How the U.S. Army saved our national parks Company M, 1st U.S. Cavalary, from Fort Custerm Montana Territory, marching into Mammoth Hot Springs; August,1886. (NPS)
How the U.S. Army saved our national parks
Lexile

Capt. Moses Harris and his troops from Company M, First Cavalry marched into Yellowstone in August 1886. They found that the world's first national park was in chaos.

Fourteen years of corrupt or inept 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 fledgling 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 and turned it into a place of relative tranquility."
 
Without that intervention, he adds, "Congress might have thrown up its hands and turned it over to private settlement. There certainly were a fair number of voices yelling for that in Congress."
 
Yellowstone was designated as a national park in 1872. The Department of the Interior was charged with the "preservation, from injury or spoliation, of all timber, mineral deposits, natural curiosities, or wonders within said park."
 
But prior to Harris' arrival, there was rampant 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 swaths 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. And the vandals signed their names on geyser formations.
 
Congress was angry. It refused to allocate funds, according to Whittlesey. As part of a compromise agreement to fund the park, control shifted to the military. 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. They grew to two troops, then three and eventually four by 1910. Visitors to the park increased. Their numbers rose from 500 in 1880 to more than 19,000 in 1910.
 
Within two months of arriving in 1886, Harris reported to the secretary of the Interior that the forests and the game "has been well protected." But progress was slow to prevent vandalism to the geysers.
 
"Not one of the notable geyser formations in the Park has escaped mutilation or defacement in some form," Harris wrote, noting the lack of effective rules, regulations and especially 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 sentry, forcing those caught signing their names to scrub off the offending graffiti. 
 
Despite the early optimism, poachers proved to be an enduring problem. This was partly because there were no significant penalties on the books. Harris created extra-legal measures, Whittlesey says. Harris confiscated the offenders' possessions and locked them in the guardhouse for weeks before expelling them from the park. It was his only recourse.
 
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 carcasses of bison he slaughtered for their scalps. The scalps fetched $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 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 transport tourists to the bottom of Yellowstone's Grand Canyon. There, they could get a better view of the 308-foot Lower Falls. Boutelle not only objected to the elevator, but also any commercialization of the park. He won. Washington officials revoked permission to build the elevator, and his objection to commercialization became an enduring national parks philosophy.
 
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 withdrew.
 
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 a refreshing thing compared to the ruthless destruction in adjacent regions.
 
"In pleasing contrast to the noisy, ever changing management, or mismanagement, of blundering, plundering, money-making vote-sellers who receive their places from boss politicians as purchased goods," he added, "the soldiers do their duty so quietly that the traveler is scarce aware of their presence."

Filed Under:  
Assigned 114 times
CRITICAL THINKING QUESTION
Why did the national parks need to be protected?
Write your answers in the comments section below


COMMENTS (47)
  • michaely-6-bar
    5/27/2016 - 06:19 p.m.

    The national park needs to be protected because many people go there and is a tourist site in yellow stone. Also if they didn't protect it people could get robbed. I think it's good that they protect it or people could sneak in or do something bad in the park. This article is interesting because I can't imagine what would happen to the park if it wasn't protected. That's why I am glad are park should be protected at all time. So they should keep up protecting parks so nothing bad will happen to them.

  • rubend-kut
    5/29/2016 - 05:25 p.m.

    I am amazed that the army went a long way to protect this park.
    and help with bringing animals.

  • ashleyt-kut
    5/30/2016 - 08:42 p.m.

    Because it was getting corrupted. Also to many people were coming and it was getting to safe for pedestrians.

  • carlym-4-bar
    5/31/2016 - 12:27 a.m.

    The national parks needed to be protected because the environment were being destroyed. "But prior to Harris' arrival, there was rampant 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 swaths 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. And the vandals signed their names on geyser formations."
    I enjoyed this article because I didn't know that the parks were ever in danger.

  • rhead-hug
    5/31/2016 - 12:58 p.m.

    and Because the trees could get cut down and the animals could get killed by people

  • ellyd-hug
    5/31/2016 - 12:59 p.m.

    wow all 4 the park

  • sophieh1-hug
    5/31/2016 - 12:59 p.m.

    The national parks needed to be protected because if they weren't, poachers and angry settlers would have burned down the forests, and killed all the animals. Also, people got reckless, and started to sign their names on the geysers, and the parks wildness would have been ruined because the humans taking over. their probably would not have been and more National Parks because since the first park was destroyed, why make more, if they are pretty much going to get destroyed again? So its a good thing the army stopped the settlers from destroying the park, and now we can see the natural beauty of the Yellowstone National Park.

  • terrances-hug
    5/31/2016 - 12:59 p.m.

    the national people needs to protected because many people go there.

  • holdenfe-hug
    5/31/2016 - 01:00 p.m.

    The national parks needed to be protected because the environment was being destroyed. The reason I think this is because people were destroying the land by poaching, littering and many other things. The biggest reason that I think national parks needed protecting is because national parks are one of the biggest tourist attractions in the world, and people were wrecking the all the parks.

  • alif-hug
    5/31/2016 - 01:00 p.m.

    The national park needs to be protected because many people go there and is a tourist site in yellow stone. Another reason is Congress might have thrown up its hands and turned it over to private settlement.Another reason is that animals lived in the park. If it didn't get protected the people might have hunt animals or cut down trees.

Take the Quiz Leave a comment
ADVERTISEMENT