In 1870 and 1871, expeditions were sent to explore the area we now know as Yellowstone National Park. The members of those expeditions and many other Americans, influenced by this new way of viewing nature, worked tirelessly to have the Yellowstone Park Act introduced into Congress in December 1871. Congressional debate focused on the “worthlessness” of the Yellowstone country for any “useful” purpose. The lack of any known reserves of timber, minerals, or other resources of any economic value was emphasized. Because most of the area was at or above 7,000 feet in elevation and
received snow during much of the year, agriculture and settlement were considered difficult at best. Though Congressional opposition was weak, the necessity of preserving a place of such little value was questioned. In order to secure passage of the bill, supporters promised that no funding from Congress would be requested for the park’s administration. Indeed, Yellowstone received no federal funding until 1877 when it was recognized that without someone in charge, there would soon be nothing left to see as poaching and vandalism were rampant.
Our perception of Yellowstone has changed dramatically since the Congressional debates of 1871-1872. Today the park is host to more than 3 million visitors each year from all over the world. While still fairly remote, it is no longer inaccessible. Its geysers, hot springs, waterfalls, and wildlife are no longer thought to be worthless, but are considered priceless. The park has become an integral part of our culture and stands as a symbol, not only of American democracy, but also of the importance of preserving wild places for everyone. As we celebrate Yellowstone’s 125th anniversary, we are reminded of the vision of those early park supporters who believed that Yellowstone’s resources should be preserved not for their economic value but for their intrinsic natural beauty. We are the beneficiaries
of their efforts to have this special place set aside “for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”