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  • Myth and History in the Creation of Yellowstone National Park
  • Robert E. Walls
Myth and History in the Creation of Yellowstone National Park. By Paul Schullery and Lee Whittlesey. (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2003. Pp. xv + 125, appendix, notes, index.)

This book explains how a popular but fictional story about wilderness preservation in America's Gilded Age has had a profound impact on the national environmental movement. The story, about the founding of Yellowstone National Park in 1872, has become a de facto "creation myth," which the authors define—with little regard to folkloristic scholarship—as a largely fanciful narrative that serves as a symbolic model for a social group's way of life. Through its embodiment of the spirit of altruism and a love of the natural world, the Yellowstone creation myth has shaped the institutional memory and ideals of the National Park Service subculture and American conservation advocates for over a century. Schullery and Whittlesey are well positioned to address the issues at hand. Both are public historians and long-time employees of Yellowstone who are not only passionate in their interest in the park's natural and cultural complexities but also objective in their willingness to critique both the institutional culture in which they are embedded and the authenticity of one of its most cherished beliefs.

At issue is the credibility of the "campfire story," the tale of how the inspiration for establishing the park, and even the very idea of national parks in general, purportedly originated in an evening discussion among members of the Washburn expedition of 1870. As the story goes, these white explorers of the Yellowstone region were awestruck by the beauty and uniqueness of the natural wonders they encountered; when one of the party suggested that the landscape be preserved forever for the enjoyment of the American public, they resolved to unite their efforts to make it happen. So appealing was the tale to emergent environmentalist sentiments that it gradually became "part of the historic and even the psychic fabric of the National Park Service and of the conservation community" (p. xiv). Believers incorporated the Washburn incident into interpretive signs, literature, art, ranger-naturalist programs, pageants, and even a 1963 TV reenactment on the Hallmark Hall of Fame. And though the story has been largely discredited, prominent figures—from Vice President Al Gore to the biologist Peter Raven—continue to invoke its symbolic power in public speeches.

The authors do a thorough of job sorting through primary source material, and they are confident in their assertion that neither Yellowstone nor the national park idea originated in this single event. In fact, the narrative is largely a historical fiction authored primarily by the politically aspiring Nathaniel P. Langford, who through outright deceit or a faulty memory sought to center himself in a formative moment in American conservation history. Once introduced to the wider world, the tale evolved, fulfilling a contemporary need for identifiable heroes whose vision and unselfish goodwill stood defiantly in the face of rampant commercial expansion and notions of progress at the turn of the twentieth century.

Beyond exploring the veracity of the campfire narrative, Schullery and Whittlesey are concerned with understanding how this popular representation of altruistic spirit has been challenged, particularly within the institutional structure of the National Park Service. They devote several chapters to the struggle between "revisionists" such as themselves and agency traditionalists who, with prominent conservationists, [End Page 250] are reluctant to concede the story's fictive status and thus lose its potential as a symbolic resource. The authors conclude that the campfire story is in good company with other mythic tales of conservation—such as the rewriting of Chief Seattle's speech and the misunderstandings of the rapid decline in the deer population of the Grand Canyon's Kaibab Plateau—that have distorted history and science in the service of promoting environmental ideals and giving meaning to modern ecological understanding.

As public history, this book is a well-documented description of the forces that shaped Yellowstone into an iconic landscape, a study that crosses disciplinary boundaries between natural and cultural histories to tell us something new about American conservation history. In terms of...


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pp. 250-251
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