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A historian’s thoughts on how America both protects and exploits public lands

People walking on boardwalks at the Midway Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park.
Caitlin Tan
Wyoming Public Media
People walking on boardwalks at the Midway Geyser Basin in Yellowstone National Park.

When Yellowstone National Park was first founded 150 years ago, it was a landmark move. It was the world’s first national park signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant, and in the years since, it has represented America’s efforts to protect the outdoors.

However, Adam Sowards, a professor emeritus of history at the University of Idaho, recently wrote an op-ed for the Los Angeles Times detailing America's troubled history with public lands. Sowards spoke with Wyoming Public Radio’s Caitlin Tan.

Caitlin Tan: Adam, thanks for joining us today. A large part of the premise of your op-ed is the hypocrisy between the Yellowstone National Park Act and the General Mining Act of 1872. I'm wondering if you can explain these two acts for us and a little bit of the history?

Adam Sowards: The two laws were really interesting to me because they're passed just 10 weeks apart. And at first glance, they seem quite different. The Yellowstone National Park Act says, ‘Here's this landscape that we find really beautiful, and we want to protect it and keep people from using the resources and exploiting the resources.’ And then 10 weeks later, Congress passed and President Grant signed the General Mining Act, which said, ‘Pretty much anywhere you can find minerals, go ahead and take them out, and you don't have to pay for them. And you don't really have to worry about cleaning up after the fact.’ So those seem like really diametrically opposed ways of relating to the land.

I got thinking about them – like how did these two things come together in such a short amount of time? And started to wonder about the ways that they might be more similar than different. I think in that respect, one of the things that jumped out at me, of course, is that both laws – and pretty much all land laws that were passed throughout the 19th century – dispossessed indigenous people from their homelands. But also, both laws ended up in practical form helping to benefit corporations more than I think the general public.

CT: Could you give us a little more detail about how you feel like these laws have benefited corporations, perhaps more than the public?

AS: It's a bigger stretch to say that corporations benefit from the Yellowstone National Park Act, for example. However, it's important to recognize that one of the moving forces behind getting that law passed in the first place was Jay Cooke, who headed the Northern Pacific Railroad Company. Cook's railroad had not yet laid down its tracks north of Yellowstone, but it was preparing to. And he in particular was keenly interested in staving off any competitors from coming in. He recognized that his railroad had an opportunity to corner the market, if you will, on tourist traffic to a place like Yellowstone.

Corporations benefit from the mining law by having sort of free rein to go after minerals that are located on public lands. Before the 1872 law was passed, there was virtually no guidance from Congress. So any minerals taken from federal land was done through trespassing and essentially theft. When the law does get passed, it's no longer trespassing and theft. Corporations could go forth and look for them, find them, take them and not have to pay a dime for any of that.

CT: Do you feel like our national parks, such as Yellowstone National Park, are being exploited in other ways today? We're seeing more people visiting these parks than ever. There can be related infrastructure issues and

CT: Something that really stood out to me in your op-ed is that you say that the acts either designated the land as a ‘museum’ or a ‘sacrifice zone.’ And thinking about that, I guess I can understand the thinking of seeing this beautiful area, like the area of Yellowstone, and wanting to memorialize it as a museum and preserve it. And then also thinking about, ‘How are we going to develop natural resources for our country as our country develops? And what potentially will maybe need to be sacrificed?’ So on one hand, I can see some of the thinking behind that. What do you think? What do you think would have been a better approach?

AS: It's easy, sitting in 2022, looking back and saying, ‘Oh, they did it all wrong.’ And given the sort of prevailing values at the time and the ideology of Americans in 1872, maybe it's difficult to see a real clear alternative. However, I guess I made that point with the idea that when we try to protect something as a museum – where it's not going to be touched or manipulated – or we designate an area and say, ‘Yeah, sort of free for all do whatever you want there,’ it allows us to distance ourselves from daily actions. Distance ourselves from the consequences of our consumption patterns. And I guess what I’m hoping for, in a big picture way, is an ethic that allows us to live more sustainably, perhaps on a regular basis rather than segmenting off our recreation here and our expectation there. Because then we can write those places out of our daily lives in a way that I think ends up causing significant problems in the long run. sometimes debates about wildlife management. Do you have anything to add on those topics?

AS: Yeah. So the parks are a place where competing ideas for the appropriate relationship with nature get played out. And so this can be a fraught situation. Politically difficult for the Park Service, especially [a] Park Service that is not funded probably to the degree that it would like to be. And so there's lots of challenges around managing the experience for visitors or managing the place for the natural values and qualities of it, whether that's wildlife or plant communities, as climate change becomes a bigger and bigger issue shaping the ecosystems that parks include. And with the high interest from the public in these parks, I think it's harder to get some management practices in effect because of the competing ideas and demands the public has.

CT: Anything else you want to add?

AS: I always think that public lands are a great part of the democratic experiment of the United States. And that means they always fall short and can always do better, just like democracy more broadly. I think the more that we understand their past and appreciate their presence, we can shape their future in ways that are more equitable for people and the non-human world.

Caitlin Tan is the Energy and Natural Resources reporter based in Sublette County, Wyoming. Since graduating from the University of Wyoming in 2017, she’s reported on salmon in Alaska, folkways in Appalachia and helped produce 'All Things Considered' in Washington D.C. She formerly co-hosted the podcast ‘Inside Appalachia.' You can typically find her outside in the mountains with her two dogs.
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