It can perhaps be said that interpretation began in Yellowstone thousands of years ago. Prehistoric people knew of and visited this region; they so valued the area’s obsidian rock that tools fashioned of this exquisite volcanic glass were widely traded. No doubt, tales of the steamy land from which the prized tools originated spread along with the trade.In the 1800s, the first Europeans to visit Yellowstone contributed to this long tradition of story telling. Astounded by vistas of boiling springs, erupting geysers, and a spectacular canyon with towering waterfalls, trappers, mountain men, and explorers often resorted to “tall tales” to both describe this exotic place and entertain their audiences. When artist Thomas Moran and photographer William H. Jackson accompanied the Hayden Expedition to the Yellowstone region in 1871, the nation got its first formally documented images of the legendary Yellowstone wonders. Artistry and education combined to help convince Congress to establish Yellowstone as the world’s first national park on March 1, 1872.
During the new park’s early years, vandalism and poaching were rampant. Lacking funds to administer Yellowstone, the Secretary of the Interior sent in the U.S. Army in 1886 to protect Yellowstone’s wildlife and prevent curiosity seekers from taking home souvenirs hacked from geyser formations and other park features. Very soon, soldiers could be found at nearly every major park attraction talking to visitors about the geysers, scenery, and wildlife while enforcing laws both for the safety of people and the preservation of the park. Those who toured Yellowstone by stagecoach were treated to colorful (albeit often inaccurate) stories spun by stagecoach drivers eager to entertain passengers during the long, dusty rides between major destinations.
When the National Park Service was established in 1916, its mission was to both preserve the natural and cultural resources of Yellowstone and to provide for public enjoyment of the park. Early managers quickly recognized the importance of educating park visitors to accomplish both aspects of this mission. A formal education program soon evolved: rustic trailside museums were built, roadside “nature shrines” explaining various phenomena appeared, and publications to aid visitors in exploring the park were widely distributed. By the 1920s, park rangers had begun to specialize in educating visitors about Yellowstone. Rangers offered talks on a variety of natural history topics at campgrounds and lodges, and organized tours were conducted at many of the most famous park attractions. These formal tours, talks, and walks became more widely available in the 1950s and 1960s. The term “interpretation” came into its own as a description of a profession and function grounded in the science of education and research as well as the art of communication.
Yellowstone is no longer remote and untouched by “civilization.” Visitation to Yellowstone has grown steadily and now exceeds 3 million people annually. The task of providing for public enjoyment while protecting Yellowstone’s wonders for the benefit of future generations is more complex and challenging than ever before. At the heart of meeting this challenge is interpretation and education. While still offering visitors some of the traditional experiences associated with Yellowstone, park interpreters seek new ways to bring the park’s compelling stories to a wider and more diverse audience. Some of the most advanced communication technologies available today are bringing Yellowstone’s geysers, hot springs, and wildlife into classrooms around the world. The meaning and value of Yellowstone as well as all National Park Service units must be conveyed to people who may never visit these places but will nonetheless cherish them for what they represent of our collective heritage. As we move into the twenty-first century, the timeless tradition of sharing Yellowstone’s stories will always link people to this special place on the earth.