Yellowstone National Park–some say it is America’s greatest contribution to world culture– the best idea we ever had. Yet when President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Yellowstone Park Act on March 1, 1872, the preservation of a park more than 3,300 square miles in size was a radical idea. This was a time when natural resources were thought to be limitless, and conservation was considered wasteful. With the signing of the Act, a new era in conservation began.Historically, in Europe, “parks” were owned by the wealthy elite for their use alone. In early America, particularly Puritan New England, the attitude toward the value of work resulted in the perception that idle time led to wickedness, and nature was viewed as frightening and something to be subdued. But in the 1800s the philosophy of romanticism evolved in Europe and spread to America. Men such as Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote about nature in a new way. They described it as wondrous, beautiful, and restorative. In the mid-1800s American cities began setting aside tracts of land for public parks such as Central Park in New York. Attitudes were changing.

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.”