A Brief History of Public Lands in American Politics, Pt 2.: The Pre-Conservation Era

If you’ve been paying any attention to US political news over the last few years, you might have caught glimpses of the occasional headline focused on something called, “Federally Managed Public Lands.”  From the armed standoffs in Oregon and Nevada, Patagonia Clothing’s boycotting of Utah (yeah, the whole state), and Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke’s questionable review of the National Monuments, the discourse over the nation’s public lands can sometimes get contentious.

But controversy over public lands isn’t a new thing… it actually goes back to their very beginning.

In Part One of our story on the history of Public Lands in the United States, we looked into the years immediately after the Louisiana Purchase of 1830 through the Homesteading Era of Manifest Destiny.

Part Two of this series investigates the early influencers who set the stage for people like John Muir and Teddy Roosevelt who led the Conservation Era of the late 1890’s and early 1900’s.

Bison in Yellowstone National Park

Bison in Yellowstone National Park. ph: charles watkins


Part Two: Setting the Stage for the Conservation Era of Public Lands

After the conclusion of the Civil War, America’s attention was drawn away from the strife of the Mid-Atlantic and Southern states and towards the unpopulated territories of the Louisiana Purchase.  Many of the war’s veterans were called westward and were tasked to explore or maintain new frontier outposts.  Some of those men and women, like John Wesley Powell and Ferdinand Hayden, became permanently enchanted with the West’s vast unspoiled beauty and would go on to explore it again and again – and would plant the early seeds of conserving the West’s beauty and bounty for future generations to come.

John Wesley Powell, the Colorado River and the Grand Canyon

john wesley powell grand canyon arizona

John Wesley Powell with Guide at Grand Canyon, Arizona

Starting in 1867, Powell led a series of expeditions into the Rocky Mountains and headwaters of the Grand (now Colorado) River, including a first ascent of Colorado‘s 14,259’ Longs Peak in 1868.  In May 1869, Powell and his team of adventurers, explorers and scientists set out to explore the length of the Green and Grand Rivers through present day Wyoming, Utah and Arizona.  With a team of nine men, four boats and enough food for 10 months, Powell’s expedition braved the violent, uncharted whitewater of the Grand Canyon and eventually succeed in their ambition, completing the harrowing journey on August 30, 1869.

The experience would forever color John Wesley Powell’s appreciation of the West.  Soon he would become the 2nd director of the US Geological Survey and be an early champion of Conservation and land preservation.  It was his belief that, except for about 2% of the lands that were near reliable water sources, the arid West was not suitable for widespread agricultural development.  He also believed that part of the natural progression of any maturing society included the proactive management of its natural resources.

Railroad companies, unsurprisingly, did not agree with Powell’s views the West.  They hoped that their (heavily subsidized) Homestead Act era investments would still pay off – by portraying an image of the west that was conducive to settlement and agriculture.  Through aggressive lobbying, the U.S. Congress would eventually go along with the urging and would develop legislation that encouraged pioneer settlement of the American West based on an agricultural use of land.  Meanwhile, the Grand Canyon itself would remain generally unseen and unused until interest renewed much later in the late 1890’s.

Galen Clark, Mariposa Grove and the Yosemite Valley

Galen Clark, in 1848, was just another anonymous Gold Rusher headed to California seeking a fortune in the state’s vast resources of precious metals.  In a unique twist of fate, Galen would contract tuberculosis upon arriving to California and would be prompted by his doctor to move inland towards an area that would eventually become known as Yosemite Valley.

“I went to the mountains to take my chances of dying or growing better, which I thought were about even.” (Galen Clark, 1856)

Galen Clark and the Mariposa Grove

Galen Clark and the Mariposa Grove

Upon seeking the therapeutic benefits of rest and clean outdoor air, Galen would accidentally discover the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoia trees near Yosemite Valley.  The massive trees would leave a deep impression upon Galen.  He would continue to go there, again and again, to spend most of his recovery time exploring the area and teaching others about the wonder of the piney leviathans.

Galen also wrote about protecting the special grove of trees to friends and the US Congress. He contributed to the writing and passage of legislation to protect the area, gaining support of US Senator John Conness from California. The act for the Yosemite Grant was signed into law by President Abraham Lincoln in 1864 and ceded the land to the state of California for preservation.  The grant was the first of its kind, protecting Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Grove of Giant Sequoias for “…public use, resort, and recreation… to be left inalienable for all time.”  Galen would go on to become the first “guardian of the grant.”

Yosemite would go on to later become one of the nation’s first national parks – but not without some political pushback.  Local California newspapers lamented the attempts to preserve the Yosemite’s Hetch Hetchy Valley – calling opponents “a crowd of nature lovers and fakers, who are waging a sentimental campaign to preserve the Hetch Hetchy Valley as a public playground, a purpose for which it has never been used.”  The conflict over the Hetch Hetchy would be a defining moment in the early 1900’s and continues to guide policies for the National Park Service to this day.

