Yellowstone’s first superintendent: Imprison anyone who doesn’t extinguish their campfire

Iconic views of YellowstoneThis month marks Yellowstone’s 152nd anniversary since it was designated as the world’s first national park.

Stories about the land the park exists on, located at the convergence of the Great Plains, Great Basin, and Columbia Plateau, were originally seen as tall tales because they were too fantastical to be true, according to park nonprofit Yellowstone Forever. Eventually, however, formal expeditions verified that the land was indeed covered in multicolored hot springs and spouting geysers, paving the way for the area’s federal protection and park designation.

The people who originally pushed Congress to protect the area were crafting their own tall tale, unbeknownst to themselves. The park’s first leaders told Congress that the park could be protected and run without any funding from the federal government. That idea was soon disproven.

Yellowstone’s first superintendent, Nathaniel Langford, was unpaid, and he and others quickly saw how the lack of funding made protecting the park’s wildlife and natural resources extremely difficult.

Essex County Herald, Vermont. September 02, 1920
Essex County Herald, Vermont. September 02, 1920

Langford’s first annual park report to the federal government was filled with stories of squatters, poachers, and vandals creating problems throughout the area.

“A few months before … creating the park, several persons had located upon land at some of the points of greatest interest, with a view to establish squatter’s right of preemption,” Langford’s report said. “The reality of the land should be held alone by the Government, and be subject to such rules and regulations as may, from time to time, be adopted by the Department of the Interior.”

Langford’s report also marked a step toward the first national park’s first fire policy.

“It is especially recommended that a law be passed, punishing, by fine and imprisonment, all persons who leave any fire they may have made, for convenience or otherwise, unextinguished,” the report said. “Nothing less than a stringent law punishing negligence and carelessness can save the extensive pine timber fields of the park from destruction.”

The policy would soon become a reality not just for the park but for the nation as a whole. U.S. law mandates that anyone who starts a fire on federal lands and doesn’t extinguish it could face imprisonment for up to six months (on USFS lands) and no more than 12 months if on BLM lands.

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2 thoughts on “Yellowstone’s first superintendent: Imprison anyone who doesn’t extinguish their campfire”

  1. Wildland fire Politics were the same in 1852 as they were in 1988 when Yellowstone’s Superintendent Bob Barbee caught a lot of flack from the public for “Letting the fires in the park burn”, and you risked your life if you walked down the street in West Yellowstone wearing a fire shirt.

    From Aug. 16 to Sept. 16, 1988 I was on the Hellroaring Fire just north of the park in the Absaroka Beartooth Wilderness on the Gardner Ranger District, Gallatin National Forest. At our fire team in-briefing Steve Fry gave me a list of timber fuel types and expected fire behavior in the park.

    The next year…1989…the National Park Service published an article on fire history in Yellowstone.


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