streams and lakes. From l-r: John Schuyler Crosby, Lt. Col. Michael V. Sheridan, Lt. Gen. Philip H. Sheridan, Anson Stager, unidentified, President Arthur, unidentified, unidentified, Robert Todd Lincoln and George G. Vest. Unidenitifed men may be Daniel G. Rollins, James F. Gregory, W.P. Clark, W.H. Forwood and/or George G. Vest Jr.
— Frank Jay Haynes, Courtesy Library of Congress —

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 the parks earn themselves through visitor fees.

Land speculators constantly put the pressure on Congress to sell all that pristine property—not a value to everyone, as intended, but a gold mine for a few. Some politicians in Congress think they’re right.

Jana Bommersbach has earned recognition as Arizona’s Journalist of the Year and won an Emmy and two Lifetime Achievement Awards. She cowrote the Emmy-winning Outrageous Arizona and has written two true crime books, a children’s book and the historical novel Cattle Kate.

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