How the U.S. Army Saved Our National Parks

When Capt. Moses Harris and his troops from Company M, First Cavalry marched into Yellowstone in August 1886, the world’s first national park was in chaos.

Fourteen years of corrupt or incompetent management by political appointees threatened its existence. There had been little protection of the park’s natural wonders. Congressional funding was an afterthought. But by the time the Army handed Yellowstone’s administration to the fledgling National Park Service 30 years later, it had set in motion policies and procedures that would serve as the model for park management for decades to come.

“The Army went a long way towards protecting an area that had very little protection and turned it into a place of relative tranquility, where tourists could enjoy it while also protecting its wonders.” Without that intervention, “Congress might have thrown up its hands and turned it over to private settlement. There certainly were a fair number of voices yelling for that in Congress.”

Yellowstone was designated as a national park in 1872, and the Department of the Interior was charged with the “preservation, from injury or spoliation, of all timber, mineral deposits, natural curiosities, or wonders within said park, and their retention in their natural condition.”

But prior to Harris’ arrival, rampant poaching so endangered bison, elk, deer and other animals that Buffalo Bill Cody had written a letter to the New York Sun pleading for protections. Timber cutting and grazing left swaths of land devastated. Fires set by angry settlers—there were three large blazes ongoing at the time of Harris’s arrival—destroyed acre after acre. Vandals sliced fragile pieces of ornate travertine with axes to sell as souvenirs and signed their names on geyser formations.

Congress was so angry with the inept administration of the park that it refused to allocate funds. As part of a compromise agreement funding the park, control shifted to the military, under the direction of the Department of the Interior.

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