CURRICULUM / Ideas / National Parks

Part 2: The Last Refuge, 1890-1915


Towards the end of the 19th century, there was a growing awareness that the nation's unrelenting rush to conquer and tame the land had come at a terrible cost. Forests had been devastated and entire species of animals had been ravaged, all in the name of progress.

The naturalist John Muir eloquently expressed his concern when he spoke of how the "great wilds of our country, once held to be boundless and inexhaustible, are being rapidly invaded and overrun…and everything destructible in them is being destroyed."

For the handful of Americans concerned for the future of the nation's natural places, the national parks represented a glimmer of hope that at least some pristine places could be saved before it was too late. Among those concerned few was a young politician, Theodore Roosevelt, who would later become president and whose lasting legacy would be rescuing large portions of America's natural landscape from destruction.

Before his presidency was over, Roosevelt would create five new national parks, 51 federal bird sanctuaries, four national game refuges, 18 national monuments, and more than 100 million acres' worth of national forests.



Although the four national parks that had been established by 1890 were under the protection of the Army, they were by no means out of danger. Park wildlife was routinely killed; livestock over-grazed park meadows; ancient forests were still under threat; tourists carved their names on rocks and trees.

In 1889, the well-known English author Rudyard Kipling described his visit to Yellowstone in dispatches that he wrote for overseas newspapers. In those early years, tourists would pour laundry soap into the mouths of geysers in a bid to hasten eruptions. At the most famous geyser, Old Faithful, women used their hairpins to scratch their names in the bottoms of pools.

No clear rules had been set out as to what constituted acceptable behavior in the parks.


While Congress had created the national parks, it had not made any provision for an authority to oversee them. The cavalry had been sent into Yellowstone as a temporary measure, but by the 1890s, the arrangement had become permanent.

It was a mammoth task for the army to patrol the park's 2 million acres on horseback. While they did their best to stop poachers and vandals, the soldiers had no recourse to punish offenders. No laws had been defined and so the wrongdoers were only issued warnings or, in severe cases, expelled from the park.

Protecting the park was dangerous work. In the frigid winter season, cavalrymen on skis patrolled for poachers. Conditions were often treacherous; soldiers died in avalanches and snowstorms, or were killed by poachers.

The cavalry was also in charge of patrolling the nation's three other national parks: General Grant, Sequoia, and Yosemite. Under Captain Charles Young, the first black man to be put in charge of a national park, soldiers built the first trail to Mount Whitney and erected protective fences around the big trees in Sequoia National Park.

Like their counterparts in Yellowstone, the troops in California operated without clear legal authority and had no power to arrest and prosecute criminals.

John Muir was extremely grateful for the Army's protective presence. However, to further ensure the Yosemite Valley's protection, Muir wanted it to be transferred from state control to the federal government and made part of a larger Yosemite National Park. In 1892, Muir and a handful of prominent Californians formed the Sierra Club to help promote Yosemite's protection.


The aptly named ornithologist George Bird Grinnell, editor and owner of Forest and Stream magazine, was keenly aware that the nation's bountiful natural resources were not inexhaustible. He could remember seeing immense flocks of passenger pigeons, so numerous that they darkened the sky. While traveling, he had encountered a buffalo herd so vast that his train was forced to stop for three hours while the beasts crossed the tracks.

Now, so much wildlife was rapidly disappearing. Passenger pigeons were on the verge of extinction. The country's last remaining herd of wild buffalo, estimated at only a few hundred animals, was in Yellowstone.

Grinnell used the pages of Forest and Stream to try to point Americans in a new direction. He wasn't against hunting; in fact he loved to hunt. But he feared that without wise management, there would be nothing left for hunters to shoot. He created the Audubon Society, aimed at stopping the heedless killing of wild birds. Together with rising political star Theodore Roosevelt, he battled to protect Yellowstone. But something was missing: there were still no laws in place to give Yellowstone's caretakers clear authority to protect its wildlife.


A poacher named Edgar Howell would soon unwittingly come to their aid when, on March 13, 1894, he was caught skinning the carcasses of buffaloes he had shot in Yellowstone. Howell bragged to a reporter that the worst punishment he could receive for his crime was expulsion from the park and the loss of equipment worth $26.75. Grinnell ran the story in Forest and Stream and succeeded in creating a public outcry.

On May 7, 1894, President Grover Cleveland signed a bill into law authorizing regulations 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."

