The Old Faithful Inn in 1909

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Yellowstone National Park


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Remembering The 1988 Yellowstone Fire

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Single Vertol helicopter filling bucket above Madison River.
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Writen by Liane Hansen and Laura Krantz for National Public Radio. (August 31, 2008)

Twenty years ago, in the summer of 1988, Yellowstone caught fire. The fires, which began in June, continued to burn until November, when winter snows extinguished the last blazes. Over the course of that summer and fall, more than 25,000 firefighters were brought in from around the country.

In the end, the flames scorched about 1.2 million acres across the greater Yellowstone area, leaving the impression that the world's first national park had been destroyed.

Scott McMillion reported for the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, in Bozeman, Mont., for 20 years. One of his earliest assignments was covering the 1988 fires.

"Yellowstone is a beloved icon," McMillion said. "It was a celebrity fire in a celebrity place. Everyone knows about Yellowstone and there was an impression that it was being allowed to burn to the ground."

The heightened media presence and the televised coverage of the fires horrified many people who believed that Yellowstone would be forever ruined. But the doom and gloom prophecies about the destruction of Yellowstone proved to be wrong.

'Wonderland' Of The West

Lee Whittlesey is Yellowstone's official historian. He's a small, wiry man, sporting a red, plaid lumberjack shirt and an impish grin. He works at the Yellowstone National Park Heritage Research Center in Gardiner, Mont., just outside the north entrance to the park.

"Congress carved it out of territorial Montana, Wyoming, and Idaho," well before they became states," Whittlesey explains. "So, if you look at an 1872 map of the American West, you see the rectangle of Yellowstone National Park and nothing else for hundreds of miles. It's the oldest entity in this region."

But despite its remote location, the park quickly attracted a lot of attention. Even before it was officially established, it was called "Wonderland," named from Lewis Carroll's book, Alice's Adventures in Wonderland.

Mentions of Yellowstone in newspapers and magazines began to appear as early as 1871. The first such article was titled, "The Wonders of the Yellowstone." It described the geysers, hot springs, mud pots and steam vents that were considered the original attractions in the park. These thermal features were unlike anything anyone had seen before and they heightened people's curiosity.

That fascination with Yellowstone hasn't changed much in the 136 years since the park's founding. At peak tourist season, hundreds of people line the boardwalks around the Old Faithful geyser, the park's most famous attraction. Those who have visited the park, and even those who have only seen pictures, consider it to be a national treasure and in need of protection — both from humans and from more natural threats, like fires.

The Fires Of 1988

Fire is nothing new in Yellowstone. The park has survived many of them and usually averages at least one a year. Often these are smaller fires, which go out on their own. Starting in 1972, the National Park Service implemented a "let it burn" policy, allowing natural fires — those caused by lightning — to run their course. It proved to be a successful strategy and the park service continued to follow that policy for the next 16 years.

But the summer of 1988 proved to be different from previous fire seasons. By June, Yellowstone was already in a severe drought, despite higher than average rainfall in the spring. By mid-July, fires — caused both by lightning and human carelessness — had consumed close to 17,000 acres in the park. No rain, low humidity, and increasing winds made the Park Service nervous and the "let it burn" policy was put on hold.

By the end of July, the larger fires had become nearly uncontrollable. Public sentiment was that the Park Service had failed to do its job. But according to Park Superintendent Bob Barbee, the situation was unavoidable.

"No matter what we would have done, the conditions were such that there were going to be great fires in Yellowstone under any circumstances," he said. "They were started by lightning, by outfitters, by woodcutters — we were a perfect setup to burn."

The worst day of the 1988 fires came on Aug. 20, a day known as "Black Saturday." High winds propelled the extremely hot and fast-burning fires across more than 150,000 acres, practically doubling the amount of land that had already burned.

By this point, the national media had turned its full attention to the events in Yellowstone. The locals, too, were worried. The fires were only a few miles away and they seemed dangerously out of control.

