I wonder if President Ulysses S. Grant had any idea what he set in motion, back on March 1, 1872, when he signed legislation creating Yellowstone National Park, the world’s first national park.
On the 150th anniversary of the signing, Chuck Sams, Director of the National Park Service, in a press release, said, “We also celebrate something much bigger than the park itself—the beginning of the national park idea, an idea that spread through the country and around the world, inspiring governments to protect natural and cultural resources ‘for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.’”
Of course, signing a bill was one thing; creating a functional agency to manage parks took longer. At first, there was little management of this tract of wilderness in the far West. Then the U.S. Army was assigned to manage the park until, finally, a National Park Service was created to manage the many wonders of our nation’s national parks.
We’ve come a long way. There are now 63 national parks, such as Yellowstone and Glacier National Park, but that’s just a small part of the Park Service. There are battlefields, such as the Big Hole Battlefield, or historic sites, such as the Grant-Kohrs Ranch at Deer Lodge. There are national monuments, such as the Little Big Horn Battlefield, near Hardin. National Recreation Areas, such as the Bighorn Canyon National Recreation Area on the Montana/Wyoming border. Then there’s the Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts in the Washington D.C. metro area. The White House, itself, is part of the National Park System. These are just a few examples of what’s included in the National Park Service. There are some 423 varied units, covering some 85 million acres in all 50 states.
I never had an opportunity to visit Yellowstone National Park until I was an adult, when we packed up our tent trailer in the summer of 1971 and took a family excursion touring the Park. Alas, I came down with a horrendous summer cold and felt miserable most of the time, and the thing I appreciated most was that with my stuffed-up nose I couldn’t smell most of the sulfur fumes from the thermal areas.
A memorable visit was in October 1988, just after the big fires of that summer. In mid-October, there were still plumes of smoke from smoldering trees, but the fires were mostly done. It seemed sad, at the time, seeing the stands of lodgepole pine reduced to blackened wreckage. “The Park will never be the same,” was the conclusion of many observers. Some 20 or so years later, park visitors were hard-pressed to find any sign of that big burn.
Sometime around 2000, I went on a day trip with James Anderson, who had just been hired to be the director of the orchestra program at the University of Montana and was in Butte auditioning for the conductor job with the Butte Symphony. Visiting the park was high on his list of things he wanted to do during his week in Montana. Wolves had just been reintroduced to the park a few years before and we hoped to see some. We did see some in the Lamar Valley, but primarily with binoculars. Then we made a stop at the buffalo ranch area for an informal “rest” break. I wandered through the snowdrifts for a secluded spot next to an elk carcass. There was a wolf, just a few feet away, feeding on the elk. I excused myself and found another spot.
A few years later, on a winter drive to Cooke City, we pulled over behind another car. We quickly found out why this car had stopped. There was a wolf perched on the top of a snowbank at the side of the road, howling at another wolf.
I don’t pretend to be an expert on Yellowstone National Park, and we don’t go there as often as many people do. Still, Yellowstone, and our other national parks, are places where memories are made.
This 150th Anniversary is something all Americans should celebrate.
Paul Vang’s new book, “Golden Years, Golden Hours,” is available at How Novel, The Second Edition, Isle of Books & Books, or online at http://writingoutdoors.com.