BENNINGTON — On August 25, the National Park Service will celebrate 100 years of service protecting wild plants and animals, for the people and by the people.
The Bennington Garden Club hosted Rick Kendall, superintendent of the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park, at the Bennington Museum on Thursday to speak on the National Parks Service's 100th anniversary.
He shared stories about New Englanders who took part in exploring land and establishing the first national parks.
"Vermonters and New Englanders really had a fairly significant hand to play in the early history of our national parks; even before there was a national parks service," he said. "When you talk about New England and the fact that from 1916 and into the 1930s and '40s, there were so few of the national parks in New England, it can be hard for us in New England to get excited about the centennial if we didn't see ourselves in it."
Henry D. Washburn, from Windsor, was the head of the Washburn expedition set to survey land in 1871 in what is now Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming. A mountain peak in the park is named after him.
Among the explorers was Burlington native Truman Everts, who drifted from the group for 37 days in the wilderness. He survived off nature until a search party rescued him at 50 pounds. Later he was offered the position of superintendent of the area, but declined because at the time, salary wasn't provided for such a task. Everts wrote about his journey in "Scribner's Monthly" titled "Thirty-Seven Days of Peril."
"The Washburn expedition exhibited two things," Kendall explained. "The first, that Yellowstone was a phenomenal resource and that it was worth protecting as a national park. Second, that the park was exceedingly difficult to get to and to get around it and to visit safely. Congress would take care of the first issue by establishing it a national park in 1872. But it would take another Vermonter to make progress of the second issue in terms of making it easier to get to the park."
Frederick H. Billings was born in Royalton, later moved to Woodstock, and became the president of the Northern Pacific Railway in 1879. As a child he dreamed of owning a house that belonged to the George Perkins Marsh family, and succeeded after becoming the only land law attorney in California earning millions of dollars. He practiced the "Man and Nature" ecology and purchased various failing farms to reforest the hillside of Mount Tom in Woodstock.
Kendall said the Marsh-Billings-Rockefeller National Historical Park is the oldest managed forest in the United States with a variety of species due to the years that Billings women scientifically tended to the hillside vegetation.
In 1894, Ed Howell of Cooke City, Mont., went into Yellowstone to hunt bison to sell for $300 each. Despite the risk of catching the poacher without proper weapons, Felix Burgess, a civilian scout, sneaked up on Howell and caught him red-handed killing five bison. At the time, conservation wasn't something practiced, so the crime amounted to park expulsion and forfeiting gear worth less than $30.
"In a time before environmental ethics are as prevalent as they are today, a time before people would chain themselves to trees to keep loggers from cutting down forests, and even when ecological justice would lead some people to practice vegetarianism, or a time when few people thought the way John Muir did who was writing trying to win over hearts and minds during this era," Kendall said. "It would be easy to imagine Burgess' thinking this inventory of all the disadvantages that he was up against and concluding, 'Well, ya know, they're just Bison.' But, Burgess made a different calculation that day and he determined that the Bison and national park really demanded an action."
The Lacey Act was signed into law on May 7, 1894 and gave the authority to prosecute criminals such as Howell, but it still didn't stop him. He was convicted three months later and sentenced to a month in jail and fined $50, which amounts to about $1,250 today, according to Yellowstone Reports.
By 1900, poaching left only 23 Bison remaining in the Yellowstone herd, which was the "last remaining bison in the wild in the United States." Seven hundred bison in private herds in game preserves around the country resolved the national park's issue, particularly Austin Corbin II's in Cornish, N.H.
On August 25, 1916 the National Park Service (NPS) act was signed by President Woodrow Wilson to protect the 35 locations. Now, there are more than 400 areas across the U.S. in the National Park System covering more than 84 million acres, according to NPS.gov.
Kendall mentioned that there are 18 National Historic Landmarks in Vermont alone, with another being added in August; the Brown's Bridge in Shrewsbury.
For more information visit nationalparks.org.