In response to my proposal to discuss one of the Great American Documents each month, the Vicar joked about wanting to revisit the Missouri Compromise, from March 5-6, 1820. This was the congressional act, which put the ruler to the map of the not-very- United States, and said north of here are Free States, south of here are Slave States. We’ll add one each. Talk about government grid-lock! Meanwhile, I had already outlined the year’s documents and had selected the congressional act establishing Yellowstone National Park, from March 1, 1872. When I compared the two, I realized that both were decisions that our leaders made about land use. If any topic is pertinent to our national discussion then or now, it is property rights.
Property rights. Where does this fit into our history? Any characteristic of the colonial period of the USA must be put into the context of the European/British cultural landscape from which the settlers came. We have traveled to the British Isles a few times. One of the activities we enjoy is walking. We soon discovered the those islands are a rabbit warren of walking paths, many of which cross right over someone’s fence, yard, and farm. Literally, there are sign posts with little walking people that point behind someone’s garage, and over stiles or through kissing gates into a pasture full of sheep or the bull. No one says that the landowner has to make the walk easy for you!
These walking paths developed centuries ago because only the royal family, namely the King, owned all land. He granted tracks of land to established families, who became the governing class, who then took on local villagers who could farm the land for him. Upstarts and riffraff were kept in line because their position depended on following the social order. Gentry who acted out of their station could be stripped of their position and impoverished at the Crown’s whim. Laborers could be barred from work that sustained their hand-to-mouth lives. Along with either, went their family heritage and sustenance. In compensation for lack of property rights, the King granted the right to the peasants to use walking paths between the villages, homes, businesses, fields, etc. Over the years, these became the same walking paths, and walking privileges, that we tourists trek. The only stipulation to maintain this right of passage is that each path must be walked on by someone once per year. So, annually in Britain, the populace goes out and walks these paths across folks’ fields, neighborhoods, and yards.
Our colonial era was one governed by these land grant concepts. Here, in what was once the Virginia Company, Lord Fairfax received a grant from the headwaters of the Rappahannock to the Potomac Rivers. The Fairfax Line created a huge area that included our part of the mountains, through Northern Virgina, and nearly out to the Chesapeake Bay. We cross a part of this line every day when we travel between Mathias, WV and Bergton, VA. We are part of the tradition of squatters, on Lord Fairfax’s land. Against this backdrops of land ownership by the Crown, granting large tracks as the King pleased, and trying to control commerce by taxation, the riffraff in the colonies rebelled.
Initially, the Continental Congress was interested in establishing state boundaries and rules for private ownership and use of land, mostly for farming or other businesses needed to run the cities and towns. A group of people who had never had property began to establish the tradition that we now call the American Dream: land and home ownership. The end of feudalism. Oh, but we had that slavery thing going on. Not only could you own the ground you work, the structure you ate and slept in, but also the people who did the work for you. Then those Abolitionists, whom I wrote of last month, came along and wanted to limit ownership to things, not people. Then the Missouri Compromise came along trying to keep the bullies in separate parts of the playground.
After our Civil War, we had the Reconstruction Era, with a great migration westward. Wagon trains, the Wild-Wild West, land rushes (my Prussian ancestors participated in the Oklahoma rush), immigration from Europe (my Norwegian ancestors stormed the Dakotas), and lots of states joining the Union, not to mention the Trail of Tears and Long Walk. The region that would become Yellowstone National Park, was recorded as early as 1806 by a trapper-explorer, John Colter, but his reports were dismissed as tall tails. In 1869, the Folsom-Cook Expedition began an extensive survey of the landscape, and in 1870 the Washburn-Langford-Doane Expedition added more accounts of the natural features of the landscape.
