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Smoke Gets in Your Eyes

Peter Ling and Brian Stoner look at the history of Yellowstone Park and its fiery struggle between Man and Nature.

A profligate consumer of the world's resources, the United States has nonetheless pioneered environmental policies. The founding of Yellowstone National Park in 1872 was the world's first instance of large-scale wilderness preservation. Intended originally to preserve Yellowstone's geysers and waterfalls, the measure acquired a broader purpose as industrialisation, urbanisation, and the taming of the 'Wild West' alerted Americans to the perilous transformation in progress.

The 1890 Census reported not only the passing of the frontier but also dwindling supplies of timber. Congress responded with the Forest Reserves Act of 1891 and trained foresters such as Gifford Pinchot urged conservation as a policy of scientific management for designated National Forests. Concurrently, nature-writers like John Muir popularised the therapeutic recreational role of wild places for an increasingly industrial and urban civilisation. While this preservationist view was ultimately at odds with Pinchot's utilitarian conservationism, both reflected human, rather than environmental, priorities.

Pinchot wanted to ensure the supply of timber, Muir to safeguard the supply of awe-inspiring scenery. Established for man's benefit not nature's, Yellowstone and other National Parks were entrusted by Congress in 1916 to a new agency, the National Parks Service (NPS), whose director Stephen Mather boosted the number of visitors with his 'See America First' campaign.

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