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October 20, 2020 4 min read

By Jeanelle Carpentier

In 1872, Ulysses S. Grant signed a bill for the establishment of the first U.S. National Park--Yellowstone.Thus began a worldwide movement to protect natural spaces.  Other unique domains within the United States were soon to be considered for National Park Status. A declaration of intent for these natural domains was "for the benefit and enjoyment of the people." A noble sentiment, but "benefit and enjoyment" must have limits.

A recent example widely reported in the media occurred in Zion National Park in July of 2020, where graffiti defaced beautiful sandstone walls. Vandalism can be defined as deliberate destruction of or damage to public or private property.  It's not only current news in our parks, however.Injury to these beautiful landscapes has dated back even before National Park inauguration.  

Let’s go back to 1871, when geologist and naturalist Ferdinand V. Hayden led the U.S. Geological Survey Hayden Expedition (into the Yellowstone region.) Ferdinand noted, “Vandals are now waiting to enter this wonderland, who will in a single season despoil beyond recovery these remarkable curiosities which have required all the cunning skills of nature thousands of years to prepare.” His statement was very accurate. Souvenir hunters came to break off pieces of the geological features, poachers killed native species, developers would set up tourist camps, other exploiters flocked into these precious lands, and often laundry was done in the geothermal pools. Yes, even laundry. Additionally, items such as chairs, handkerchiefs, clothing, soap, trees, rocks, and bottles were being thrown into geothermal features. Spectators took great amusement in watching items shoot out of the geysers when they erupted. Imagine, watching a chair shooting one hundred feet out of a geyser? It would probably look pretty cool, but sadly this led to some of the features becoming permanently clogged and damaged. 

With all of the feasting on the land happening, alas, the region became a National Park! However, gaining National Park status doesn’t just keep the wolves away, so to speak. Initially, there was only one man delegated to watch over, preserve and protect the entire 2.2 million acres of the park. This was clearly an unachievable task for one man. They needed not one man, but an army! By the early 1900’s, 324 soldiers were stationed in Fort Yellowstone. This was also the era where feeding bears became a roadside attraction, the big bad wolf was eradicated from the park, tourists could walk or bike up to geothermal features damaging the travertine terraces, and further taboos occurred. Luckily, times have changed! We have come a long way in our parks with conservation, awareness, management, scientific research, protection, and monitoring, but there is still a constant threat to these wild places. Human impacts on these public lands are becoming more and more relevant with increases in the number of visitors.  

After over 30 years of the army standing guard in Yellowstone National Park, a new title, that of National Park Ranger, was introduced.That military wide brim hat and green attire came with that title, and it remains currently as a nationwide National Park Service Uniform.Without the army of Park Rangers and further protection services, what would our parks look like today? I can’t even imagine. 

Unfortunately, throwing items into geysers, hot springs, mud pots, and fumaroles still continues in the park. Coins, clothing, garbage and more will be found chucked into these beautiful features. Tossing of these items into the features not only can clog and choke them, but it can severely alter the microorganisms and minerals within that further changes the color and temperatures of the water. My motto when guiding in the National Parks has always been “What doesn’t grow here, don’t ever throw here”. 

I have encountered many tourists walking off of the boardwalks in the park near the geothermal features. Not only is this extremely dangerous, but it destroys the beautiful bacteria mats and leaves footprints there for years to come. While viewing wildlife in Yellowstone, I have personally witnessed several near misses with tourists injuring themselves getting too close to wildlife. Is their photo really worth their life? Must they leave their name carved or marked into this natural landscape? Do we really need to know that Joe was here in 2015? I don’t think so. Please throw your coins into a piggy bank and not into Morning Glory Pool. Kindly please take all of your laundry and trash with you. Yellowstone is not a washing machine. 

Park service spends a great deal of time removing invasive items thrown in from tourists into the geothermal areas with mechanical arms, boats and other devices, but it is not an easy or a thorough task to complete. The Morning Glory pool is alternatively known as the “Garbage Can” and is no longer the radiant colors it once was due to so much human contamination placed within. Fortunately, heavy fines and up to six months of jail time have been implemented if one is caught vandalizing.   

In 1988, 9 fires in Yellowstone were caused by human impact and lit almost ½ of the park up in flames.These fires left a permanent scar. Additional acts of vandalism to Yellowstone National Park today include, but are not limited to: endangerment to wildlife, littering, hiking or walking off paths and boardwalks, defacing or stealing of natural materials or objects, graffiti, driving off established roads, improper bathroom use, and more. Are the parks being loved to death? 

There is always a need for further protection within these public lands. Currently, organizations such as  Yellowstone Forever,Parks Project,  National Park Coffee Company and more are helping with further protection. What can you do to help? Educate yourself and others. Keep your distance from animals. Read signs within the park. Report any vandalism to the Park Service. Do not go off boardwalks or trails. Take only photos, leave only footprints. There is a plethora of resources before entering the parks, two excellent areas to obtain knowledge are:  The National Park Service Websiteand  Leave No Trace.Plan and prepare. Get involved or donate to help these spaces. Enjoy the parks and keep them wild. Protect our parks for future generations to come.