Amoung this later group was a promoter of setting aside land from settlers, Cornelius Hedges. Naturalists and philosophers, such as Ralph Waldo Emerson, supported the idea of establishing parks that would restrict settlements in these vast regions before they were broken up into homesteads, plowed under fields, and trampled under the hooves of cattle. Ferdinand Hayden started a campaign that publicized the idea of protection in 1871. Paintings from the region by George Catlin and Thomas Moran brought images of land, so different from the cities and conference rooms of the East Coast, which grasped people’s imaginations beyond the lofty descriptions of the 19th century. Congress passed the law in 1872, establishing the first national park in the world.
At that time, the world’s population was a fraction of the 7 billion people we now host. Land seemed endless, other than already densely populated regions of Europe and Asia. But, because of this act, our concept of land use exists today. Some parcels may be owned by individuals, but other are set aside for all. In under 150 years, nearly every nation, even the most unstable politically, have some type of national parks set aside, some recognition that natural features are not just for those with wealth, status, power, and connection. Part of the idea was that wilderness also allowed animals to live in their natural habitats, not just squirrels and deer in suburban back yards. We are only beginning to understand the migration paths not just between parks and adjoining land, or state-to-state, but country-to-country, and continent-to-continent. Our song birds depend on wild places in Central and South American. European and Asia birds need nesting homes in southern Africa. We are a world divided by boundaries that nature does not acknowledge.
Regardless of whether we believe that property rights are granted by a monarchy, by a government process, by our own rugged individualism, or the command of God, geology and climate ultimately rule over our use of the land. Earthquakes and volcanoes related to plate tectonics, tornadoes and hurricanes from warm and cold air masses mixing, and the possibility of melting ice caps and glaciers raising sea level beg the question of how much we can control land use over generations. The Yellowstone area is a prime example of this phenomenon.
Yellowstone is a caldera, the remains of a collapsed region where a continental hot spot erupted with enough force to spew out the mantel plug, destroying mountain ranges nearby and spreading ash across the rest of the continent. This was unlike the recent cinder cone eruptions that pooffed ash around Europe, or even the eruption that blew off the top of Mt. St. Helens 30 years ago (one calculations is that the Yellowstone caldera explosion was 2500 time more forceful than Mt St. Helens). The lake in Yellowstone National Park covers the top of this caldera. Scientist have been following changes in this lake. While we may not see in our lifetime the next eruption, the lake is shrinking, not from silting up or encroachment of marshes and forests, or drying up of the water source. The lake bed is rising. As the hot spot deep in the earth’s mantel creates more magma, this solidifies into rock which bulges up. This rock is the new plug which will last only as long as it can withstand the pressure of more magma pushing up below it. When this explodes, we may not be too concerned about property rights for a while.
Would we do better to recognize that our existence depends more on sharing than dividing? Which National Parks hold a special connection for you?
The Act Establishing Yellowstone National Park
An Act to set apart a certain tract of land lying hear the headwaters of the Yellowstone River as a public park.
Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of American in Congress assembled, That the track of land in the Territories of Montana and Wyoming, … (lengthy description of the boundaries) is hereby reserved and withdrawn from settlement, occupancy, or sale under the laws of the United States, and dedicated and set apart as a public park or pleasure-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people; and all persons who shall locate on settle upon or occupy the same, or any part thereof, except as hereinafter provided, shall be considered trespassers and removed therefrom.
Sec. 2. That said public park shall be under the exclusive control of the Secretary of the Interior… Such regulations shall provide for the preservation, for injury or spoliation, of all timber, mineral deposits, natural curiosities, or wonders within said park, and their retention in their natural condition. The Secretary may in his discretion, grant leases for building purposes for terms not exceeding ten years, of small parcels of ground, at such places in said park as shall require the erection of buildings for the accommodation of visitors… He shall provide against the wanton destruction of the fish and game found within said park, and against their capture or destruction for the purposes of merchandise or profit. He shall also cause all persons trespassing upon the same after the passage of this act to be removed therefrom, and generally shall be authorized to take all such measures as shall be necessary or proper to fully carry out the objects and purposes of this act.