Yellowstone Coalition’s Roots Go Way, Way Back
Include the Likes of John Colter, Jim Bridger, and the Sheep Eaters


Earlier this month, one of the keystone conservation organizations in the Rocky Mountains celebrated its 25th anniversary. In 1983 at the little town of Mammoth, The Greater Yellowstone Coalition held its first meeting. Their incorpor-ation papers date back to that time.

GYC is the formal citizen-led organization, which works to protect the nation’s first and now 136-year-old national park. However, informal and historic coalitions, who through the centuries have respected, protected, and utilized Yellowstone, also warrant our attention. 

Archeologists are able to document some of Yellowstone’s earliest inhabitants, the Tukudika Indians from 10,000 years ago. These native people, a branch of the Shoshone and Bannock, commonly called Sheep Eaters, found the food, water and wonders of this place to be sustaining influences in their tribal societies. We believe these people, among our earliest societal families, guarded and secured this place, which in turn provided them with sustenance and isolation. Perhaps unknowingly, the Sheep Eater Indians were forming a very early coalition for Yellowstone; a coalition whose beginnings are best measured not by papers of incorporation but rather by the stars, ancient Americans, and volcanic action deep within our planet.

Although personally ambivalent about the theory known as Environmental Determinism, which holds that physical rather than societal conditions determine culture, I am comfortable with the idea that some places on earth are so beautiful, hold such uncommon natural spectacles and surprises, encompass such uniqueness, that they do shape our human responses. In that shaping, we each become a part of the coalition that visits, protects, and honors Yellowstone National Park.

The Washburn Expedition joined the coalition for Yellowstone around that campfire near what is now Madison Junction. U.S. Sen. Pomeroy of Kansas and Delegate Clagett of Montana joined when they introduced the Yellowstone Park Act on the morning of December 18th, 1871, as did President Grant when he signed it the following March.

The coalition which so respects Yellowstone includes John Coulter and Jim Bridger; the hundreds of newspaper editors who have protected it with carefully chosen words; the great-grandchildren of craftsmen and women who designed, constructed and furnished Old Faithful Inn, the firefighters of 1988, and millions more including the park’s staff and visitors.

Pride requires that I also recognize another early member of the park’s fraternity—or in this case—sorority. My wife Carol’s great-great-grandmother Inez Allen’s obituary noted that she was likely the first Caucasian woman to have traversed the park from its western boundaries, doing so in the 1860s. All of Inez Allen’s many descendants consider themselves linked to Yellowstone through that pioneer.

Those fortunate folks who live near the park’s border in the towns of West Yellowstone, Gardiner, Cooke City, Silver Gate, and Cody are also members of the coalition to both protect and utilize this one-of-a-kind natural wonder. Yes, there are occasional tensions between some of those citizens and specific efforts of the Greater Yellowstone Coalition whose anniversary we celebrate. However, we should remain hopeful that in the long pull of history, Yellowstone’s grandeur, power and economic opportunities continue to define us in a manner that honors and protects the Park.

(For more on the Sheep Eater Indians, Yellowstone’s original inhabitants, see July Cover Story)

Former congressman Pat Williams (D-MT) is the northern office Director of Western Progress, an eight-state policy group. He is also Senior Fellow at The University of Montana Center for the Rocky Mountain West.








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