The Benefit Of Blazes

What many in the media, and in the general public, failed to understand at the time was that fire — even fire of this magnitude — was necessary to maintain the overall health of Yellowstone's ecosystem. Lodgepole pines — tall, skinny trees with branches near the top, or crown — dominate most of Yellowstone's landscape. Some of their pine cones are sealed with a waxy resin and only open once temperatures reach above 113 degrees Fahrenheit. In other words, the trees need the heat of those fires in order to reproduce.

"Fire is as important to the great lodgepole ecosystems of the Northern Rockies as sunshine and rain," Barbee said. "So the forest recycled itself quickly. Now if you go to Yellowstone, you'll see a carpet of green, the forest is fully recovering. And so we don't characterize the fire as causing damage to the park."

A visit to the park proves his point. The 1988 fires undeniably changed Yellowstone's landscape, but they didn't destroy the park. Seedlings began to appear as early as 1989 and now there are healthy and green 20-year-old trees covering the park.

The fires also provided a sort of "living laboratory" for scientists to learn about how ecosystems recover. More than 250 fire-related research projects have been conducted in the past two decades, examining the fire's impact on wildlife, water and vegetation.

  • August 31, 2008

A history of presidential visits to Yellowstone National Park

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Franklin D Roosevelt & Eleanor with Superintendent Rogers; Photographer unknown; 1937
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By Todd Wilkinson, Correspondent to the Christian Science Monitor August 15, 2009

From Chester Arthur to Barack Obama,American presidents have come to the peace, quiet and grandeur of Yellowstone. A refreshing change from the political heat and conflict of Washington.

1883 -- Eleven years after Yellowstone was created and just seven years after the nearby Battle of the Little Bighorn between the U.S. Cavalry and three native American tribes, Chester Arthur rides on horseback through Yellowstone and cuts the tape to open a new rail line that will transport eastern tourists to park headquarters at Mammoth Hot Springs.

1903 -- President Theodore Roosevelt arrives in the gateway town of Gardiner to lay the cornerstone for the Roosevelt Arch, today a Yellowstone icon. He was accompanied on a two-week visit by the eminent naturalist John Burroughs, who wrote about the adventures they had in his book “Camping And Tramping With Roosevelt,” published in 1907.

1923 -- Warren Harding visits Yellowstone just one month before he died. During his outing, the president fed bears, a practice that today is outlawed.

1927 -- Calvin Coolidge arrives with his fishing gear to angle for trout as a respite, enlisting Yellowstone Superintendent Horace Albright as his guide. Even though Albright tried to engage Coolidge in talking politics, the president refrained, earning the nickname “Cool Cal.”

1937 -- Franklin Delano Roosevelt and first lady Eleanor embark on a motor tour of the park, and he later delivers one of his fireside chats after inspecting the work of the Civilian Conservation Corps.

1976 -- Gerald R. Ford, who had been a park ranger in Yellowstone in 1936, returns to his former stomping grounds and delivers a speech timed so that it would coincide with Old Faithful Geyser erupting in the background.

1978 -- Jimmy Carter takes his family to Yellowstone on vacation and enlists legendary fly fisherman Bud Lilly to serve as his angling guide. The Carters visit a remote island in Yellowstone Lake. Carter has made several return visits, and during one of them he sat down for pizza with park employees at the Lake Hotel, signing the wall that still bears his autograph today.

1989 -- Newly elected George Herbert Walker Bush arrives with his close friend U.S. Sen. Alan Simpson of Wyoming. They inspect the effects of the huge 1988 Yellowstone wild fires, which burned for months and scorched some 1.2 million acres across the ecosystem.

1995 and 1996 -- Bill Clinton and his family, who are spending part of the summer in nearby Jackson Hole, tour the Upper Geyser Basin and helicopter to the site of a proposed mine on the edge of the park that is considered a threat to the environment. Based upon the president’s first-hand experience, the Clinton administration halts the mine project.

