July 18, 2023 | By:

George Meléndez Wright: The Fight for Wildlife and Wilderness in National Parks

Jerry Emory, George Melendez Wright: The Fight for Wildlife and Wilderness in National Parks. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2023.

Jerry Emory, George Meléndez Wright: The Fight for Wildlife and Wilderness in National Parks. Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2023.

In the beginning, national parks were mostly about scenery — not entirely because some early parks like Yellowstone, Mount Rainier, and Crater Lake featured unusual marvels of the natural world. But the focus was on scenic beauty and providing opportunities for visitors to enjoy it. From those earliest days wildlife, particularly big critters like bears and elk, was one of the attractions in some parks like Yellowstone and Yosemite where they were on “display” at, for instance, the Yellowstone garbage dumps. Wildlife protection was an afterthought, if a thought at all, in the establishment and management of national parks. George Meléndez Wright changed this, at least for a while.

Jerry Emory has in this book brought the remarkable story of George Meléndez Wright out of the shadows of national park history. It is a story of brilliance, vision, tragedy, and missed opportunity. Wright was trained as a biologist by Joseph Grinnell at the University of California, Berkeley who was himself a visionary and important figure in national park history, particularly that of Yosemite National Park. Grinnell launched a team of scientists into the National Park Service in the late 1920s and early 1930s, led by Wright, who became practitioners of what today we call “conservation biology,” more than fifty years before the term was coined. This was mission-oriented biology, and the mission was to protect what was being neglected, exploited, and even threatened by National Park Service management aimed at providing “for the enjoyment” of park resources as directed in the act creating the agency at the expense of “in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations,” which the act also mandated.

In those early national park days, science did not inform management decisions, and Grinnell, Wright, and several others sought to change this oversight. Their focus was on wildlife, or “wild life” as they referred to it. Emory describes Wright’s early life, his education, and how at the age of twenty-three in 1927 he realized his dream of joining the Park Service as a Naturalist Ranger in Yosemite. After a brief overview of the Park Service’s brief history up to this point — the agency was only eleven years old when Wright became part of it — he describes how the young man came to the attention of agency leadership. In 1928, a Service bureaucrat ruled that Wright, who stood 5’4”, was too short to be a ranger. Wright had so impressed his bosses in his brief tenure that his plight came to the attention of Horace Albright, soon to become NPS Director. Albright wrote to acting director Arthur Demaray who was sitting in for the ill founding director Stephen Mather. Wright, Albright wrote, “is a fine naturalist and is doing splendid work. He has a spirit very much like that of Mr. Mather.” “Some way,” he added, “must be found to keep him.” When Mather returned, he too advocated for Wright, and secretary of the interior Hubert Work approved a new position for him. His title would be “Scientific Aid.” Emory writes that Albright “anointed Wright with the ultimate compliment by comparing him to his own hero, Stephen Mather — a high honor that others would also allude to, with time.”

George Meléndez Wright, at the age of twenty-four, was thus launched into what would become a meteoric if tragically brief career as a pioneering National Park Service scientist and advocate for science-informed park management. Emory describes a modest, personable, gifted, ambitious young man who rapidly met and impressed many important players inside and outside the agency. During his two years working in Yosemite, Wright came up with what Emory calls a “groundbreaking idea,” as it indeed proved to be. He would organize and finance a wildlife survey of western national parks. His experience at Yosemite had revealed that wildlife and natural systems of these parks were “extremely out of balance,” and his proposed survey would document the situation and offer solutions. He was aware of several problems: the Park Service was feeding bears at dumps as a tourist attraction; elk and bison were corralled so park visitors could conveniently observe them; predators were being killed by the Park Service to protect “good” animals, those the visitors wished to see; and parks were being created without any consideration of the habitat needs of wildlife. He had come to believe that “these practices ran completely counter to any notion of a natural and functioning landscape, especially within a national park.” Emory summarizes what this precocious young man was about to do.

Wright was slowly, and quietly at first, mounting a challenge to what historian Richard West Sellars has termed “façade” management: the park management style that was created and vigorously promulgated by the service’s first two legendary directors, Mather and Albright. Façade management, as described by Sellars, was “protecting and enhancing the scenic façade of nature for the public’s enjoyment, but with scant scientific knowledge and little concern for the biological consequences.” This was a tension born of managing for short-term aesthetic purposes and convenience over managing for long-term ecological health: tourism, trains hotels, and roads versus what Wright would come to call science-based restoration and management of the “pristine state.”

Most of the book explains how Wright mounted his campaign to challenge this “façade management.”

The first stage was convincing Park Service leadership to support his proposal, which he did with surprising ease considering his youth and brief experience with the agency. Next, he launched the survey, traveling widely through the western parks with fellow scientists Joseph Dixon and Ben Thompson, close friends and key members of his team who shared his passion for the project. He found important allies in the parks, but not everyone agreed with the team’s perception of wildlife problems and recommendations for addressing them. For instance, some park rangers padded their modest salaries trapping predators and selling their pelts — they were not keen on losing this supplemental income. The intense work of the team, which Emory describes in some detail, had almost immediate impact on Park Service wildlife policy. Horace Albright as director, in 1931, issued a new policy on predatory mammals which stated that “Predatory animals are to be considered an integral part of the wild life protected within national parks and no widespread campaigns of destruction are to be countenanced.” No trapping was to be allowed in parks, and use of poisons in the parks were banned “except against rodents in settled portions of a park, or in case of emergency.” This was a major policy change.

