Yellowstone National Park Act (1872) (Major Acts of Congress)
Brian E. Gray
On March 1, 1872, President Ulysses S. Grant signed into law the Yellowstone National Park Act (17 Stat. 32), which withdrew from settlement, occupancy, and sale a vast expanse of public land along the continental divide where the states of Wyoming, Montana, and Idaho intersected. The act "dedicated and set aside" the land "as a public park or pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people." Congress placed the land and resources of the park "under the exclusive control of the Secretary of the Interior" and directed the secretary to set forth rules and regulations "to provide for the preservation ... of all timber, mineral deposits, natural curiosities, or wonders within said park, and their retention in their natural condition." It also declared that the secretary "shall provide against the wanton destruction of the fish and game found within said park, and against their capture or destruction for the purposes of merchandise or profit." As one historian put it, the "reservation of this large tract of over 2 million acres of landarger than a couple of the smallest statesith its wealth of timber, game, grass, water power, and possible minerals barred from all private use, was so dramatic a departure from the general public land policy of Congress that it seems almost a miracle" (Ise 1961, p. 17).
In 1864 Congress had set aside the lands and resources of Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Sequoia Redwoods for "public use, resort, and recreation." But it gave title (ownership) and management responsibility for the Yosemite Park to the State of California. While the Yellowstone Act was not the earliest reservation of park land, Yellowstone became the first national park to be administered by the United States for the preservation and enjoyment of its scenic wonders.
Congress' principal purpose in creating Yellowstone National Park was to preserve the geysers and hot springs of the region and to protect the herds of bison, elk, and other wildlife that inhabited the park. They did so by closing the land to entry under the Homestead Act, mining laws, and other public lands statutes. With little knowledge of the geography and hydrogeology (the study of the geological formation and the movement of ground water) of the area and only sketchy maps, the sponsors of the legislation simply drew a square that would encompass the most important natural featuresld Faithful, Mammoth Hot Springs, the Norris and Midway
Yet the park stands at the top of a much larger ecosystem that has been divided into seven national forests and three wildlife refuges. It includes Grand Teton National Park to the south and a mixture of state and private lands that abut Yellowstone's boundaries on the north, west, and east. As an island resting at the pinnacle of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, Yellowstone National Park has been a testing ground for contemporary park policy. Oil and natural gas drilling in the Targhee National Forest to the west, and geothermal (heat generated from the Earth's core) exploration on private lands to the north, have threatened the groundwater basin that supplies the geysers and hot springs of the park. Clear-cutting in the national forests on all sides of the park has disrupted grizzly bear habitat and mating. Bison that stray across park borders in search of winter pasture have been slaughtered by hunters licensed under state law. Snowmobiles have so fouled the air that rangers at park entrances are forced to wear gas masks. With more than 3 million visitors annually, Yellowstone's roads, campgrounds, and most popular tourist destinations are overcrowded and overused. The great fires of 1988, and former Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt's decision to reintroduce wolves to the park in 1995, sparked bitter debates over the National Park Service's resource management policies.
For all of its controversies, Yellowstone remains the keystone of our national park system. Its mountains form the spine of the continent. Its geysers, hot springs, lakes, rivers, and waterfalls are the font of our greatest waterways. Its alpine meadowslive with bison, elk, antelope, deer, grizzly bear, peregrine falcon, bald eagles, kingfishers, pelicans, trumpeter swans, cutthroat trout, graylings, and an occasional cougar and wolfake Yellowstone the nation's greatest wildlife haven.
See also: NATIONAL HISTORIC PRESERVATION ACT; NATIONAL PARK SERVICE ACT.
Chase, Alston. Playing God in Yellowstone: The Destruction of America's First National Park. Boston, MA: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1986.
Chittenden, Hiram Martin. The Yellowstone National Park. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press, 1964.
Ise, John. Our National Parks Policy: A Critical History. Washington, DC: Resources for the Future, 1961.
Keiter, Robert B., and Mark S. Boyce. The Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem: Refining America's Wilderness Heritage. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1991.
Runte, Alfred. National Parks: The American Experience, 3d ed. Lincoln, NB: University of Nebraska Press, 1992.