William Shakespeare lived a few centuries before Yellowstone became the world’s first national park, but his quote “We know what we are, but know not what we may be” aptly describes what has made Yellowstone special, powerful, beautiful and magical to countless admirers.
The park turned 143 years old on Sunday March 1, and today over 380 distinct units in nearly every state comprise the National Park Service and system, protecting a wealth of irreplaceable places to our natural, cultural and historical heritage. National parks have often been called America’s best idea, and today nearly every nation has set aside lands to honor this same idea and vision.
Yellowstone was first protected for its abundance of thermal features, its deep high altitude Yellowstone Lake, and The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, but it also provided refuge to some of the last remaining bison in the wild.
Still, it wasn’t until the U.S. Army took over to deter wildlife poaching, vandalism, illegal mining, timber cutting, and even homesteading that things began to turn around. The National Park Service was established in 1916 to create a consistent means to protect and preserve such parks, while also maintaining them “for the benefit and the enjoyment of the people”.
But The Organic Act, which established the National Park Service system, made it clear that protection and preservation trumped human benefit and enjoyment whenever there was conflict and confusion, yet every generation since then has continued to struggle with this mandate at times.
Attitudes toward nature and our relationship with nature have generally changed slowly over the years, as they seem to also do today. Witness the era of bringing back the ecosystem’s bison through the Lamar Buffalo Ranch starting in the early 1900s, as compared to decades of unregulated commercial and visitor activities that threatened everything from thermal features to bird nesting sites and fish spawning grounds.
Consider that right up until the late 1960s park officials and employees culled ungulate species inside the park, believing their numbers were too high (this after killing off large predators such as wolves until the 1930s). It was only in the early 1970s when the National Park Service abruptly closed garbage dumps and stopped (for the most part) visitors from feeding and mingling dangerously close to black and grizzly bears.
Looking back it seems we should have known better that these activities or behaviors should not have been tolerated or allowed. Looking ahead, we may wonder what future generations might have to say about how we have managed or provided stewardship over Yellowstone and other wild places. How we handle bison, wolves, or whether the grizzly bears should be de-listed immediately come to mind, but the list goes on….and on.
But we continue living, learning and doing what we believe to be best for Yellowstone and other remaining untrammeled landscapes. To paraphrase Aldo Leopold, we bring back and restore the missing pieces, such as wolves, when and where we can. We begin thinking more like a mountain and realize that no species is good or bad, we all belong, and preserving, connecting and restoring wild places will benefit future generations of all species that follow us, including our descendants.
Who would have thought, 143 years ago, that Yellowstone would have inspired nearly 200 nations to protect and preserve some of their last best natural places?
Who would have known that Yellowstone’s establishment resulted in protecting some of the finest waters and watersheds in the West, harboring some of the last wild refuges for bison, and a place and opportunity to restore wolves to the ecosystem? Who could have foreseen that microbial communities in the parks’ thermal areas have led to discoveries and applications that benefit us out here in “the real world”?
Who could have imagined that the park would become the anchor and lungs of the last large intact temperate ecosystem on the planet, with all species present now that were here when Lewis and Clark passed through just north of here, or that over two dozen Native American tribes continue to cultivate their cultural and spiritual connection to Yellowstone?
A planet without wild places such as Yellowstone would be a very sad place indeed.
Yellowstone, Glacier, and other vast ecosystems are what first drew me to Montana over teaching opportunities in Colorado and New Mexico two decades ago. I wanted to be near a place where grizzlies still roamed and wolves were being returned, to be in a place where I could still feel my wild beating heart and show others that they could also do the same.
As with all wild places they need more advocates, and more protected lands outside these parks that allow natural processes to continue unimpeded or unimpaired. This means also working with people who have long been making a living from these landscapes, and inviting and including them at the table.
Happy Birthday, Yellowstone! May you and all other national parks worldwide always live long, and prosper!