Yellowstone: The Shining Beacon For Conservation

Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone. The park was originally created to protect geological phenomena like geysers and canyons. Photo George Wuerthner

The year 2022 is the 150th birthday of the creation of Yellowstone National Park. The establishment of the park in 1872 is something to celebrate globally. It is a shining beacon for conservation as well as public ownership. Yet, I don’t think most people appreciate today what a remarkable achievement it was and still is.

Roosevelt Arch at the north entrance in Gardiner, Montana. Photo George Wuerthner 

In the post-Civil War era, the United States suffered from enormous debt and had onerous taxation. To revive and expand the national economy, Congress enacted laws like the Homestead Act, Mining Act of 1872, Timber and Stone Act, and numerous railroad land giveaways to expand settlement and development in the West.

Within a general attitude that if you couldn’t mine it, log it, ranch it, or farm it, the land had no value, and remarkably Congress withdrew the Upper Yellowstone River country from commercial and private development.

The original goal of Yellowstone was to preserve natural features like hot springs and  undeveloped lands–it was a revolutionary idea. Photo George Wuerthner 

The Act creating Yellowstone called explicitly for “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.”

We may take for granted protecting wildlife and ecosystems as expected, but in 1872 it was revolutionary thinking.

Yellowstone was one of the first places where public access was guaranteed. Photo George Wuerthner

Historically, when hunting preserves and large landscapes were owned by royalty or the wealthy elite, Yellowstone was open free to the public (and should be again, in my view).

Though the original justification of the park was to protect the “curiosities or wonders,” namely the geological features like hot springs, geysers, and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone, it also served a much larger purpose.

Elk antler on Hoodoo Peak in the North Absaroka Wilderness along Yellowstone’s eastern border. The Yellowstone Forest Reserve was established in 1891 (now Shoshone National Forest) to protect the migration corridor for elk and other wildlife. Photo George Wuerthner 

It soon became apparent that Yellowstone was also the last haven for wildlife. As a result, Yellowstone was the first place where the nation attempted to recover a species on the verge of extinction (i.e., wild bison).

It also prompted the creation of the Yellowstone Forest Reserve in 1891 (now Shoshone National Forest) on the eastern flank of Yellowstone to protect migrating elk and the winter range.

The Lacy Act was enacted to shelf wildlife like bison from illegal hunting and poaching. Photo George Wuerthner 

Congress passed the Lacy Act in 1900, one of the first national laws enacted expressly to shield wildlife from illegal hunting and poaching of the last wild bison and elk, and other wildlife still residing in the park. Besides banning the sale or trade of wildlife or parts, the law authorizes the restoration of game and birds in parts of the U.S. where they have become extinct or rare; this was a forerunner of the Endangered Species Act.

The Yellowstone Hunting Act of 1894 made hunting illegal in the park, and was one of the first places where wildlife was given protection from human exploitation.

Yellowstone is where some of the most progressive wildlife policies were first enacted. Photo George Wuerthner

Although at times, Yellowstone enacted ill-advised policies. Due to the priority put on scientific study, many programs were modified or reversed when it became apparent, they did not protect the values of the park. After studies in Yellowstone, the killing of predators was halted, and eventually, wolves were restored. After decades of feeding grizzly bears, the practice was stopped, and the park is the center of grizzly recovery. The park also discontinued the stocking of non-native fish and now works to restore native fish stocks. Today it harbors one of the only continuously wild bison herds in the country. It was one of the first places to recognize the ecological benefits of large wildfires.

Yellowstone has consistently been at the forefront of the nation and much of the globe in practicing progressive wildlife policies.

Clepsydra geyser erupting, Fountain Paint Pots, Yellowstone NP, WY. Photo George Wuerthner 

Yellowstone was also the first place where geological development beyond its boundaries was prohibited when tapping the underground geothermal system outside of the park was outlawed by Congressional action.

Yellowstone acts as a large natural “scientific control” where human manipulation of the landscape is minimized. Photo George Wuerthner 

Yellowstone is also a scientific control, where we can see how natural systems function (to the degree any do) without excessive human manipulation.

Park Ranger leading an interpretive walk at Mesa Verde National Park, Colorado. Photo George Wuerthner 

It was the first place where interpretation by park rangers was implemented.

