Yellowstone National Park’s stunning views and thermal features have drawn tourists for almost 150 years. Over that time, John Clayton argues, Americans’ perceptions of the park have constantly shifted. (RAY K.SAUNDERS/THE WASHINGTON POST)

Dennis Drabelle, a former contributing editor of Book World, writes frequently on environmental issues.

As Ken Burns put it in the subtitle of his 2009 documentary on the national parks, they are “America’s best idea.” In “Wonderlandscape,” an energetic and insightful new book on Yellowstone, journalist John Clayton shows that, at least as applied to America’s first national park, the “best idea” has been an evolving one.

Several men claimed to have hatched the notion of designating federal land in Wyoming, Montana and Idaho as a national park. The semiofficial credit — the nod given by Yellowstone’s influential superintendent Horace Albright at the park’s 50th birthday party in 1922 — went to attorney Cornelius Hedges. In 1870, Hedges took part in a fireside conversation in which several other well-heeled sightseers discussed filing legal claims to the canyons and geysers they had been exploring. As reported by a witness, Hedges argued that “there ought to be no private ownership of any portion of that region, but that the whole of it ought to be set apart as a great National Park.” He may have had in mind the counterexample of Niagara Falls, its environs already reduced to an international eyesore by commercial greed.

Clayton calls this anecdote “the national parks’ creation myth.” Today many historians believe that “Hedges was merely articulating a commonly held view, a previously expressed impulse, to somehow honor this magical land.” Two years after Hedges’s recommendation, at any rate, Yellowstone National Park was up and running.

“Wonderlandscape,” by John Clayton (Pegasus Books/oks)

Advancing his insight that “the story of Yellowstone is the story of what America wants from Yellowstone,” Clayton identifies boosting the national ego as a powerful early desire. Scenic marvels such as Yellowstone set the United States apart from gently picturesque Europe. “America is special,” the reasoning went, “because of its wondrous landscapes.”

Artists and architects gravitated to Yellowstone with something more personal in mind: challenges and fame. A year before the park’s establishment, a painter named Thomas Moran had come into his own there. His watercolors, shipped back to Washington and enlisted in the cause, gave lawmakers a sense of the incomparable scenery they were being asked to save from spoliation by private enterprise. (Moran’s eventual masterpiece in oil, “The Grand Canyon of the Yellowstone,” graces the “Wonderlandscape” cover.)

In a bravura chapter on the park’s architecture, Clayton focuses on Old Faithful Inn, designed by Robert Reamer. “Although multistory lobbies are quite common today,” the author observes, the inn’s “was a huge innovation in 1903: a space so tall and airy that it seemed to be both indoors and outdoors at the same time.” So admired was Reamer’s design that it fathered a new style, known as National Park Service Rustic.

Seven decades after Moran’s visit, during World War II, another visual artist, the photographer Ansel Adams, arrived with a commission from the federal government — and a private agenda. Yellowstone, Adams believed, was being sold to the public as a pleasure ground, whereas to him it was more like a church. Leaving humans out of his shots, “he believed that the spiritual validity of wild, beautiful places arose in part from our simplicity of experience in them. That usually meant sacrificing comforts and undergoing difficulties.” If this sounds elitist, the pendulum swung the other way a generation later, with the broadcast of the 1960s animated TV series “The Yogi Bear Show.” Fans of the program flocked to Yellowstone to see the inspiration for Yogi’s Jellystone. The cartoon bruin, Clayton writes, “secured [Yellowstone] for the masses.”

By then the masses tended to live in suburbia; accordingly, the Park Service had embarked on Mission 66, a system-wide “infrastructure upgrade” to make its holdings more car-friendly. At Yellowstone, this entailed the razing of an old hotel and its replacement by “motel-style accommodations in an uninspiring location about a mile away.” “The change,” Clayton dryly notes, “was poorly received.”

Old Faithful and other thermal features are the park’s signature attractions, but Clayton fails to do them justice. After reminding us that the park contains “nearly one-quarter of all the geysers in the world,” he says little about what spawned them. Geologists, too, have wanted something from Yellowstone — scientific understanding — and Clayton would have done well to tag along with one of them as he investigated the park’s innards.

On the other hand, I like the author’s frankness. Yellowstone, he admits, is not an illimitable cornucopia of wild splendor. “Although [the park] unfolds vast quantities of empty backcountry, much of it is monotonous lodgepole-pine forest.” If you’re looking for “a steady stream of awe-inspiring solitude,” he adds, you might try Glacier National Park instead.

Clayton closes his book with a discussion of what might eventually happen to Yellowstone: an eruption of the supervolcano beneath it, a blowup that might conceivably unleash 8,000 times the fury of Mount St. Helens in 1980. The growing concern about such a cataclysm, the author suggests, reflects today’s “zombie apocalypse” mentality. In fairness to the zombies, it should be noted that, in June, tremors felt in Montana suggested that the supervolcano might be waking up from its long nap. In any event, supervolcanic fears nicely round out Clayton’s thesis that throughout its history, Yellowstone has long been both a showcase of natural extravagance and a cultural construct.

Wonderlandscape
Yellowstone National Park and the Evolution of an American Cultural Icon

By John Clayton

Pegasus. 285 pp. $27.95