A tireless and lifelong public advocate for the setting aside of wild places and wild animals, George Bird Grinnell, the editor of Forest and Stream, had a personal dream: to save a parcel of Montana on the Canadian border. For a quarter of a century he explored and mapped the mountainous terrain, made friends with, and some say traded on his friendship with, the Blackfeet natives, and in 1910 saw his dream come true when Glacier National Park was created. It would be “ruined” for him by tourists, he noted wistfully, but saved forever for the benefit of the people. In 1883, the Northern Pacific Railroad was finally completed, bringing tourists from the East to Yellowstone in relative comfort and speed. Attendance increased five-fold in that first year.
But everything was under the exclusive control of the Yellowstone Park Improvement Company, which had been granted a remarkable monopoly within the park. The Company, which had close ties to the Northern Pacific, was allowed to cut as much timber as it needed; kill game for food; farm the land; and even re-channel some of the hot springs. The contract also allowed the company to choose square-mile parcels of land at seven locations within the park. The prime attractions of Yellowstone were in grave danger of being completely surrounded and exploited.
Publisher George Bird Grinnell began a crusade to stop what he called “The Park Grab.” He was aided in his fight against the railroad interests by General Philip Sheridan, commander of the U.S. Army for much of the West. In 1882, Sheridan had led an expedition that blazed the trail from Wyoming’s Jackson Hole northward into the park. Disgusted by the indiscriminate slaughter of wildlife in the park, Sheridan suggested that Yellowstone should be expanded to provide greater protection for the elk and buffalo by conforming the park’s boundaries to their seasonal migrations. The idea met with heated opposition from politicians who believed that Yellowstone was already too big.
In Washington, Grinnell took on the railroad lobby directly, calling for an investigation into the park contracts, proposing an expansion of Yellowstone, and trying to write park regulations concerning hunting into law. While the bill to expand Yellowstone failed, Congress did appropriate $40,000 for its maintenance and an amendment was slipped through authorizing troops to be used to enforce new regulations against hunting and vandalism.
Over the next few years, Grinnell fought to stop various attacks on Yellowstone. A series of inept superintendents included one who removed an entire geyser cone for shipment to the Smithsonian and proposed that a distinctive rock formation be equipped with plumbing so it could project a column of water to any desired height.
Frustrated by the string of incompetent superintendents, Congress simply refused to appropriate any money to protect the park. Yellowstone would have to fend for itself. In 1886, Sheridan dispatched troops to take control of Yellowstone. Although it was meant only as a temporary measure, military supervision of the park would continue for the next 30 years.
It was a mammoth task for the army to patrol the 2 million acres on horseback. While they did their best to stop poachers and vandals, the soldiers had no recourse to punish these offenders. No laws had been defined and so the wrongdoers were only issued warnings and, in severe cases, expelled from the park.
In his battle to protect Yellowstone, Grinnell enlisted the help of Theodore Roosevelt, a rising political star who was president of the Boone and Crockett Club. Roosevelt drafted petitions and testified before committees to influence key legislators. But there was still no law giving Yellowstone’s caretakers clear authority to protect its wildlife.
Grinnell made use of a poaching incident in 1894 to garner public support for his cause. His efforts were rewarded when, on May 7, 1894, President Grover Cleveland signed a law that would finally protect the park, its geysers and its wildlife. It was known as the “Act to Protect the Birds and Animals in Yellowstone National Park.” See http://www.pbs.org