On March 1, 1872, Yellowstone became America’s first national park — a vast wilderness in the western U.S. that has offered millions of visitors each year the opportunity to see wildlife and geothermal areas up close.
Yellowstone National Park officially celebrates its 150th anniversary on Tuesday, and park managers say they have learned "many lessons" throughout its history. Prior to its establishment, Yellowstone was a place where Native Americans lived, hunted and used thermal waters for religious and medicinal purposes.
Today, the park faces new challenges, and officials have set strategic priorities in the years ahead to preserve its mission for present and future generations.
History of Yellowstone National Park
Yellowstone is located in mostly Wyoming, as well as parts of Montana and Idaho. Native Americans lived on the land for over 10,000 years before Yellowstone became a national park. And based on its location at the convergence of the Great Plains, Great Basin and Columbia Plateau, more than 25 Native American Tribes have historic and modern connections to the land and its resources, according to the National Parks Service.
An act establishing Yellowstone National Park was signed into law in 1872 by President Ulysses S. Grant "as a public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people." Many congressmen at the time gave it their support simply because they believed the rugged and isolated region was of little economic value, according to History.com.
But its development popularized the idea of preserving sections of land for use as public parks. Congress went on to authorize dozens of other national parks and monuments, and the idea also spread to other countries around the world.
Yellowstone was originally placed "under exclusive control of the Secretary of the Interior." But by the early 1900s, the need for an agency whose sole purpose was to manage the national parks became apparent — leading to the creation of the National Parks Service in 1916.
Preserving Yellowstone's ecosystem
The NPS says it has learned many things in the park's 150-year history, including how to properly preserve its ecosystem — which is one of the largest nearly intact natural ecosystems on the planet.
Yellowstone has over 10,000 hydrothermal sites and half the world's active geysers, according to NPS. There are nearly 300 species of birds, 16 species of fish, five species of amphibians, six species of reptiles, and 67 species of mammals, including seven native hoofed mammal species and two bear species.
The park is also rich in cultural and historical resources with 25 sites, landmarks, and districts on the National Register of Historic Places.
"In the early 1900s, the government killed nearly all predators in the park, and the bison population was hunted to less than two dozen," the NPS states on its website. "Later that century, the fires of 1988 burned more than one-third of the park, and the introduction of nonnative lake trout decimated native Yellowstone cutthroat populations."
The agency said modern resource management efforts involving bison, grizzly bears, native fish, gray wolves, wildland fires, and more have helped Yellowstone’s ecosystem become "the healthiest it has been in over a century."
Yellowstone National Park faces new challenges
Park officials say Yellowstone faces a host of new challenges, including deteriorating infrastructure, employee housing, ongoing historic preservation, the effects of climate change and increasing tourism.
Last year, officials announced that Yellowstone received almost 4.5 million recreation visits through September 2021 — which was a record high.
As a result, Yellowstone has set five major "strategic priorities" to guide decision-making over the next several years. The priorities revolve around the concepts of core (workforce), resources, visitor experience, infrastructure investments, and partnerships.
"Yellowstone is bigger than its boundary," NPS officials state online. "Each of our partners play a vital role in making decisions that protect Yellowstone for future generations and improve the positive conservation, environmental, economic, and social impacts the park provides this region and the country."
Yellowstone has several activities planned throughout 2022 to celebrate its anniversary and "open dialogue on the lessons learned from yesterday, the challenges of today, and a vision for tomorrow." Some events are virtual as well as in-person — including a public event at the Old Faithful Inn on May 6 coinciding with the summer opening of the historic inn.
This story was reported from Cincinnati.