Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Summer of Fire

Driving across Wyoming in the summer of 1988, I found myself limited to the southern half of the state due to the smoky haze of the fires that engulfed Yellowstone National Park.  It was a contentious issue as park policy was to let the fires burn, as they were initially started by lightning, but as the fires threatened to engulf the entire park and surrounding areas, firefighters were called into bring the fires under control.  This proved to be a mammoth undertaking that involved thousands of firefighters as well as troops from Fort Lewis, Washington.  Ironically, it was rain that finally put the fires out in early September.  The damage was immense, leaving nearly 500,000 acres scorched and countless wildlife dead.

Yellowstone was the nation's first national park, established in 1872, two decades before Wyoming was granted statehood.  The expeditions of Ferdinand V Hayden, stunning photographs of William Henry Jackson and the meticulous paintings of Thomas Moran easily compelled President U.S. Grant to sign The Act of Dedication that created the National Park.

There were those opposed to the National Park, fearing that it would hamper the lucrative fur trade.  Native Americans found themselves excluded from the park, which led to subsequent skirmishes and the building of a fort to prevent them from entering the park.  Old Faithful Inn was also built during this time.  Martial law reigned at the park.

It was out of this rough and tumble time that Wyoming gained statehood in 1890.  If the state could count buffalo among its citizens it would have long before achieved the number of persons necessary to apply for statehood.  In December, 1888, Governor Thomas Moonlight reported 55,500 residents, which was still short of the 60,000 requirement.  The territory held a Constitutional Convention in Cheyenne anyway, and a year later the request was granted.

The big battle wasn't so much over population as it was over the state constitution, which still included women's suffrage.  Wyoming had been the first territory to grant women the right to vote in 1869.  There were about 1000 women living in the remote Western territory at the time and they were given a stake in the territory, even thought the US Congress had still refused to do so in the new voting rights amendment to the Constitution.  There was a lot of pressure on Wyoming to rescind this right in 1890, but Cheyenne officials refused to budge, and women retained their right to vote.   Wyoming became known as the "Equality State."  In fact, women earned the right to vote throughout the West, but not in national elections.  The state further made history when it voted Nellie Tayloe Ross the country's first woman governor in 1924.

Wyoming remains a rugged state, yet for the most part it seems controlled by the Bureau of Land Management, which continues to be a very contentious issue.  Wyoming senators have carried an inordinate weight in Congress over the years, principally Alan Simpson and Dick Cheney, who have made sure ranching and mining interests have had easy access to this land.  This harks back to the Johnson County War of 1892 when syndicate cattle ranchers brought in hired guns to drive off what they considered to be interlopers, resulting in bitter confrontations.  This was the subject of Michael Cimino's epic film, Heaven's Gate, made in 1980.

I've longed for a chance to get back to Wyoming and see Yellowstone.  The name apparently has Algonquin origins, meaning "large prairie place," which is what I remember most when I drove along desolate Interstate 80 from Cheyenne to Green River, before heading northwest to the bottom edge of Idaho, following the Snake River to my home state of Washington.  My parting image was of the Wind River Range.

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