In 1891, Congress had enacted the Forest Reserve Act, empowering presidents of the United States to set aside parcels of public land as national forest reserves.


John Muir and Gifford Pinchot, both key figures associated with the origins of the American conservation movement, would differ strongly on what should be permitted in these forest preserves. Pinchot was a Yale graduate who had studied forestry overseas and was the first American to declare himself a professional forester. The two men met in 1896 and initially enjoyed each other's company, agreeing that something had to be done to save America's forests from destruction.

Muir was a preservationist. He considered forests sacred and wanted them treated as parks, with logging, grazing, and hunting prohibited. Pinchot was a conservationist. He believed the best way to protect the forests was to manage their use, not leave them alone. His favorite saying was "the greatest good for the greatest number."

Pinchot's "utilitarian" conservation found favor with both Congress and the administration of President Grover Cleveland. Pinchot was appointed the nation's chief forester and the national forests became part of the Department of Agriculture, to be used and managed like a crop, not preserved like a temple.

Muir, who had already witnessed so much devastation by lumber syndicates, doubted that the new National Forest Service could adequately protect the forests. He and his supporters won a small victory in 1899, when they succeeded in turning Mount Rainier in Washington State from a national forest into a national park.


By 1900, feathers were in fashion and no woman's hat, it seemed, was complete without an array of plumes. Some hats even included entire stuffed birds. The long, white plumes of egrets had become more valuable than gold. To satisfy the demands of this latest fashion trend, more than 5 million birds a year were being slaughtered; nearly 95 percent of Florida's shore birds had been killed by plume hunters.


The Audubon Society tried unsuccessfully to persuade women not to buy hats with feathers, while the powerful millinery industry used its influence in Congress to defeat a series of national laws aimed at stopping the slaughter of birds.

An unlikely champion stepped forward in the form of Congressman John F. Lacey. Despite being part of a group of die-hard conservatives, when it came to defending wildlife, Lacey was one of the most progressive politicians of his day. After years of ceaseless effort, he won passage of the Lacey Bird and Game Act of 1900. The bill made it a federal crime to transport birds killed in violation of any state law, and soon government agents were confiscating huge shipments of bird skins and feathers.

But in the lawless Everglades, the Lacey Act did not put an end to plume hunting. Five years after the bill's passage, a game warden was murdered by poachers. Another was gunned down three years later. The wildlife in southern Florida, it seemed, would never be safe unless the Everglades itself was set aside as a national park.


As America moved into a new century, a new word – "conservation" – had crept into the nation's vocabulary. A new president, Theodore Roosevelt, would become conservation's greatest advocate and would turn the word into a movement.

Not since Thomas Jefferson had there been an American president with greater interest in the natural world. Much of Roosevelt's childhood was devoted to studying animals and learning taxidermy. At age 12, he donated some of his specimens to the American Museum of Natural History.

In 1883, after hearing reports about the rapidly disappearing herds of buffalo, 24-year-old Roosevelt headed west, afraid that the animals might become extinct before he had a chance to shoot one. He went home not only with a hunting trophy, but with an understanding of what was at stake in the debate about the future of nature in America.

Twenty years later, in 1903, he once again boarded a train headed west, arriving just outside of Yellowstone National Park. He was no longer a scrawny and inexperienced Easterner, but a national hero, and the youngest president in United States history.


President Theodore Roosevelt's visit to Yellowstone in 1903 was a break from an eight-week national tour during which he delivered over 200 speeches. Yearning to be alone in nature, he immediately set off on horseback with the Army's acting park superintendent, leaving the rest of the presidential entourage behind.

Roosevelt delighted in seeing so many animals, especially since the increase in game animals could be attributed to the wildlife protection bill that he, along with George Bird Grinnell and John F. Lacey, had worked so hard to pass.

The president was a hunter and he was itching to shoot something. Since the park managers were killing predators, he hoped a mountain lion would be fair game – until his advisers convinced him that killing any animal in a national park would not be good politics.

At the end of Roosevelts's two-week visit, he spoke at the construction site of a new arch at the north entrance of Yellowstone. In his speech, Roosevelt reminded people of the essential democratic principle embodied by the parks; they were created "for the benefit and enjoyment of the people." These words were later carved into the arch's mantle as a reminder of why the park was there – and for whom. 

The next stop on Roosevelt's whirlwind tour was a brief visit to the Grand Canyon where he was overwhelmed by the spectacular vista from the South Rim. The president urged the people of Arizona to "keep this great wonder of nature as it now is."


