National Parks celebrates its 100 Anniversary.
In the late summer of 1928, National Parks Service’s — first director Stephen Mather — received a curious proposal. George Melendez Wright, a twenty-four-year-old assistant naturalist at Yosemite, was offering not only to conduct a multiyear survey of wildlife in the National Parks but also to pay for the work himself. Wright had been with the Park Service for barely a year. He was the orphaned son of a sea captain from New York and an heiress from El Salvador. he had been raised in San Francisco by a great-aunt who encouraged his early interest in birds, allowing him to ramble alone through Bay Area marshes. Later, as an under-graduate at Berkeley, Wright had studied under the pioneering field biologist Joseph Grinnell, adopting his mentor’s famously meticulous note-taking habits. In short, he was the perfect man for the job he was offering to create. Mather, who was in the last months of his tenure, could hardly refuse. In 1929, Wright opened an office in Berkeley, ordered a customized Buick Roadster fitted with a truck bed and a water-resistant gear compartment, and hired two colleagues to help carry out the Park Service’s first system-wide research project.
Wright’s proposal stemmed from more than a personal love of flora and fauna. When President Woodrow Wilson signed the act that established the National Park Service, on August 25, 1916, he created an agency charged with both conserving the parks and providing for the public’s enjoyment of them. The first generation of Park Service officials, including Mather, saw little conflict in this double mission: to them, conservation meant protecting the scenic views that the public came to see, even if that meant building roads and corralling wildlife. But to Wright and some of his contemporaries, schooled in the emerging science of ecology, the contradiction was very deep indeed. It was, he would later write, as if “a lion and a fawn were being asked to share the same bed in amnesty.” In his notebooks, alongside sightings of plants and animals at Yosemite, he recorded his frustrations with the Park Service’s haphazard efforts at wildlife management. His work, he hoped, would provide the basic knowledge needed to protect park wildlife from human visitors.
Wright began his self-funded survey in 1930 and spent months observing trumpeter swans in Yellowstone, deer herds on the rim of the Grand Canyon, and mountain goats in Glacier. He and his colleagues interviewed rangers and residents about past and present conditions in parks across the country, and in May of 1932 published their conclusions in a report, “Fauna of the National Parks of the United States”—known informally, then and now, as Fauna No. 1. It recommended, among many other measures, that parks protect native predators, restore eradicated species and, whenever possible, permit wildlife “to carry on its struggle for existence unaided.” Fauna No. 1 and its sequel, Fauna No. 2, made an eloquent argument for parks not as postcards but as functioning ecosystems. It was, as the agency historian Richard Sellars writes in his book “Preserving Nature in the National Parks,” “a revolutionary change in the understanding of national parks by Service professionals.”
The revolution looked, at first, to be a rout. In 1933, Mather’s successor, Horace Albright, established and funded a new wildlife division with Wright as its chief—meaning that Wright could finally stop paying for his own research. The following year, the Park Service accepted the recommendations of Fauna No. 1 as official policy. The agency appeared to be entering a new era of ecological management and Wright was elated. But in February of 1936, while driving with another Park Service official on U.S. Highway 80 near Deming, New Mexico, Wright was killed in a head-on collision. He was only thirty-one years old.
Without Wright’s precocious leadership, the agency’s enthusiasm for ecology quickly faded. The New Deal brought funding for park infrastructure, not scientific research, and the Second World War shoved park science further down the list of national priorities. Wildlife biologists would not regain significant influence in the Park Service until the late nineteen-sixties. Even then they remained to some extent, as Sellars puts it, “insurgents in a tradition-bound realm.” David Harmon, the executive director of the George Wright Society, a nonprofit organization founded by Park Service researchers in 1980, told that internal debate over the importance of science lingered for decades. “There was this idea that the parks could be managed by instinct, or with only fragmentary research,” he said. Only in the late nineteen-nineties, after Sellars published his influential and critical book, did the agency dedicate substantial, sustained funding to the inventory and monitoring of its natural resources.
Today, as the Park Service celebrates its centennial, the place of science in the agency seems assured. Large parks such as Yellowstone and the Everglades employ scientists from a variety of disciplines and frequently host researchers from universities and other agencies. Jonathan Jarvis, who became the Park Service’s director in 2009, is a biologist by training. He appointed a full-time science adviser—an agency first. But it’s still relatively rare for park superintendents and agency administrators to have scientific backgrounds. Some small and medium-sized parks have no scientific staff at all. Park managers still struggle to turn research into policy, especially as climate change magnifies the inherent uncertainty of scientific results. The reasons are both political and historical. As Wright explained in Fauna No. 1, few parks are “independent biological units” — their boundaries were designed to encompass scenic features rather than protect year-round habitats for migratory mammals. “There’s a big difference between having the right answer and being able to implement the right answer,” Bob Krumenaker, a former president of the George Wright Society and the current superintendent of Apostle Islands National Lakeshore, in Wisconsin, have told.
To protect wildlife into its next century, the Park Service may need to look beyond its own boundaries, particularly as rising global temperatures reshuffle where species live and how far they wander. The agency’s interim policy on climate change, expected to be finalized by the end of the year, directs parks to work more closely with nearby public and private landowners, envisioning the system as the “ecological and cultural core of a national and international network of protected lands and waters.” A recent paper in the journal Bioscience goes further, proposing that national parks and other conservation areas be incorporated into a formal “national habitat conservation system” designed to protect biodiversity—not unlike the future Wright once imagined for the parks.
Wright himself would not be surprised by the slow and unsteady rate of progress. In 1934, less than two years before his death, he foresaw that the job he had begun would not be completed soon, if at all. “Fifty years from now, we shall still be wrestling with the problems of joint occupation of national parks by men and mammals,” he said in a speech at the American Museum of Natural History. Yet he encouraged his weary successors to persist: “It is far better to pursue such a course, though success be but partial, than to relax in despair and allow the destructive forces to operate unchecked.”