How the U.S. Army saved our national parks
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: 970L

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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."

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Why did the national parks need to be protected?
Write your answers in the comments section below

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

    Because trees cold get cut down or animal could get killed by poachers.

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

    The national parks needed to be protected because without the security we have given the park, poachers and other people meant to cause harm would have destroyed the park entirely. Also, the park was getting to wild because a place with no one watching over it can turn into just a large expanse of hunting grounds for predators, such as bears, who might have killed off entire species. I think that the protection we gave to the park made it so we have national parks today.

  • adrianalb-hug
    5/31/2016 - 01:02 p.m.

    National parks needed to be protected because animals were being killed and they environment was being destroyed and there was a lot of problems it also was not that safe for the people and the animals.I think it was a big help for the national parks to be protected.

  • lucys-hug
    5/31/2016 - 01:03 p.m.

    The national parks needed to be protected for many reasons. One was poaching which, was killing the animals living there. Another was forest fires,. The last reason is they were going to add elevators and other machines, which would just make it less like nature and more like another tourist attraction, like in the big cities.

  • Eric0221-YYCA
    6/01/2016 - 04:34 a.m.

    The people had been thinking about what had made the national parks that people had been thinking that some of the army soldiers might have helped people who are trying to protect a national park from danger. The U.S. Army might have been able to protect the national parks in which the national parks would be regaining its endangered animals that had to be protected before the army came to protect the national park. The national parks wouldn't had been made if the army weren't able to protect the national park from being very endangered with other animals in it too.
    Critical Thinking Question: Why did the national parks need to be protected?
    Answer: The national parks need to be protected so that when the national park was first there, people would need to defend the park from people who wanted something from some of the endangered species that live in the national parks.

  • isabellec-hug
    6/01/2016 - 01:02 p.m.

    I think the national parks needed to be protected because there was lots of poaching in Yellowstone. Many of the animals that lived in Yellowstone were endangered. Also, I think it was good for the army to protect the park because It think it made the park more secure, and when people went there, there was less of a chance that they would get robbed, or even hurt. I also think that Yellowstone needed to be protected because of the nature inside of the park. I think, that if the U.S army hadn't protected the park, people could have polluted it, or harmed the nature in the park so badly that no one wanted to go to the park. These are a few reasons why I think that Yellowstone needed to be protected.

  • kyras-hug
    6/01/2016 - 01:03 p.m.

    The National Park needed to be protected because people were not respecting the the land. In ways like poaching and and corrupting the money plans.

  • olliet-hug
    6/01/2016 - 01:04 p.m.

    because pollution hurts animals and the environment and to protect it would be good.

  • felicityw-hug
    6/01/2016 - 01:06 p.m.

    National parks needed protection because people do graphite and put stuff in the gas hole and Bern down trees and hunt. With out protection the place will be chaos and the place would be a mess. That's why the Yellow stone Notional park needs perfection. ok

  • selmak-hug
    6/01/2016 - 01:09 p.m.

    The national parks needed to be protected because of poaching, in the article it says: "prior to Harris' arrival, there was rampant poaching. Bison, elk, deer and other animals were endangered." I think that this is a very important reason for the army to protect the national parks. Another reason why the park should be protected is because, some angry settlers burned down forests, timber cutting and grazing left swaths of land devastated, a third reason is that, vandals sliced fragile pieces of ornate travertine with axes. It was sold as souvenirs. And the vandals signed their names on geyser formations. I think that these reasons were very important for the Yellowstone Park to be protected.

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