The following year, Wright and his team published Fauna of the National Parks of the United States: A Preliminary Survey of Faunal Relations in National Parks, or Fauna No. 1 as it became known. Emory notes that this “fulfilled a key condition of Wright’s from back when Albright had approved the wildlife survey: that the team could publish its research findings as an official Park Service publication in a form that would be ‘most useful as a reference book on existing conditions and problems of the animal life in the National Parks.’” He also describes what a “radical departure” from National Park Service policy this report was in 1932.

“The text recommended, in part, that proper and healthy habitats be maintained for all species, and that ‘natural faunal barriers’ be used to determine park boundaries — particularly for new parks. Prior to any management plans, proper scientific research should be required to inform those decisions. And interfering with species should only be allowed if it was believed a species might go extinct or that populations were otherwise out of balance. Fauna No. 1 also noted that artificial feeding should only be carried out as a last resort. Predators were to be considered ‘special charges’ of the national parks and protected. Fish-eating animals — otters, mergansers, kingfishers — were not to be persecuted. And, likely with Albright’s feelings in mind, they included a subtle yet pointed jab at the bear shows, stating that ‘presentation of the animal life of the parks to the public shall be a wholly natural one.’”

Implementation of such policies would be controversial, and Wright believed a Park Service division devoted to park science and wildlife was needed, so the next development was establishment of a Wildlife Division in 1933, headed by Wright. This was in the depth of the Great Depression, which presented both obstacles and opportunities for creation of this division, and Emory explains how the young director became an effective bureaucrat, moving to Washington, DC and working effectively with top officials of the FDR administration, among them Jay Norwood “Ding” Darling, Director of the Biological Survey, an agency with which up to this point clashed with the Park Service, especially Wright and his biologist colleagues, over wildlife issues. The Wildlife Division grew rapidly, taking advantage of the Civilian Conservation Corps and other New Deal initiatives. This part of the story is quite a testament to Wright’s surprisingly astute political and diplomatic talents.

The subtitle of this book alludes to Wright’s fighting for wildlife and for wilderness. These two goals were not separate in his mind. He was what we would call today a remarkably holistic thinker. In response to plans to build a new road in Grand Canyon National Park, he wrote to the director in 1934 as follows:

“We would be grateful,” Wright concluded, “had past generations not exterminated the passenger pigeon, the great auk, and numerous species of grizzly bear, or if they had not brought to the verge of extinction the bison, antelope, wolverine, fisher, trumpeter swan, whooping crane, ivory-billed woodpecker, and so on. In like manner I believe future generations would be grateful for the tracts of primitive area, or wilderness, which we can save in our national parks without hindering our own pleasure in the least — areas which we do not stamp with our limited technique and concepts of wilderness-use.”

He wrote this at a moment when the Park Service was locked in a battle with the Forest Service over wilderness preservation. The Park Service took the position that while it did not have a policy of designating areas where wilderness was to be maintained, which the Forest Service did, any areas not developed were therefore protected as wilderness. This approach by his agency was not satisfactory in Wright’s opinion — proactive measures for wilderness protection for the benefit of wildlife and other park values were needed.

From 1934 to 1936, Wright was a very busy man, working most of the time from Washington, DC. Emory describes how his star was rising fast, his ideas were having a significant impact on management of national parks, and there was a strong prospect that they would have even more impact in the years to come. Then tragedy struck. At the age of only thirty-one, Wright was killed in an automobile accident in New Mexico. He and several colleagues were on a mission to assess other Southwest areas for protection of wildlife. “After Wright’s death,” writes Emory, “the Wildlife Division was never the same.” Wright’s colleague Lowell Sumner explained why. “No one else had George Wright’s ability to placate and win over the opposing school of thought which, increasingly, was coming to feel that biologists were impractical, were unaware that ‘parks are for people,’ and were a hindrance to large scale plans for park development.” By 1941, only four biologists remained in the Park Service — there had been twenty-seven at the time Wright died.

Yet, Emory briefly makes the case that George Wright’s legacy is considerable. In his forward to the book, former National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis describes Wright as “ahead of his time, a visionary blessed with a warm and friendly demeanor that won him many friends and fueled his influence. His impact on the conservation of our national parks, though stalled for a period but picked up by my generation, is immeasurable.” A new generation is on the rise in the Park Service, writes Jarvis, “One that is more representative of the nation, more attuned to the conservation challenges of the world, and more respectful of indigenous stewardship.” This generation will in Jarvis’ view, find “no better inspiration than the life of George Meléndez Wright.”

This book is an informative, thoroughly researched, and readable account of a remarkable man of historic importance. In the brief chapter devoted to discussion of Wright’s legacy, Emory writes, “When looking back at the figure of this young, visionary biologist, there is both much to celebrate and much to wish for.” He observes that “We can never know how George Meléndez Wright might have changed the future of wildlife, wilderness, and the National Parks — but his legacy is one that will surely continue for decades to come.”

Get your own copy of the book here:
George Meléndez Wright: The Fight for Wildlife and Wilderness in National Parks. 

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Jeff Hoffman
10 months ago

If humans were living properly and in proper numbers, we wouldn’t need parks, wilderness protection wildlife protection, or anything like that. I fully support and am grateful for the protections and protected areas we have, but that’s not good enough. Humans need to greatly lower their population and consumption, and return to living in proper ecological balance with their ecosystems, habitats, and fellow beings. Otherwise, when push comes to shove, as it inevitably will, all these protections will be removed. And beside, why should only small portions of the Earth be free from human overpopulation and other unnatural and immoral human harms? The whole Earth should be free from these things, because they shouldn’t exist in the first place.

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