Yellowstone Through The Back Door


The Bechler country was just being settled by the time the Hague party did its work, and it soon became apparent that poaching was a problem. By the 1890s the U.S. Army, which managed Yellowstone until the creation of the National Park Service in 1916, was sending scouts to control unauthorized hunting. In an article in Harper’s Weekly in 1898, Elmer Lindsley, an Army scout, described the poachers: “Off the south part of the west boundary lives a gang of hardy mountain pirates who make a scanty living by hunting, trapping, and fishing. To these men the buffalo and moose of the Park are an irresistible attraction … such skilled robbers are they and so minute their knowledge of the country that [it] is almost impossible to catch them redhanded, and so zealous are they in one another’s defense that it is quite impossible to convict them unless so caught.” In 1900 the acting park superintendent, George Goode, proposed that a permanent military station be built at Bechler. It was finally erected in 1911, and it still stands, used to house Bechler-area staff.

The Bechler country is no longer undiscovered, but getting there takes a certain determination.

As a threat to the Bechler country’s future, poaching paled alongside the land grabs of the 1920s. To fight a lingering drought in their state, the Idaho politicians John Nugent and Addison Smith began an effort in 1919 to obtain reservoir sites in the falls and Bechler river basins within the park, and early in 1920 they introduced bills to authorize the cost of construction of ditches, roads, buildings, and telephone lines. The U.S. Reclamation Service, noting that maps from the Hague survey had labeled the region “swampy,” backed the project, and even Secretary of the Interior Franklin K. Lane favored the idea.

Yellowstone’s superintendent, Horace Albright, and the National Park Service director, Stephen Mather, pleaded with Lane to change his mind and encouraged conservationists to join the battle, but Lane stood firm and ordered the Park Service to prepare a favorable report on Smith’s bill. So Mather and Albright found ways to stall. One story has it that after a junior Interior Department bureaucrat alerted Albright to Lane’s decision to send a survey party to the Bechler country, Albright sent the horses the group would need out to pasture and the boats they’d requisitioned into winter storage. Mather meanwhile cited urgent personal business as a subterfuge for delaying his report. None of this worked, though, and when hearings began on Smith’s bill, Lane remained steadfast in his support of the measure.

Albright and Mather prepared to resign over the matter, but they never had to. Lane, citing ill health, left the cabinet, and his successor, John Barton Payne, helped the Park Service block the bill in the House. Meanwhile, Gregg’s Saturday Evening Post article fueled a public outcry, as did letters to many other publications. Writing yet another article about his Bechler explorations for The Outlook , a newsweekly, in 1921, William Gregg crowed, “Happily, the protest was so general and so emphatic that the bill died in the last Congress and has small chance of being resurrected again.”

For a time it seemed he was right. But 1926 saw legislation introduced to refine Yellowstone’s boundaries. Addison Smith, by then serving his seventh term in Congress seized on the bill as the perfect vehicle for removing the Bechler district from the park so a dam could finally be built. Once again, public dismay was swift and vocal. “To the Looters of Yellowstone Park: Hands Off! ” thundered The Outlook in the first of many editorials against Smith’s amendment.

I was thinking about the Bechler land grab when, the day after my Union Falls trek, I hiked toward the meadows the reservoir would have covered. After two miles of wooded trail, I reached tall grass, and I could almost imagine I was on the Nebraska prairie—until I looked and saw the Tetons rising far in the distance. Turning to the north, I spotted Ouzel Falls, named for the small birds that make nests in watery areas rife with insects and larvae. The falls drop 230 feet, but from here, several miles across the meadow, they looked tiny.

“Here is a meadow fit for giants to play in!” wrote Dr. Henry Van Dyke in a 1927 article for The Outlook . “I know not how many acres there are in the Bechler Meadows. But if it were only one acre, it would be too much to take away from the people of the United States, who own it as part of their pleasuring ground, and give to a few persons in Idaho or any other state.” Despite these protests, Washington again appeared ready to ignore the conservationists. In March 1927 a special Senate subcommittee appointed to investigate the boundaries bill reported in favor of Congressman Smith’s recommendation. But the Yellowstone Park Boundaries Commission’s report of 1930 retained Bechler Meadows within its borders. With that finding the second raid on Yellowstone’s Cascade Corner ended.