One theme of Karen Roles’ recent talk to the Pahaska Corral of the Westerners Club in Cody was “Who owns Yellowstone?” Everyone in the room at the Irma Hotel thought the answer was obvious: You, me and all American citizens.
That was not necessarily the wrong answer, but there was another way to view it. From the first moment Yellowstone National Park became a national park in 1872, it seemed everyone wanted a piece of the action.
Despite the establishment of Yellowstone as the world’s first national park under the signature of President Ulysses S. Grant, the nation’s conservation ethic was not what it is today. True, the premise of setting aside Yellowstone and preserving its wonders for the people and future generations was a milestone. Yet many schemed to make $$$ from Yellowstone, including our esteemed town founder William F. Cody.
The actual name of Roles’ talk was “Collecting Yellowstone.” It was a preview of a fuller speech to be delivered in June in a program at the Buffalo Bill Center of the West. Roles and Samantha Harper, tag teamed this visit into the Center’s library archives.
The trail of paper following Yellowstone’s history, its exploration, founding, establishment, expansion and policies as attendance grew, must be a million pages long.
Other claimants to who owns the Park might be Native Americans, who were there first, government entities, the animals and tourists. They all have been stakeholders.
There is some commercial activity in Yellowstone, including guided trips, hotels, food and souvenir concessionaires, fishing and tour boat rentals. Probably, if left unregulated, somebody would have drilled for oil on spec.
Buffalo Bill was a pretty good salesman. He helped convince people to live in Cody, after all, and he led a Wild West exhibition all over the world while selling 70 million tickets.
Cody was a great believer in the value of Yellowstone. The railroad (another business) ran into Yellowstone. Cody wanted to run a stagecoach line over the muddy road. The promoter Cody suggested President William Taft establish a summer White House at Yellowstone. Cody said he would make sure Taft was given land nearby.
Cody produced brochures promoting his hotels, the Irma, the Wapiti Inn, and Pahaska and extolled Yellowstone as “The Wonderland.” He insisted “the best part of (Yellowstone) would be missed” if people didn’t go through the East Entrance. Cody was a human Chamber of Commerce before there was a local Chamber of Commerce. Roles noted it was an open question, “Who was going to be in control?”
For years, no one was in charge. Then it was the Army. From 1916 on, the Park Service was the boss. Over time some overzealous businessmen had to be tossed out of the Park. Somehow, while encouraging greater visitation, and eventually discouraging some unwise practices (such as feeding bears), things shook out.
There are still guided trips, a few hotels to sleep in and places for food. But there are no oil wells marring the landscape, nor tacky businesses.
For the most part, Yellowstone is still Yellowstone, the way it was, except for better roads.