How the U.S. Army saved our national parks
Capt. Moses Harris marched into Yellowstone in August 1886. Along with him were his troops from Company M, First Cavalry. They found that the world's first national park was in chaos.
Fourteen years of bad management threatened its existence. There had been little protection of the park's natural wonders. Congressional funding was an afterthought. But by the time the Army handed Yellowstone's administration to the National Park Service 30 years later, it had set in motion policies and procedures. They would serve as the model for park management for decades to come.
Would there even be a national parks system today without the cavalry's stewardship of Yellowstone?
"It's been debated. Nobody knows," says Lee Whittlesey. He has worked at Yellowstone for 35 years. He's been the park historian since 2000. "I would submit the Army went a long way towards protecting an area that had very little protection. (It) turned it into a place of relative tranquility."
Yellowstone was designated as a national park in 1872. The Department of the Interior was placed in charge. Its job was to preserve timber, mineral deposits, natural curiosities, or "wonders within the park."
Prior to Harris' arrival, there was widespread poaching. Bison, elk, deer and other animals were endangered. Buffalo Bill Cody had written a letter to the New York Sun newspaper. He pleaded for protections. Timber cutting and grazing left large areas of land devastated. Fires set by angry settlers destroyed acre after acre. Vandals sliced fragile pieces of ornate travertine with axes. It was sold as souvenirs. Some vandals even signed their names on geyser formations.
Congress was angry. It refused to give funds to the park. This is according to Whittlesey. Control shifted to the military as part of a compromise agreement to fund the park. The soldiers were under the direction of the Department of the Interior.
The first troop at Yellowstone had about 60 men. That was 50 more than had covered the 2.2 million acres of the park under civilian administrations. Their numbers grew. They grew from two troops, then to three. There were four by 1910. More people visited the park. Visitation rose from 500 in 1880 to 19,000 in 1910.
Within two months of arriving in 1886, Harris reported to the secretary of the Interior. Harris noted that the forests and the game were well protected. But progress was slow. The geysers still were being vandalized.
"Not one of the notable geyser formations in the Park has escaped mutilation or defacement in some form," Harris wrote. He noted the lack of effective rules and regulations. There were few penalties. "All sorts of worthless and disreputable characters are attracted here by the impunity afforded by the absence of law and courts of justice."
Early military commanders at Yellowstone kept a close watch on geysers. They charted eruptions. Soldiers stood guard. They forced those caught signing their names to scrub off the graffiti.
Poachers proved to be a lasting problem. This was partly because there were no major penalties on the books. Harris created extra-legal measures, Whittlesey says. Harris seized the offenders' belongings and locked them in the guardhouse for weeks before expelling them from the park. It was his only remedy.
Only in 1894, five years after Harris left Yellowstone, did Congress heed his request to pass a "stringent law." Soldiers caught a local poacher named Edgar Howell standing over the bodies of bison he killed for their scalps. The scalps made $300 apiece. A photographer and writer from Field & Stream magazine happened to be in the park that day. Their story about the crime prodded Congress to rush through a bill.
Whittlesey notes that the military did manipulate nature. They stocked trout, for instance. They brought in bison from Texas and Montana to breed when the park's herd dropped to only 23 animals. This was in 1902. But acting superintendents also pushed back against projects they saw as despoiling the "natural condition."
Capt. F.A. Boutelle succeeded Harris. Boutelle soon clashed with his superior in Washington over the proposed construction of an elevator. The plan was for it to take tourists to the bottom of Yellowstone's Grand Canyon. There, they could get a better view of the 308-foot Lower Falls. Boutelle objected to the elevator. He also opposed any commercialization of the park. He won. Washington officials revoked permission to build the elevator. Boutelle's objection to commercialization became a lasting philosophy of the national parks.
The military administration at Yellowstone proved to be a model for the early management of Yosemite, Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks in California. With the creation of the National Park Service in 1916, the soldiers left.
Naturalist John Muir noted his appreciation for the military's stewardship in his 1901 book, Our National Parks.
"The national parks...are efficiently managed and guarded by small troops of United States cavalry," he wrote. He described it as refreshing compared to the ruthless destruction in nearby regions.
CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why did the national parks need to be protected?
Write your answers in the comments section below