This is a very well put together video of these Presidents and their connection with the Yellowstone National Park. Enjoy :

President Obama in Yellowstone National Park

  • August 15, 2009

Gerald R. Ford : Park Ranger

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This is the only President of the United States to work as a ranger within Yellowstone National Park. Image, no photographer name. 1936

Aside from the historic sites within Yellowstone National Park, Yellowstone is the location where the only U.S. President who was ever a Park Ranger worked. In the summer of 1936, Gerald R. Ford, later 38th President of the United States, served as a park ranger in Yellowstone. Ford later recalled the summer of 1936 as, “One of the greatest summers of my life.” According to his supervisor at Yellowstone, Canyon District Ranger Frank Anderson, Ford was “a darned good ranger.” While serving in Yellowstone, one of Ford’s assignments was as an armed guard on the bear-feeding trucks. The National Park Service no longer feeds the bears, but Ford always remembered that duty and often regaled his family with stories about his time spent on the bear-feeding trucks. During his summer at Yellowstone, Ford also worked in the Canyon Hotel and Lodge meeting and greeting VIPS, a job Ford explained to his supervisor as “undemocratic and un-American to give special attention to VIPs.”

  • June 1936

President Gerald Ford Remarks on working at Yellowstone

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This is President Gerald Ford giving a speech from the presidential podium in 1976.
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Gerald R. Ford Remarks at Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming.
August 29, 1976

Thank you very much, Tom Kleppe, Senator Hansen, Congressman Hansen, representatives of the Department of Interior, reverend clergy, ladies and gentlemen:

Labor Day, next weekend, marks the end of a glorious summer. It means one more carefree holiday before we all go back to school, back to work, back to the duties we must do to build better lives for ourselves, our children, and our country.

For many families it means one last chance to get out of town, out into the sun, under the stars, close to nature's beauties and nature's creatures. For me this is a moment that I have been looking forward to for a long, long time--to return to Yellowstone where I spent one of the greatest summers of my life. Being a seasonal park ranger--we used to call them 90-day wonders, maybe they still do--[laughter]--was one of the most challenging experiences, one of the greatest jobs I ever had following my graduation from the University of Michigan. Now it seems more like fun than hard work, though we had plenty of both.

I have been telling my family about that summer ever since. Maybe I overdid those bedtime stories about my firefighting exploits and my heroic bouts with the bears. [Laughter] At least that is what Mike, Jack, Steve, and Susan keep on telling me. [Laughter]

So, this time, I brought some of the family along. Jack, as you know and has been mentioned, is no stranger to Yellowstone. Two years ago this month he was working as a ranger at a tower station--actually he was out fishing--when he got a sudden summons to come to Washington to see his old man get a new job.

So, today, it is a sentimental return to the scene of wonderful memories for two of the Fords and a new experience for Susan, who hopes to get some good Yellowstone photographs like she did last summer at Yosemite.

Family vacations-especially among the majestic mountains of the West-are a tradition of our family. My parents always took my brothers and myself to lakes and woods in my State of Michigan before I was big enough to go myself as a Boy Scout. There is something wonderful about the wide open spaces that is almost a necessity for Americans. Being alone with nature strengthens our love for one another and for our country.

For those who live close to the land, this is nothing new. But as more and more Americans live in cities, the lure of the mountains, the beaches, the lakes, the rivers becomes more and more compelling. So, I have a serious as well as a sentimental reason for this visit today.

Our Bicentennial Fourth of July turned out to be a very profound experience for millions and millions of Americans. Amid the fireworks and parades, the tall ships and the trips to historic shrines in our joyous celebration of 200 years of our Nation under God, we found new meaning for the words of freedom, equality, and unity.

[At this point, the President's remarks were interrupted by the eruption of the Old Faithful geyser. ]

I always knew the Park Service was efficient and effective, and they really proved it just a moment ago. [Laughter]

  • August 29, 1976

Contributor: Ryan_Olds
Created: May 26, 2010 · Modified: December 17, 2010

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