Ferdinand Hayden and The Yellowstone

The public lands that make up the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem lay at the convergence of several Native American cultures.  Ancestors of the Crow, Kiowa, Blackfeet, Nez Perce, and Shoshone were familiar with the area’s unusual geography for at least 11,000 years.  Colonial Americans from the Eastern States, however, were skeptical of early reports of the region’s fanciful geological features.  The rumors of the Nebraska Territory’s steam belching, sulfuric mud pots were too impossible to be taken seriously.  It wasn’t until the early 1870’s until enough information was recorded to motivate the US Army to deploy its’ first properly funded military expeditions to the area.

Lead-Hayden-Expedition-Ferdinand-Hayden-geologist-in-charge-at-Yellowstone-National-Park

Ferdinand Hayden at Yellowstone National Park

While Ferdinand Hayden’s name will not go down in history as the original discoverer of Yellowstone, he should go down in history for being the area’s most vocal advocate.  An Army Surgeon and another Civil War veteran, Hayden would eventually leave the Army to lead geological surveys of the Nebraska and Western Territories in the 1860’s.  In 1871, eleven years after his first attempt at reaching Yellowstone, Hayden led a Geological Survey to northwestern Wyoming with 50 men, including Thomas Moran, renowned landscape painter, and William Henry Jackson, famous frontier photographer.  Together the team would record their experiences and publish, “Preliminary Report of the United States Geological Survey of Montana and Portions of Adjacent Territories; Being a Fifth Annual Report of Progress” in 1872.  This report would be instrumental in convincing the US Congress to establish Yellowstone as the world’s first National Park.

Hayden’s passion for Yellowstone went far beyond this initial, official publication.  So convinced of the rare value of the Yellowstone region, that his belief in “…setting aside the area as a pleasure ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people” was absolute.  He would go on to warn contemporaries of his time that there were those who would come and “…make merchandise of these beautiful specimens.

Worrying the area could face the same fate as Niagara Falls, he concluded the site should “be as free as the air or water.”  In his report to the Committee on Public Lands, he concluded that if the bill to establish Yellowstone as a National Park failed to become law, “the vandals who are now waiting to enter into this wonder-land, will in a single season despoil, beyond recovery, these remarkable curiosities, which have required all the cunning skill of nature thousands of years to prepare.

…the vandals who are now waiting to enter into this wonder-land, will in a single season despoil, beyond recovery, these remarkable curiosities, which have required all the cunning skill of nature thousands of years to prepare.  Ferdinand Hayden, 1872.

Echos of the Present Era

Once established, Yellowstone National Park was not yet “out of the woods.”  There was an immediate backlash to the Park and its’ more restrictive land use regulations.  Some of the region’s local residents feared that the economy would be unable to thrive with the prohibitions against resource development and settlement .  Local entrepreneurs advocated for reducing the size of the park so that mining, hunting, and logging activities could resume.  Numerous legal attempts were proposed by Montana based Congressional representatives to redraw Yellowstone’s boundaries, ease regulations, or both. None of which were successful.

Mt. Haynes Yellowstone National Park

Mt. Haynes Yellowstone National Park. ph: Charles Watkins

While Yellowstone National Park was weathering legal attacks from thousands of miles away in Washington DC, it would also weather attacks within its own newly formed boundaries.  The park’s first superintendent, Nathaniel Langford, would report wide-scale poaching, vandalism, and unregulated/unapproved resource extractions.  Langford, who was not only was denied a salary, funding, or staff to protect the park, was also denied the regulations necessary to protect the park’s designation.

Aware of the park’s amazing natural value, Langford predicted that Yellowstone would become a major international attraction, and deserved ongoing stewardship from the government. In 1874, Langford advocated for the creation of a new federal agency whose sole purpose would be to protect the vast park.  Despite the seemingly obvious need, latent opposition in Congress persisted and the request was refused.

In 1875, Colonel William Ludlow, who had previously explored areas of Montana under the command of George Armstrong Custer, was assigned to organize and lead an expedition to Montana and the new Park. Observations about the lawlessness and exploitation of park resources were included in Ludlow’s Report of a Reconnaissance to the Yellowstone National Park.  The report included letters and attachments by other expedition members, including naturalist and mineralogist George Bird Grinnell.  Grinnell documented the excessive poaching of buffalo, deer, elk, and antelope in the area.

It would take the continued presence of the US Army in the area to stem the lawlessness that continued on through the 1880’s and 90’s.  Over the next 22 years, that protective troop would establish many of the management principles that would eventually be used by the National Park Service when it was later formed in 1916.


Coming In Part 3 of, “Understanding Public Lands and Why They Matter,”

We will meet the legends of the Conservation Era.  John Muir, Gifford Pinchot, and President Teddy Roosevelt would lead the U.S. into a new ways of valuing the vast beautiful landscapes of the West.

Teddy Roosevelt in Yosemite

Teddy Roosevelt in Yosemite