March 1 marks Yellowstone National Park’s 150th birthday.
Yellowstone was established in 1872, when President Grant signed legislation to “…set apart a certain tract of land lying near the headwaters of the Yellowstone River as a public park…”
For the park’s first several decades, the human footprint here remained fairly light, given the region’s remoteness and severe climate, and the need for people to be self- sufficient in their travels.
By 1915, automobiles had replaced traveling by horse and buggy, allowing increasingly larger numbers of motorists eager to explore the wonders of this and other western U.S. parks. In 2021, Yellowstone drew 4.86 million visitors, an increase of over 1 million from 2020!
“For the benefit and the enjoyment of the people” are the welcoming words inscribed on the Roosevelt Arch greeting visitors to Yellowstone’s North Entrance in Gardiner, Montana. In 1903 President Theodore Roosevelt happened to be visiting the region, mainly to hunt outside the national park with a few friends, it seems. He was invited to speak and lay the cornerstone in Gardiner, and his name has been associated with the arch ever since.
A future president spent time in the park as well, 23-year-old Gerald R. Ford, who worked as a seasonal ranger in the Canyon Area in 1936. One of Ford’s many wide-ranging duties that summer was serving as an armed guard on a “bear-feeding” truck!
Yellowstone and other national parks prohibited feeding bears around 1970, illustrating a different course we’ve been charting to become better stewards of wild places as our knowledge and attitudes change about their value and purpose.
Even today, Yellowstone is amazingly intact and untrammeled, nearly 3500 square miles in size, and the wild beating heart of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.
Home to nearly all the predator and prey species inhabiting the area two centuries ago, it’s a place vast enough where people witness large scale ecological processes such as predator-prey dynamics, fire cycles, and the dynamic presence of 10,000 plus thermal features fueled by a continental volcanic hot spot, subsurface magma chambers, and other contributors.
Over the years, we’ve also made discoveries and unlocked mysteries likely unimaginable to the park’s earliest founders, protectors, and visitors.
In 1969, Dr. Thomas Brock discovered an extremophile, Thermus aquaticus, in one of Yellowstone’s thermal areas. Turns out that this particular bacterial organism possesses some surprisingly heat stable proteins, one of which is Taq DNA polymerase. This protein has been responsible for numerous breakthroughs in the study of human genetics, as it has allowed for rapid gene sequencing under high temperatures through a process known as PCR, or polymerase chain reaction.
Much of what we do today regarding genetic testing for diseases and cancers, rapid HIV, Covid and other testing, and forensics stems from the discovery of this thermophile. Scientists are also using chemical and temperature signatures of different Yellowstone thermal features to look for early signs of life in this and other solar systems; other organisms have applications for de-icing highways, removing barnacles and other impediments to shipping worldwide, and yet others are being studied for their potential cancer fighting properties.
It’s estimated that we have only looked at less than one percent of Yellowstone’s thermal communities in any detail!
What else remains to be discovered and learned in Yellowstone and other protected areas?
We can only imagine, but there are vast frontiers waiting to be explored by today’s youth and future generations if we do our best to preserve and care for everything we have in Yellowstone, and beyond.
So Happy 150th Birthday on March 1, Yellowstone, and may you always live long and prosper!
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