Guide Scorched Earth: How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America

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Scorched Earth lays a new foundation for examining current fire and environmental policies in America and the world. Our story begins when the West was yet to be won, with a colorful cast of characters: a civil war general and his soldiers, America's first investment banker, railroad men, naturalists, and fire-fighters-all of whom left their mark on Yellowstone. As the truth behind the creation of America's first national park is revealed, we discover the remarkable role the U.

Army played in protecting Yellowstone and shaping public lands in the West. And we see the developing efforts of conservation's great figures as they struggled to preserve our heritage. With vivid descriptions of the famous fires that have raged in Yellowstone, the heroes who have tried to protect it, and the strategies that evolved as a result, Barker draws us into the very heart of a debate over our attempts to control nature and people.

Late on the third day, the stage stopped for the night at a station near Parsons Bridge on the Jefferson River in Montana. There Sheridan and his road-weary crew met "an old mountaineer" named Atkinson, who had traveled widely through the Rocky Mountains. This chance frontier meeting would have a profound effect on the future of public land management and, later, the environmental movement.

The mountain man regaled Sheridan with tales of a place of almost supernatural sensation where hot spouting springs gushed straight out of the ground a hundred feet in the air. Atkinson described boiling mud pots cooking red and yellow clays and volcanoes that sputtered mud and boiling water as they roared out of the side of mountains. This mysterious high-mountain locale, it was said, had fields of lime surrounded by meadows of wildflowers enveloping prismatic springs of sapphire and robin-egg-blue bubbling ponds.

There were black glass mountains and petrified forests of solid quartz too. Such tales had been passed regularly among the trappers and explorers of the West for nearly sixty years. But the stories, often exaggerated, had yet to reach eastern circles as anything more than folk tales and rumors.

You can almost see Sheridan, an avid hunter and former ornithologist, leaning closer as Atkinson told of large game herds in that place protected from the settlers who were moving West by its high elevation and hard winters. The stories were so fascinating to Sheridan that he forgot the Franco-Prussian War for the moment and yearned to learn more. From that night to his death, Sheridan was to devote himself to the exploration and then preservation of the region that would soon become Yellowstone National Park.

When historians talk about the great conservation figures in the nineteenth century, they talk about John Muir, who championed Yosemite National Park; Gifford Pinchot, who created the U. Almost never mentioned is Sheridan. Sheridan made his name in the Civil War with a scorched-earth campaign through Virginia's Shenandoah Valley to wipe out the Confederacy's last hope.

And he's known for his leading role in the war against western American Indian tribes, encouraging the near-extinction of the bison to bring the tribes to heel. Yet, though rarely recognized today, he also became one of the most effective voices for protecting Yellowstone National Park's geologic wonders and wildlife.

Sheridan's campaign against monopoly control of the park's resources by the Northern Pacific Railroad would save the park and help to inspire the budding preservation movement. His crusade was one of the precursors to the twentieth century's progressive movement. And Sheridan's view that a strong federal government was necessary to carry on preservation and conservation grew into the model that dominated thinking on the subject for a century. It was, in fact, Sheridan who first created a vision of a Greater Yellowstone, the idea of including important wildlife habitat beyond its borders.

This was the seed upon which landscape or ecosystem management was developed, a concept that inspires environmental thought today worldwide. Sheridan stood five feet five inches tall and had a thick neck, long arms, short legs, and dark, shining hair. American Indians who negotiated with him in Kansas said he looked like an angry bear. To his troopers in the Civil War he was a beloved leader, a small town everyman whose Irish grit pushed him, and them, through every obstacle.

His own motivations for saving Yellowstone would be many and by no means simply altruistic. Sheridan's worldview was shaped in the rural Irish Catholic immigrant home of his parents and tempered on the battlefield. He was born the third of six children on March 6, , but no one knows for sure where. His parents, John and Mary Sheridan, came to the United States from Ireland around that time, and Sheridan eventually claimed Albany, New York, as his birthplace, though his mother said he was born on the ship from Ireland.


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His parents settled in Somerset, Ohio, then a town of one thousand people. His father became a building contractor, first on the Cumberland Road, and then on canals and roads throughout Ohio, which kept him away for much of Phil's childhood. His mother, a strong quiet woman, taught Sheridan the virtues of honesty and hard work and raised him in the values of the Catholic Church.

Sheridan himself became deeply patriotic at an early age. A boyhood friend recalled Sheridan watching an old Revolutionary War veteran in a Fourth of July celebration filled with cannon blasts, cheering crowds, and high oratory. Yet Sheridan's patriotism was tempered by a deep sense of partisanship. When Democratic vice presidential candidate Richard M. Johnson, a famous American Indian fighter, campaigned in Somerset in , young Phil, a Whig, refused to shake his hand.

This demonstration of loyalty and partisanship would later express itself in his view toward rebel enemies and in his support of those who fought under him. As Sheridan saw it, you were either for him or against him. His first teacher regularly employed the rod and switch.

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