Will We Be Able to Preserve Yellowstone, America's Living Cathedral?


George Black is the author of Empire of Shadows: The Epic Story of Yellowstone, published in March by St. Martin’s Press.

With Memorial Day weekend now behind us, the crowds -- more than three million people in an average year -- have begun the great annual pilgrimage to one of America’s greatest national icons: Yellowstone.

Planning my own visit this summer, I just checked the latest report from the National Park Service on travel conditions in the park. The news is not good. Eighty percent of Yellowstone’s 185 miles of roads, “are in a structurally deficient state, with poor quality road bases failing under the weight, speed and volume of modern traffic for which they were not designed.”

Every time I sit in a half-hour construction delay on the Lamar River Road or in the Madison Valley or at the Gibbon River bridge (and I can’t remember the last time I went to the park without experiencing one of these traffic jams), I think back 140 years to Yellowstone’s first superintendent, Nathaniel Pitt Langford. It was Langford, a successful businessman and former leader of the Montana vigilantes, who sketched out the basic design for Yellowstone’s Grand Loop Road in the summer of 1872, the year of the creation of the world’s first national park.

Congress placed Yellowstone under permanent federal protection with massive bipartisan support, an extraordinary gesture in an age of greed, venality, and corruption. True, Washington’s motives in creating the park were distinctly mixed, and for every altruist there was a cynic who bought the argument that this remote wilderness was good for nothing else, with no prospects for agriculture, mining, or other sources of profit. But what prevailed was the ideal: the creation of a sacred American space, this young country’s answer to the cathedrals of Europe. As Langford himself wrote, contemplating the majesty of the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, “I can scarcely realize that in the unbroken solitude of this majestic range of rocks, away from civilization and almost inaccessible to human approach, the Almighty has placed so many of the most wonderful and magnificent objects of His creation.”

Yet when Langford became superintendent that summer, he was asked to take the five-year assignment with neither staff nor salary, while simultaneously holding down a full-time job as a federal bank official. He wrote to Interior Secretary Columbus Delano at least six times, begging for funds. Congress, he told the secretary, had laid out the noble goal of protecting Yellowstone in perpetuity, but without appropriations and enforcement powers, those were just words on paper. How was he to protect this “Temple of the Living God,” especially when crowds of tourists showed up, drawn by the publicity about this unique showcase of natural wonders? Would it not have been better to leave Yellowstone as a terra incognita?

At first there was only a trickle of visitors to the park, no more than 500 a year. But it took only a few boorish individuals to wreak havoc. In no time at all Langford was warning Delano that “the delicately tinted stucco and arabesque of the borders of the springs” was vanishing under their axes, the shattered pieces carted away as souvenirs. The exquisite filigree of sinter deposits around Old Faithful was soon gone, lost for ever. The park’s unique wildife was also at serious risk as visitors, including celebrated European big game hunters like Windham Thomas Wyndham-Quin, Fourth Earl of Dunraven and Mount Earl, blazed away at anything on four legs. In the winter of 1874-1875 alone, professional hunters slaughtered 4,000 elk in the area around Mammoth Hot Springs, leaving their carcasses strewn across the hillsides. Many were killed only for their tongues, which everyone from Lewis and Clark to Teddy Roosevelt appreciated as a particular delicacy.

Langford’s biggest fear was that Yellowstone would turn into another Niagara, which Henry James had famously denounced in 1871, just as Congress was taking up the bill to create the national park. “The spectacle you have come so far to see,” James wrote, “[is] choked in the horribly vulgar shops and booths and catchpenny artifacts which have pushed and elbowed to within the very spray of the Falls, and ply their importunities in shrill competition with its thunder.” Langford spent much of his time turning down applications for leases from hucksters who wanted to build saloons and sawmills, limekilns and landscape gardens, a menagerie, a “race course and observation grounds.”

He had seriously mixed feelings about his plan for building good wagon roads. On one hand, they would bring in more vandals and poachers, but on the other they were essential if the “wholesale destruction” of the park was to be prevented. Build the basic infrastructure, he argued, and “interested and trustworthy persons” -- the Northern Pacific Railroad, for example, for which Langford had formerly been a lobbyist -- could be granted leases to build professionally-run hotels at the main points of interest: Mammoth Hot Springs, the falls, Yellowstone Lake, the geyser basins. Perhaps they could even be deputed as U.S. marshals empowered to enforce the rules that Langford recommended to Delano, such as banning untended fires and timber-cutting and imposing limits on hunting and fishing. But it was all to no avail; Congress never appropriated a penny, and not until General Phil Sheridan placed the park under the control of the U.S. Cavalry in 1886 was our first national park given systematic protection.

Old Faithful erupting, 1948

As we sit in those half-mile tailbacks this summer, patiently watching the earth-movers and the bulldozers going about their business, it’s salutary to think of two things. One is that by and large, mercifully, Yellowstone escaped the hucksterism that ruined Niagara. But the other is that we still have no guarantee that Congress, having abandoned the kind of bipartisanship that prevailed 140 years ago, will provide the funds necessary to go on protecting this sacred American place. Under President Obama’s proposed 2013 budget for the National Park Service, funds for road repairs, safety work, and other construction projects will decline from $155.4 million to $131.1 million. (To put those numbers in context, the construction budget for 2004 was $356 million, while in 2009, thanks to federal stimulus funds, it reached $824 million.) And Obama’s budget represents the best-case scenario. If Congress is again paralyzed by its failure to reach agreement on federal deficit reduction, as seems increasingly likely, mandatory budget cuts will leave Yellowstone and our other 366 national parks with worse roads, fewer staff, closed campgrounds, and longer lines for admission. I wonder what Nathaniel Langford would have made of it all.

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