Bill Sniffin: 52 Years Ago, Yellowstone Was An Ill-Defined Place Compared To Today

Bill Sniffin writes: I am literally one of a handful of people still alive who also attended the parks centennial celebration in Cody in 1972.

Bill Sniffin

May 07, 20226 min read

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(Cowboy State Daily Staff)

By Bill Sniffin, publisher emeritus

Imagine a place where wild bears eat treats out of the palm of your hand? Or a place crawling with elk and bison unbothered by predators.

Welcome to Yellowstone National Park in 1970. The great park 52 years ago was also applauded as an amazing tourism economic engine that drew millions of people to Wyoming each year.

The money flowed into the Cowboy State and the cash registers were clanging. Ka-ching.

Heck, the park couldn’t be improved, right?

My first trip to Yellowstone was in the fall of 1970. The most memorable experiences were people feeding the bears from their car windows. The park was almost like a drive-through petting zoo.

Our best friends were cuddly brown and black bears. Nary a grizzly in sight. It was both somewhat thrilling and frightening to feed a bear food from your fingertips. They were like big dogs.

The park was over-run with elk and bison. It was a Serengeti here in the continental USA. There were so many animals that did not fear any predator.

Over the past five decades, things have changed. This fact was celebrated this past week at Old Faithful Inn. In 2022, the park is now 150 years old. President U. S. Grant signed a law in 1872 creating the world’s first national park.

In the last 50 years, grizzly bears were aggressively re-introduced. Bear feeding was eliminated. Then, in 1995, wolves were re-introduced into the park, having been exterminated in the early part of the 20th century, according to YNP Supt. Cam Sholly. He gave the featured remarks at the 150th celebration.

Today both the elk and the bison are nervous. The 120 wolves in the park are deadly predators as are the grizzly. Park officials are proud they have restored the balance of nature to Yellowstone.

I am literally one of a handful of people still alive who also attended the park’s centennial celebration in Cody in 1972. Publisher Lee Myers of the Cody Enterprise got us tickets. Lee is still alive as is former tourism director Gene Bryan, who was probably at that event.

It is significant to note the differences in tone over a half century. Back in 1972, that Cody event was a huge party celebrating what a tourism money-maker Yellowstone Park was for Wyoming. Over a million visitors were coming and one of the main tourist highlights was feeding those ubiquitous brown bears from car windows.

Today, the park service is singing an entirely different tune. During last Friday’s celebration, Supt. Sholly talked about climate change, working with area Indian tribes, and made the pronouncement that the park is in the best shape it has ever been.

Sholly is worried about the future ecosystem of the Great Yellowstone Country. He offered up a cautionary tale about climate and wondered what the park will be like 150 years hence.

He celebrated that regional Indian tribes have been in the area for more than 10,000 years. Arguably, the park was theirs when our Congress made Yellowstone the first national park in the world. Sholly was amazed at the foresight of those gentlemen in Congress, none of whom had ever set foot in the Yellowstone area.

To celebrate the 150th, the Wyoming Division of Tourism set up 30 interviews on morning shows with TV stations across the country.

Gov. Mark Gordon and Tourism Director Diane Shober handled the first spate of interviews, which started at 6 a.m. to accommodate TV stations in the eastern USA. Riverton artist Robert Martinez appeared later with Shober talking about Native American Art.

The 150th celebration was at Old Faithful Inn and included a first for me. I was able to climb up to the Crow’s Nest outside the very top of the 120-year-old structure. It was windy and spitting snow. Nervous, yes, I was nervous. But what a view! And what an experience!

After visiting that building for 52 years, this was a lifetime highlight. Yellowstone guru Rick Hoeninghausen lined this up for a group of much younger journalists, tailed by a much older one. My legs were a little wobbly going up all those very old wood stairs but the view was worth it. Thanks Rick!

Another first for us on this trip was driving through an empty Yellowstone National Park. The south entrance was closed but folks driving up to the 150th anniversary celebration were allowed through.

For 80 miles, we just met a couple of plow trucks. It was empty, quiet, and eerie. We were disappointed not to see any animals but what a treat. I sort of worried if AAA could find me if we had a breakdown.

One of the biggest differences in Yellowstone over 52 years is that traffic has almost tripled. It is now super busy from May to November. We locals used to believe we owned the park in early June and September and October. Not anymore.

I also believe that Xanterra is the best concessionaire the park has ever had. They do a fabulous job under trying circumstances.

So, who owns Yellowstone? The 380 million people of the USA own it, but I am of the feeling that it owns us. It definitely owns me.

Author Joseph Campbell suggests people find a place where they feel “centered.”  To me, that place is the sun room in the Lake Hotel in Yellowstone. Coincidentally, entertainer Dan Miller of Cody told me that was his special place, too. I wonder how many people feel that way?

It is a big oval room with windows all around. It can be blowing and snowing outside and it is totally calm and quiet inside this room. For years, someone would be playing a grand piano in the background. It is a perfect place for reflection.

Most folks know how much I love Yellowstone. It is my favorite place on the planet.

This past weekend, I visited four of my favorite park places: Old Faithful, Grand Prismatic Spring, Norris Geyser Basin, and the Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone.

Yellowstone grows on a person.

In my case, it has been a 52-year itch that I keep trying to scratch.

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Bill Sniffin

Wyoming Life Columnist

Columnist, author, and journalist Bill Sniffin writes about Wyoming life on Cowboy State Daily -- the state's most-read news publication.