In 1889, rancher Richard Wetherill and his four brothers stumbled across ancient ruins in the cliffs of Mesa Verde in Colorado. They excavated the site, gathering thousands of artifacts which they sold to museums. The brothers sought to protect the ruins by making Mesa Verde a national park, but the government turned down their request.

When authorities tried to stop a Swedish archaeologist from sending a huge shipment of Mesa Verde artifacts abroad, they discovered that they were powerless to do so. There was no law in existence protecting antiquities.


Without any law protecting them, the ruins that the Wetherill brothers had first discovered at Mesa Verde were subjected to looting and vandalism.

Archaeologists were horrified by it all, fearing that a record of an ancient civilization would be lost forever. In their eyes, the Wetherill brothers were as much to blame as anyone else. This was a particularly sore spot for Richard Wetherill, who, despite his lack of formal education, wanted to be taken seriously as an archaeologist.

He had left Mesa Verde to search for other ruins in the southwest. Finally, in New Mexico, he came to a place called Chaco Canyon, where he began to study another set of ruins left behind by the ancient Puebloans.

Although Wetherill tried to carry on his work as scientifically as possible, he was still dismissed as a "pothunter," and professional archaeologists urged the government do something to stop him. Wetherill offered to give up any claim to the Chaco Canyon ruins, if only the federal government would do something to protect them.


On June 29, 1906, President Roosevelt signed the law creating Mesa Verde National Park. It was the first park created specifically to celebrate a prehistoric culture and its people, and marked a broadening of the park idea.

But while Mesa Verde had been saved, there was no law protecting any of the other ancient ruins scattered throughout the Southwest. Growing anger over Richard Wetherill's excavations at Chaco Canyon would set in motion events that would change the course of park history.

With the help of John F. Lacey, the Act for the Preservation of American Antiquities was passed. Now, any unauthorized disturbance of a prehistoric ruin was a federal crime.

The Antiquities Act also gave the president an extraordinary power: the exclusive authority – without any Congressional approval – to preserve places that would be called national monuments.


Theordore Roosevelt wasted no time in putting his new powers to use. Devils Tower, in eastern Wyoming, became the first of many national monuments. And on March 11, 1907, the president did exactly what Richard Wetherill had wanted, by creating Chaco Canyon National Monument.


Roosevelt would also use the Antiquities Act to protect Muir Woods, an endangered grove of giant coastal redwoods named after his friend John Muir. He would use it again at Muir's request, to save an endangered fossilized forest in Arizona that dated back 200 million years. With a stroke of his pen, he created the Petrified Forest National Monument.

There was one more national park that President Roosevelt wanted to add to his list: the Grand Canyon, which was under threat by developers, miners and ranchers. But local opposition was so strong that not even he could persuade Congress to act.

Roosevelt realized that the wording of the Antiquities Act could be used to his advantage. He created a furor when on January 11, 1908, he stretched the Act to its limit by declaring the Grand Canyon to be "an object of unusual scientific interest" – and a national monument.


In John Muir's eyes, the Hetch Hetchy Valley of Yosemite National Park was "one of Nature's rarest and most precious mountain temples." When the city of San Francisco, eager to create a better water supply, set its sights on building a dam in the Hetch Hetchy Valley, Muir embarked on a long and bitter fight to save his beloved temple.

Initially, Muir's view prevailed. But when, in 1906, an earthquake and ensuing fires reduced San Francisco to ash and rubble, politicians falsely claimed that a water supply from a reservoir at Hetch Hetchy could have prevented the destruction.

To John Muir, allowing a dam in a national park was sacrilege and set a dangerous precedent. To Gifford Pinchot, Muir's old adversary, who had stepped forward to campaign on the city's behalf, it would be the "greatest good for the greatest number." Despite Muir's appeal to President Roosevelt to save Hetch Hetchy, Pinchot's view eventually prevailed.

In 1913, President Woodrow Wilson signed the bill approving the dam into law. Muir, now 75, was devastated. In December of 1914, he came down with pneumonia and on Christmas Eve, the wilderness prophet died. Four years after Muir's death, work on the dam began.

Muir may have lost the fight, but it had struck a chord in many Americans, who rightly wondered if any of the national parks were truly safe. A proposal that Muir had supported began gaining greater ground: to create an agency within the federal government whose sole job would be to protect the national parks – to make sure they endured for countless generations.