Albright Visitors Center
Sunday, August 17, 1997
Three years after the dawn of the 20th century, President Theodore Roosevelt came to Yellowstone National Park, and spoke just a few miles north of here. He spoke of the responsibility all Americans share to preserve this park "as a beautiful natural playground...for all those who have the love of adventure." Today, three years before the close of this century, we gather to celebrate 125 years of preservation of this breathtaking land; 125 years of adventure by generations of families and children; 125 years of the crown jewel of America's park system, Yellowstone National Park.
Even before Teddy Roosevelt's day, Yellowstone has always been much more than a playground. It is in many ways America's holy ground -- a place not only of recreation, but of creation as well -- bringing us face-to-face with the grandeur of God's works. Like Lake Tahoe or the Everglades or the Grand Canyon, Yellowstone is a special place -- a place that defines what it means to love this blessed land we call America. Here in Yellowstone, the eternity of nature's hand helps to shape and sustain our most human dreams, for ourselves and for our families.
Every year, four million people visit this park, which is larger than the states of Rhode Island and Delaware combined. When we come here, we see the longpole pine and the Douglas fir. We see one of the last remaining habitats of the grizzly bear -- and the world's largest concentration of elk. We see the only place on earth where wild buffalo have survived continuously since primitive times. We see black bears and beaver; moose and marmots; big horn sheep and bald eagles -- all living together in harmony and balance. We see more geysers and hot springs than in the rest of the world combined.
And we see Mammoth Hot Springs -- an area where the earth is literally turned inside-out -- and we can watch nature's most elemental growth and transformation take place, each and every day. Come to this spot some other day and you may not even recognize it, for it always transforming itself.
And amid that bubbling and churning, we find the greatest lesson of Yellowstone -- that continuity and change go hand-in-hand. For nature, like the world around us, is always renewing itself -- always sprouting new leaves of hope and possibility from the oldest roots and branches. This is not the land that time forgot, it is the land that nature remembers.
Some of you may not know this, but this is the only land of its scope and size in the 48 contiguous states that has never been farmed or fenced. In Yellowstone, nature, with all its majesty and power, still reigns supreme. Yellowstone is the Old Faithful of our National Park system.
But that is true only because we have kept our faith with Yellowstone -- in every generation. You see, every generation faces new threats to this land, and every generation must find new ways of meeting that challenge. Every generation must learn Yellowstone's lesson of change and conservation. The stories of the men and women who learned that lesson, and defended this land, are truly the stories of America.
Humans first visited this area at least 12,000 years ago -- and it should come as no surprise that since then, we have rarely left. Native American tribes traveled this land for centuries, and a small tribe of Shoshones (show-SHOW-nees) made it their home.
It was in August of 1805 that the Shoshones first met American citizens -- a small band of explorers led by Meriwether Lewis and William Clark. They were the first to cross the continent, and the first to cross the Rockies.
As the day of their return came nearer, one man felt himself drawn back into the wilderness. John Colter knew that there was something he had yet to find -- a place more magical than the wonders he had already seen. And so, on August 17, 1806 -- 191 years ago to this very day -- Lewis and Clark gave him permission to leave the expedition. They watched as Colter disappeared upstream -- into the mists of the mountains, and into the pages of our history as the man who first discovered Yellowstone.
Three years later, when Colter returned to St. Louis with stories of this spectacular land, his tales were mocked as mad hallucinations.
And so it went for more than half a century -- mountain men like Jim Bridger, trappers like Warren Ferris -- all returned to the east with stories of waterfalls that spouted upward and petrified birds and trees -- stories too fantastic and too outlandish to be believed. But the stories were repeated -- with shouting and yelling in saloons after the ale had flowed a bit too freely, with whispers and quiet wonder by parents lulling their children to sleep.
Every so often, a group of explorers would come back to see for themselves. The most important of these was the Washburn-Doane expedition. All through the summer of 1870, they traveled this region. On their last night at Madison Junction, as the campfire crackled before them and a sea of stars washed over them, they talked about their plans for the future. To a man, each hoped to exploit the land for personal profit.
But then a young man by the name of Cornelius Hedges spoke up. As the story goes -- and there is some debate about this -- he said this land was put here for the use of all, and should be set aside so that it cannot be damaged by man's heavy hand.
Most importantly, he said that everyone who had the chance to experience the wonders of Yellowstone, had the responsibility to safeguard for others that same fortune. Yellowstone had found its first protector.
Two years later -- exactly 125 years ago -- President Grant signed a law setting aside this land for the "benefit and enjoyment of the people." Yellowstone National Park -- and our National Park system -- was born.
At the time, it was a radical idea to set aside parks not for the wealthy elite, but for average families. Today, more than 270 million people -- more than the total population of America -- visit our national parks each year.
And they do so because parks like Yellowstone still have their protectors -- from the Army personnel and Park Service employees who pour their soul and spirit into this land, to the families and children who treat Yellowstone with the same care and concern as their own backyard. They know what Cornelius Hedges knew in front of that roaring campfire -- that we must all do our part as protectors of the parks, as inheritors of this eternal gift.
President Clinton and I are committed to doing our part. That is why I am pleased to report that this week, we have withdrawn 22,000 acres of the American public's forest land near Yellowstone from mining claims -- to protect this park from its harmful effects. But we must do more.
Just outside Yellowstone, the proposed New World mine could have threatened some of our most pristine national lands. Through a lot of hard work, we negotiated an agreement with the mining company to protect Yellowstone. President Clinton has been fighting to make it happen, and we have enough funds to do it as part of our balanced budget agreement. Now Congress needs to act -- and I challenge them to do so.
The fact is, we must protect not just Yellowstone but all of our natural treasures. Under President Clinton, we have preserved and protected millions of acres of America's most cherished natural resources. Saving the Arctic Refuge from oil and gas drilling. Preserving 1.7 million precious acres in Utah by creating the Grand Staircase/Escalante National Monument. Protecting 1.4 million acres of the unique California desert. Restoring the Florida Everglades. To President Clinton and me, preserving America's most special places isn't just a commitment -- it's a moral obligation.
That is especially important when it comes to our parks, because that is how so many millions of our families enjoy our natural splendor. That is why we increased the operating budget of all of our parks by nearly one-fifth. In our balanced budget, we are increasing our investment in parks by another 12%, with an 8% increase in funds for Yellowstone itself. Our fee demonstration program has raised more than $50 million for park repairs and maintenance, $2 million of which will come to Yellowstone.
President Clinton has proposed a major transportation bill that will nearly double our investment in the roads that enable Americans to visit our parks, and we are urging Congress to pass it into law.
We've got to do a lot more. That's why on Earth Day last year, President Clinton announced his National Parks for Tomorrow plan. It will protect what is irreplaceable fromthose who are irresponsible -- with new historic preservation, new wilderness preserves, and crucially-needed reforms and improvements throughout our parks system. The President's plan will provide the national leadership to ensure that our parks remain a source of national pride.
Despite the hundreds of millions of people who come here every year, not every American has been to Yellowstone, and not every American has seen its grandeur and its glory. But every American has a stake in this land, because it is part of our heritage. It belongs to us all, and we have an obligation to ensure that it is here for us all, for the next 125 years. So let us leave here today rededicated to preserving nature's home, reconnected to Yellowstone's balance of continuity and change, and resolved to protect all of America's parks -- so that we can use them and enjoy them for all of our days.