LATE IN THE EVENING OF AUGUST 17, 1886, Troop "M,"
First United States Cavalry, marched into the Yellowstone National Park.
Three days later the military commander relieved the Park Superintendent
of his duties and inaugurated a new era of National Park administration.
Established in 1872 in response to the urgings of a few dedicated men,
the Park had been administered by civilian appointees who were provided
with neither physical nor legal force to stop the endemic vandalism,
poaching, and trespassing which threatened its existence. Some
Congressmen, faced with this apparent administrative failure, labeled
the park concept an absurdity. Congress declined to appropriate money
for the continued operation of the Park in 1886, and the Secretary of
the Interior was forced to request sufficient troops to protect the
Park. The resulting military management was extended to the Yosemite,
General Grant, and Sequoia National Parks, and continued in the
Yellowstone until 1918. Thus these parks were preserved for posteriity,
and thus were laid the foundations of the National Park Service.
The present-day interest in conservation and
preservation of natural resources and natural beauty is a direct legacy
from those farsighted individuals who were responsible for the formation
and protection of these early national parks. That these persons were
few in number is not surprising; the predominant nineteenth-century
attitude toward natural resources was one of use and not preservation.
Unfortunately, we have an almost overwhelming tendency to judge our
forebears by the standards of the present. Today we accuse the men
responsible for the extinction of the passenger pigeon, the near
extinction of the bison, and the virtual destruction of millions of
acres of virgin timber for thoughtless or even malicious destruction of
the nation's resources. Yet the many persons who cut the forests, or
allowed them to burn, or who indiscriminately killed the game, did not
consider themselves either criminal or immoral. Most of them were
sincere in their belief that America's natural resources were, in fact,
unlimited. Fortunately, attitudes toward land and forests changed, and
so did governmental policies. In late nineteenth-century America,
laissez faire was the predominant philosophy; exploitation of the
nation's resources was a way of life. Americans worshiped the practical
and the useful, and generally held altruism and aestheticism in disdain.
Their governments traditionally reacted to environmental crises rather
than anticipating and avoiding them, and their laws not only lagged
behind new needs but resisted change when those needs were outmoded.
Given this background, it is surprising that a mere
handful of prescient men could convince Congress, and ultimately the
people, that some elements of the nation's natural heritage were worth
The period of military administration of the National
Parks is unique in American history. Before 1894 in the Yellowstone, and
throughout its administrative career in the California Parks, the
cavalry operated without a legal framework or means of law enforcement.
Yet during the thirty-two years of military guardianship a National Park
policy was evolved and administrative procedures were formulated.
Moreover, when the National Park Service began operating in 1918, it
took over from the military a previously trained cadre of men. Even more
important, the National Park Service, when organized, had something to
administer: the Yellowstone, the Yosemite, the General Grant, and the
Sequoia National Park. In a very real sense, the cavalry saved these
parks, and in so doing, saved the National Park idea.
Old Faithful, Yellowstone Park.
National Park Service.