The wolf and bear are perfect bookends for a volume-sized summary of Ken Burns’ enormous film series about the national parks. We came to this country and decimated the vibrant diverse native human population, mostly through disease, and then scoured the country for dangerous animals, paying bounties to cleanse the land of wicked ferocious predators.
When it came to the emerging national parks, it was no different. Only until Alaska provided a landscape huge and truly untamable did wildlife inside the parks begin to hold equal sway with the natural landscapes. Many park officials recognized the vital role of wildlife all along, but wolves and bears were removed nonetheless. Now we are slowly coming around to a national policy that recognizes the irreplacable contribution large predators make to an ecosystem.
The wolf – free, wild and dangerous – is portrayed as the symbolic epitome of our estrangment with nature in the final segment of Ken Burn’s film on the national parks. Wallace Stegner’s ideas frame the parks as a survival necessity – not just for “the trumpeter swan and bison… but us.” Stegner knew we needed “sanctuary from a world paved over with concrete by the raw engineering power of the 20th century.” The ultimate sanctuary, in park terms, was Alaska, where park superintendent Adolf Murie championed the wolf as the crowning jewel of “a glimpse of the primeval.” From Alaska came the research and experiences that brought about re-introduction of large predators into the continental U.S. parks.
Murie wrote a pro-coyote report concerning Yellowstone that almost got him fired – and did get him packed off to Alaska, where he helped establish the greatest U.S. nature preserves of all. In 1867 “Seward’s Folly” was derided as too remote to be valuable. 111 years later, Morris Udall and Jimmy Carter culminated Alaska preservation by signing off on 17 national monuments comprising 56 million acres (in Alaska communities, all hell broke loose about the feds stealing the state). The Alaska Coalition that facilitated the legislation represented the largest grassroots conservation effort in history.
The final segment of National Parks: America’s Best Idea folded an eclectic concoction of historical and policy facts around Alaska and our large mammals. The crucial theme of preservation balanced against use is applied to various projects as well as the pure numbers. By 1950, National Park visitors reached 32 million in number: by just the mid-50’s that number hit 62 million – 98% by car. These numbers would have crushed any system, eventually even Alaska, but for the strong atmosphere and policies created by National Park Service professionals, developing park policies based on scientific research from the emerging academic discipline of ecology. Aside from limiting roads and managing tourist hordes, one of the toughest policies to implement was the simple directive: Don’t feed the bears! Though wolves were extirpated from Yellowstone, the “cute” black bears were fed and habituated to tourists for years. We can minimize our contact and effect, but we can’t really avoid interactions with wildlife, and interactions with dangerous predators require intense management. The thorny problems inferent in the situation are not least of why Dayton Duncan emphasizes that “each generation must re-protect these lands.”
Burns and Duncan are stalwart in offering breathtaking proof of the value of such work. They also did yeoman’s work in coverage of the National Park Service’s vast mission, which now includes hundreds of National Monuments and National Historic Sites. This final segment also continued the thread of appealing human interest stories, from fish guiding Biscayne Bay to home movies of Echo Park. But I was ready for the end, which came beautifully with the 1995 release of wolves into Yellowstone. The elk are all the better off for it, and the creekside willows they eat are again thriving. We can get it right sometimes in this great country, and the national parks are a great example.
Wildlife in Raleigh is regaining some small aspects of full-fledged wilderness with top-of-the-chain predators. “Black bears are here to stay,”. a NandO story just proclaimed. “Coyote Pyrotechnics at RDU airport” was the title of the WRAL story relating that 2 regional jets carrying about 50 passengers each struck coyotes in a recent week. Raleigh Eco News has thoroughly documented the establishment of coyotes in the Triangle. Can we co-exist with coyotes? Probably so, because they are quite discreet. Can we, through the 21st century, co-exist with wolves, mountain lions, and bears of all kinds? It remains to be seen.
is an amazing record of human co-existence with a very personable “domesticated” coyote. Very thought-provoking!