The Tombstone Mountains of the Yukon anchors the northern end of the Yukon to Yellowstone landscape protection proposal. Photo George Wuerthner

Yellowstone is also the first place where a “greater ecosystem” was proposed and is now commonly discussed. And it is now the anchor of even more ambitious landscape-scale protection strategies such as the Yukon to Yellowstone and the Yellowstone to Unitas. It may be time to expand the park to encompass more of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.

Yellowstone has been emulated across the globe–Parque Patagonia in Chile. Photo George Wuerthner 

Due to its international reputation, Yellowstone has been emulated across the globe. We can be thankful that parks modeled on Yellowstone have been established in over 100 countries. The fact that we still have mountain gorillas or Siberian tigers is partly due to the international adoption of the national park idea.

Maya temple at Tikal, Guatemala. The park idea has been expanded to preserve and interpret historic, archeological and other human achievements or values. Photo George Wuerthner 

There is much to celebrate about the creation of Yellowstone National Park. Although there is a growing denigration of the park idea across the globe from lefty Anthropocene boosters who put humans concerns ahead of wildlife and landscape protection, most people recognize that if Yellowstone had not been created, it would end up like all other lands, privatized and likely logged, grazed, mined, and covered with trashy tourist development.

Where a grizzly has chewed up a bear management area sign. Yellowstone sets an example where humans attempt to put the needs of wildlife and ecosystems ahead of human desires. George Wuerthner 

Yellowstone is a shining beacon of the best expressions of humanity where we attempt to put Nature first (and largely succeed) instead of human settlement and exploitation.

Yellowstone was also established for people to learn about and enjoy the natural world. Photo George Wuerthner

Yellowstone is where restraint, humility, and responsibility towards other creatures and the land are prioritized. We need more Yellowstones, not less.

Yellowstone is the shining beacon of how humans have both an obligation as well as responsibility to preserve some parts of the Earth for wildlife and natural ecosystem function. George Wuerthner 

Let’s hope that society has the wisdom to continue to put the protection of wildlife and ecosystems first and to expand these ideas to more of the globe.


  1. Frank Krosnicki Avatar
    Frank Krosnicki

    George, thank you for an article that points out the wonder of Yellowstone. Hopefully, some of us who do not have the appreciation for Yellowstone as well as our other National Parks will learn to value our treasures that are too often taken for granted.

  2. Ted Heisel Avatar
    Ted Heisel

    Well said. A source of hope. Now if we could just make the General Mining Law’s 150th year its last.

  3. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    “Yellowstone is also the first place where a “greater ecosystem” was proposed and is now commonly discussed. And it is now the anchor of even more ambitious landscape-scale protection strategies such as the Yukon to Yellowstone and the Yellowstone to Unitas. It may be time to expand the park to encompass more of the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem.”

    A dream I hope comes true.

    Yellowstone is a wonder!

  4. Chris Zinda Avatar
    Chris Zinda

    “Yellowstone is a shining beacon of the best expressions of humanity where we attempt to put Nature first (and largely succeed) instead of human settlement and exploitation.”

    Yellowstone certainly isn’t a shining beacon of preservation, and GW continues to grift the term, conflating with conservation.

    The park has no carrying capacity, all but the winter season hammered and thoroughly settled both front and backcountry; in the winter, the air pollution worse than summer due to snow machine traffic.

    Nature is not first in Yellowstone, the NPS mission conservation and visitation, the advocates conservationists and visitors themselves, no beacon of preservation to be heard or seen.

    1. Chris Zinda Avatar
      Chris Zinda

      For giggles.

      The only official NPS carrying capacity is for bison, not people. I bet if bison were in charge, the shoe would be on the other hoof.

  5. Robert Raven Avatar

    Great article. We need to protect more wild lands, and restore and re-wild degraded land. One way is to ban ranching, logging and mining from public lands.

  6. Beeline Avatar

    Check out

    This article by Mike Garrity describes the real threat to our public lands in the Yellowstone area. It is not so much social justice programs we have to worry about it is the collaboration of federal agencies, NGO’s and corporations that are doing the damage.

  7. Ida Lupine Avatar
    Ida Lupine

    Yes, this was awesome. I saw it on the news last night, and had wanted to post as well. One of the best things about it is she started at 85!

    I also loved her quote: “It’s important to revisit history as it was lived, to measure how far we’ve come.”

    By that I assume she means not tear it all down. 🙂

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