Montana’s Iconic National Parks

Two of the nation’s first national parks, Yellowstone and Glacier, helped shape a new American ideal for preserving certain priceless places

By Dillon Tabish

The U.S., it’s fair to say, was ahead of its time in 1872 when Congress passed an unprecedented order setting aside a tract of land near the headwaters of the Yellowstone River in the territories of Montana and Wyoming as a “public park or pleasuring-ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”

The founding of Yellowstone National Park, which became official March 1, 1872, set a new global standard for preserving and protecting the environment. It is widely considered the first national park in the world and sparked a widespread conscientiousness about conserving pristine places, although the topic remained controversial. Many surrounding communities were leery of creating off-limits lands and many business leaders decried the parks as “a great blow to the prosperity” of nearby towns, according to an editorial by the Helena Gazette in 1872, opposing the creation of Yellowstone.

But in the following years, influential iconoclasts like Teddy Roosevelt championed the parks movement, and additional sites and monuments were authorized, including Glacier National Park in 1910.

It may seem hard to imagine today, but the creation of Glacier Park was far from popular among all the residents in Northwest Montana.

The Kalispell Chamber of Commerce went on record opposing the park’s creation, citing the potential damage to the vital timber industry and future oil exploration in the region.

Yet the national park retained a powerful supporter that carried a significant amount of influence and helped secure its passage. The Great Northern railway helped promote legislation creating Glacier Park. The president of the railroad, James J. Hill, was largely looking out for his best interests; his grand vision was to make the area the “Playground of the Northwest,” which would lead to visitors via rail. Hill’s influence in D.C. helped fuel Glacier’s passage, and when the park was created the railroad became the major concessionaire and developer of visitors’ facilities in the area.

Glacier arrived with a wave of other national parks that now make up over 450 natural, historical and cultural sites in the U.S. They also led to the eventual creation of the National Park Service in 1916.

But all the same, convincing the residents of Glacier’s value remained tricky.

In the months following Glacier’s creation, residents on the east side of the North Fork Flathead River signed a petition asking that the area be excluded from the park, claiming there was at least 50,000 acres of agricultural land and valuable timber “with no particular scenic value,” according to a publication created by the U.S. Forest Service detailing the history of the area.

The residents remained steadfast in their opposition, stating in a letter, “it is more important to furnish homes to a land-hungry people than to lock the land up as a rich man’s playground which no one will use.”

The residents claimed the national park would not attract any visitors due to its remote location and harsh weather.

One-hundred years later, while remaining an important ecosystem left largely intact, Glacier National Park is one of the 10 most visited national parks in America, with over 2.2 million annual visitors. This year has already surpassed the all-time yearly record for attendance with 2.23 million people. Yellowstone National Park, which annually attracts over 3 million people, is the fourth most visited in the U.S.

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