This year marks the 100th anniversary of America’s National Park system, conceived of by naturalist John Muir and made a reality by outdoors-loving President Theodore Roosevelt. It’s an idea worth celebrating, and this year officials expect crowds to top 2015’s record 305 million visitors.
But over the past century, there has been a growing struggle to find a balance between the needs of a growing population and the desire to preserve our natural heritage. Global warming has upped the stakes, as climate change threatens the natural habitats of the creatures that inhabit the parks and alters the landscapes we’ve become accustomed to seeing.
Two authors who have explored these ideas, Jordan Fisher Smith and John Hart, joined Climate One for a discussion of the past, present and future of “America’s Best Idea.”
Jordan Fisher Smith knows those parks well. He served as a Park Ranger for 21 years in California, Wyoming, Idaho and Alaska. In fact, it was while ice climbing with his friend John Hart that he was inspired to join the Forest Service.
Smith and Hart came upon an act of wilderness destruction: two men chopping up a 400-year-old whitebark pine for firewood. “I kind of launched into a talk and thought that I would just, you know, through the force of my personality and my missionary zeal, would convince them to stop,” Smith recalls. But it didn’t go that way; the two were chased out of the camp. “And I remember that very well being the first moment I thought man, if I only had a ranger uniform and a ticket book, I would put an end to this right now!”
Smith’s book “Engineering Eden” documents a legal fight that ensued after Harry Walker was killed by a grizzly bear while visiting Yellowstone in 1972. Environmental and animal activists urged Walker’s family to sue the federal government. “Their side of the suit essentially maintained that the government had killed Harry Walker by trying to restore the grizzly bear to naturalness,” says Smith.
“I think probably everyone here agrees with the idea of preserving nature,” says Hart. “When you unpack that it turns out to be a very, very complicated thing to do, with many different ideas about how to do it.”
Early preservationists meant well by trying to “draw a line” around the wilderness in order to keep the bad stuff out, Hart explains. “But because of all the other things we were doing simultaneously to the environment, notably urbanizing large parts of it, turning large parts of it into industrial scale farms, breaking up habitats, building roads, et cetera…you ran into all kinds of trouble, of which the prey/predator balance problem is a prime example.”
One controversial ecological practice Smith mentions in his book is prescribed fires. Well-managed fires, he maintains, can actually benefit the parks by helping to prevent the spread of wildfires such as 2013’s Rim Fire.
“I'd like to see the Park Service having a greater commitment right now to continuing the prescribed fire,” Smith says, adding that “experts almost universally say that the prescribed fire has a definite role to play in adapting for us to face this great threat that we’re seeing.”
Hart cited Howard Zahniser, author of the Wilderness Act of 1964, who famously said “we should be guardians of wilderness, not gardeners.”
“I think that encapsulates a tension that runs through all of these fields, all of these struggles,” says Hart.
“Being aware that, after all, ninety percent of our land is never going to be wilderness again, we have to live in it; we have to manage it; we have to work with it.
“I've just realized that perhaps both gardening and being a guardian are appropriate at different times and places. And that they both are components of what we can simply call stewardship; stewardship being sometimes to back way off, and sometimes to wade in.”
Maintaining that balance will become increasingly tricky as we move into the second century of National Park stewardship. And as the climate heats up, so will the debates about America’s wilderness – and its future.
Written by: Anny Celsi
Photography: Rikki Ward