Yellowstone National Park was the first national park… in the world! Before the concept of preserving land for the public in this way had ever been considered, people realized the area in what is now mostly northwestern Wyoming was something that all people should be able to enjoy, and it became a park in 1872.
Sure there were public parks before this. Boston Common had been around since 1634 and New York’s Central Park had been created fifteen years earlier in 1857. But nothing on this scale had been implemented before. We’re talking a difference of 778 acres for Central Park compared to 2,219,789 acres for Yellowstone. And Central Park is a large urban park! So to put aside this much land to be closed to development by business interests or anyone else was probably thought to be a strange concept at the time. The west was starting to be settled but it still seemed at the time like the land was limitless. To put things in perspective, Yellowstone became a park shortly after the Civil War and nearly two decades before Wyoming, Idaho or Montana became states (all became states right around 1890).
So what was so special about Yellowstone that promoters felt it should be set aside as a public park? Why was it valuable enough to do this? The most obvious thing was the hydrothermal features. People had seen, or at least heard of, geysers and hot springs at other locations around the world (Iceland, New Zealand and Kamchatka are other places known for their geysers). But Yellowstone has more geysers than all those places combined! People knew this place was rare. If for no other reason, the geysers warranted the protection of park status.
But why? What does the park need protection from? One thing would be energy companies aiming to use the geothermal energy that could be harnessed from the park. Places around the world have been using energy from the heat of the earth for direct heating systems since the 14th century and for producing electricity since shortly after electricity was invented. In some cases where a geyser was connected to the source of geothermal energy, the process of tapping into the energy made the geyser stop erupting. I’m not against clean, renewable forms of energy by any means. But do we want to lose the rare spectacle of erupting geysers just to get it? I don’t think so. The park promoters would probably not have even considered this aspect much at the time because electricity hadn’t been invented yet. All they knew is that the geysers were rare and worth keeping as they were.
Often times, that’s the problem. People trying to promote conservation are asked to say why something should be conserved. And they don’t always know exactly! Or at least, if they have an idea of what could happen, they don’t have any proof that their fears will come true. So sometimes things are not conserved. And then, by the time the problems are obvious to everyone, it’s too late!
But before I go off too far down that tangent, let’s talk about some other things about Yellowstone that make it have value worth protecting. Partly because of the hydrothermal features, there is an abundance of wildlife in the area. The year-round warmth provided by the springs and geysers makes it easier for wildlife to make it through the harsh winters of Yellowstone. So the next thing worth protecting is wildlife. The protection of wildlife actually did not come about with the formation of the park. For the first fifteen years or so, people were allowed to hunt in the park. In 1886, public hunting was banned and most wildlife became protected. Again, someone might say, “Why does the wildlife need protecting?”
The answer can depend on a person’s perspective. People who understand how nature works may not always know the specific ramifications of the loss of wildlife ahead of time, but they know the basic concept that everything is connected within an ecosystem. If you get rid of the predators, from hunting or some other method, that means their prey can reproduce without much in the way of restrictions. When the prey populations get too big, their food source (often plants) can be over-eaten and disappear. If the prey species have no food of their own, they will die off as well. These are just some of the possible ramifications of having unprotected wildlife but there are many more options. And it can be complicated. But the point is that everything is connected which means wildlife protection is valuable. It is also important to note that humans are part of that everything.
However, there are ranchers in the area around Yellowstone that feel exactly the opposite. Using wolves as an example, the ranchers would rather not have them be protected. They think their ancestors did a pretty good job of getting rid of the wolves in the Yellowstone area, and they were enjoying the fact that their cattle had one less predator from around 1927 until the wolves were reintroduced in 1995. Even after public hunting was banned, wolf populations were “controlled” by the park administrators. By 1927, wolves were essentially non-existent in the park. They were reintroduced in 1995 to help restore the balance of nature. To be fair, it is true that having the wolves be protected in the park does not mean that the wolves will stay in the park. Wolves do not care if their prey is inside or outside of the park. The ranchers will lose calves and other weak cattle with the wolves around. But the wolves were originally there first and they play an important role in nature.
I’ll just mention one more reason why Yellowstone and other national parks are valuable, but the list could go on for a while. This third reason is the hardest for some people to grasp. There is a profound, positive impact that wilderness can have on the human psyche. When a person is stressed-out, how often is their reaction to just “get away from it all”? Quite often! Most people need to be able to connect with a more primitive, relaxing way of life, even if it’s just for a little while.
The problem is that some people don’t agree with that statement. They’ve either never had the opportunity to have this connection or have had a bad experience when they attempted to have the connection. Sometimes they’re the driven types who feel uncomfortable outside of cities and/or for whom money is a strong motivating factor. I’m all for success and money, but not at the expense of a high quality of life! When the money-hungry people are the ones making the decisions, sometimes we lose things that benefit the majority of us. Thankfully, the governing bodies of this country, for most of our history, have been wise enough to see that parks are valuable. As Wallace Stegner said, “National parks are the best idea we ever had. Absolutely American, absolutely democratic, they reflect us at our best rather than our worst.”
As a side note, in addition to having a Master’s degree in Biology Education, my Bachelor’s degree is in Parks and Recreation, so that is why this project is such a good fit for me.