The Establishment of Grand Teton National Park

The establishment of Grand Teton National Park in its current form in 1950 ended a 30-year controversy over attempts to extend federal government control in northwestern Wyoming. At the peak of the controversy in the early 1940s, some Jackson Hole residents warned that National Park Service control of the area meant "your recreational privileges in Jackson Hole will be practically at an end. There will be ‘don't’ signs staring you in the face every mile or less," in the words of an unsigned letter circulated in the area at the time.

Other residents, however, supported federal control as a means of conservation. The National Park Service, philanthropist John D. Rockefeller, Jr., and national media entered the fray and enlarged the debate. In the end, the establishment of the park preserved some of the most spectacular scenery in North America. Nearly three million tourists now visit the park every year.

Grand Teton National Park, located in northwest Wyoming, includes the northern portions of the Teton Range and the valley of Jackson Hole. Viewed from the east, the Tetons rise abruptly from the flat valley floor. Since they are among the youngest mountains in North America and still actively growing, they have not had time to become heavily eroded; their jagged outline was sculpted by moving ice during the last glacial period. In Jackson Hole at the base of the mountains, the Snake River winds south, feeding a chain of several lakes that are also contained within the park.

Archeological evidence shows that Native Americans first appeared in Jackson Hole approximately 10,000 years ago. The ruggedness of the country and its inhospitable winters meant that most Indian bands visited the area in summertime only, although the Mountain Shoshone, also known as Sheepeaters, did live there year-round. The first European residents of the area were fur trappers and outlaws who began arriving in the early 19th century. Because of the rough terrain and severe weather, homesteading did not begin until the 1880s.

Early conservation efforts

Jackson Hole, named for fur trapper David Jackson, was soon recognized as a remarkable place. English mountaineer William Baillie-Grohman wrote in an 1882 memoir that "there are few spots in the Western mountain lands about which there hangs so much frontier romance," and attributed this to "the quite exceptional natural beauty of the spot."

By that time, the idea of conservation of beautiful places was already beginning to gain some support. Ferdinand Hayden, chief of one of four U.S. government surveys then investigating the West, sent a small party in 1872 to explore and photograph the Tetons and Jackson Hole. Hayden told his photographer, William Henry Jackson, that he hoped to generate "widespread public interest" in the natural attractions of public lands. In addition to Jackson, who took the first known pictures of the Tetons, the party included climber Nathaniel Langford, who claimed to have reached the summit of the Grand Teton—the highest peak of the Teton Range—on this trip.

In 1897, President Grover Cleveland took the first step toward conservation of the Tetons with the establishment of Teton Forest Reserve on 829,440 acres south of present-day Yellowstone National Park. Climber, surveyor and Wyoming State Auditor William Owen earned credit for the first ascent of the Grand Teton in 1898 (and spent much of his later life working to defend his claim).

In 1908, President Theodore Roosevelt expanded the reserve into the 1,991,200-acre Teton National Forest, covering all of the Teton Range and including half of the land that would later become Grand Teton National Park. In 1918, President Woodrow Wilson made a move toward more protection of the area by giving the National Park Service veto power over any development plans the Forest Service might have in 600,000 acres of the northern Tetons.

Local opposition

A proposal to change part of Teton National Forest to a national park was drafted that year by the National Park Service and introduced by Wyoming Congressman Frank Mondell. The bill passed the House easily, but was defeated in 1919 in the Senate by the parliamentary maneuverings of Sen. John Nugent of Idaho. Idaho sheep ranchers who used the affected land as summer pasture worried that their grazing rights would be curtailed, as had happened in other national parks, and persuaded Nugent to object.

With the defeat of this first proposal, fresh, local opposition began to crystallize in Jackson Hole, led by residents who disliked the idea of a national park. It was becoming clear how effective a small, determined resistance could be.

This local opposition was at least partly fueled by the different conservation philosophies of the U.S Forest Service and the National Park Service. The Forest Service, part of the Department of Agriculture, manages its land to yield goods and revenue in as many ways as possible, including timber, livestock pasture, and recreational development. Conservation is also a priority, but national forests provide many more commercial opportunities than national parks.

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About the Author

Annette Hein is a geology student at Casper College and lives near Casper, Wyo. She recently took third place in the essay competition New Frontiers in Astronomy and Cosmology sponsored by the University of Chicago. Her writing has appeared in the Casper Star-Tribune and Casper Journal.

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