Raleigh Nature

December 27, 2009

The Most Dangerous Species Grudgingly Groks Predators

Filed under: About & reflection, Exotica, green initiatives, Greenways & Parks, Nature Lore — Tags: , , — raleighnaturalist @ 9:40 pm

Wolf Face by Photos8

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.

Denali National Park in Alaska

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.

All Raleigh Nature posts on the Ken Burns film

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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.

coyote

The Daily Coyote

is an amazing record of human co-existence with a very personable “domesticated” coyote.  Very thought-provoking!

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November 1, 2009

Park Your Car – Drive Your Park

Filed under: About & reflection, Exotica, Greenways & Parks — Tags: — raleighnaturalist @ 11:01 pm

Continental Divide_1_1

“The advent of the automobile was the great democratizing factor” in the development of our national parks.  This statement by Lee Whittlesey frames the theme of Ken Burn’s film as it explores the expansion of the national park system east of the Mississipi and within reach of the three-quarters of the American people who lived there.  The railroad liasons encouraged by Parks superintendent Stephen Mather were forsaken by him for a love affair with the automobile that co-evolved with our broader national shift on a similar bent.  The automobile became America’s way to visit the National Parks, and they became available to many levels and locales of American society.

In 1920 National Parks visitors reached the one million mark for a year.  Mather, whose central vision of the parks involved recreation, had achieved this through strategies that included golf courses, zoos, summer camps, and a proposal for Yosemite Valley as a prime site for the Winter Olympics.  In the years following , Mather worked with auto clubs, chambers of commerce, “Good Roads” initiatives, and highway builders to begin and promote a national park scenic roadway.  Within two years, the visitor count had doubled to two million a year.  For Mather the car and its highways were the “Open Sesame” to a new era.

South Mtn development_1_1

For us Tarheels, an important part of that new era was the formation of  The Great Smokies National Park.  It was the first National Park built partly with federal funds, and benefited from CCC and WPA work during the depression.  The film devotes a nice section called “Back of Beyond” to the creation of the park, primarily through the efforts of Horace Kephart, a genius librarian with a life broken by marital woes and drinking, who moved to the Smokies for a life respite and spent the rest of his life working to protect the landscape he said had saved his soul.  He received tremendous support from  Asian photographer George Masa as well as the collected funds of grade school children from Asheville to Tennessee.

 Kephart was drawn to the “dreamy blue smoky haze” of the Smokies, where skyline merged with sky.  He found an “astonishing isolation of a majestic region set in the midst…of American civilization.”  He also found a community of outsiders with whom he could identify, described in the film as “moonshiners, Confederate deserters, Union sympathizers and remnants of the Cherokee Tribe who had taken the Trail of Tears to Oklahoma.  The film also demonizes (with great justification) the industrial logging which threatened to clear-cut the Smokies.  The park preserves half a million acres, but a lot of the resident outsiders admired by Kephart gave up lands and homes to create it.

The Blue Ridge Parkway was created right along with The Great Smokies, and was originally called the “Appalachian Scenic Highway.”  North Carolina’s mountains serve as a classic example of the automotive travel site, and I personally am very proud of the Parkway and can live, in the longest run, with the sacrifices of our mountain families.  We are all lucky to have the old growth Appalachian forests that we have – if we can just preserve them from acid rain and invasive species!

Stephen Mather may have done his bit to propel us toward a car-dominated society, but his overall accomplishents with the Parks remain massive. One aspect emphasized in this part of the film was his professionalization of the Park Service.  He hand-picked superintendents and allowed a strong culture of preservation to develop that serves even today as a constant balance to the recreational use of the parks.  The Park Rangers are given tribute as the personification of the parks, with the romanticism of a campfire talk by a Ranger as the epitome of a source for natural history.  Look for one more post about the wrap-up of this film, which ended its story at 1980.  And know that a big goal now is to get myself to the Great Smokies for a dip back into our very own National Park!

PBS home page of Nat. Parks film

PBS pages for the individual parks

You may select shorts videos of sections of the film here.

creek into Broad_1_1

Raleigh Nature posts on the Ken Burns film

October 28, 2009

Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan probe American character

Filed under: About & reflection, Exotica, Gems & Surprises — Tags: , , — raleighnaturalist @ 1:37 am
Acadia interior creek_1_1

Acadia National Park

How radical is the idea of national parks? Dayton Duncan, Ken Burn’s partner in the National Park series, opens the series stating that entering one of these natural spaces crosses a boundary where human individuals are not the masters.  Yet we as a society DO control the existence, present and future, of the spaces themselves.  Their existence depends on democracy, while typifying the best element of democracy – universal access to high aspirations.  The PBS series initially focuses on John Muir’s highly spiritual perspective on the value of experiencing nature, and the contemporary writers who talk in the film extoll the very long term value of saving these spaces, whether humans ever visited them or not – just for the sake of their existence.  Yet the Burns series, in segment 3, “Empire of Grandeur,” portrays the eventual development and permanent protection of the parks as an evolving response to economic forces, development and use trends, and patriotic fervor expressed by some of the richest folks in the land.

Hetch_Hetchy_Valley

public domain image of Hetch Hetchy Valley from Wikipedia

John Muir died in 1914 knowing he had failed in protecting his very favorite nature spot, Hetch Hetchy Valley.  Part of Yosemite National Park, it was flooded by the creation of a reservoir in 1913.  This loss, still controversial, is portrayed in the Burns film as a trigger or rallying point which instigated and motivated much support for the parks and the emerging Park Service, which would provide organized regulation and protection of park lands and wildlife – wildlife being an afterthought in some roots of national parks thinking.  Muir inspired a strong and still-present reverential perspective on the natural landscape, but the national parks themselves were captured and developed by a very different mode of operation.

Stephen Mather was the first of many very rich men to support the National Park System, and perhaps the most devoted to its cause.  His vision, implemented through years of quasi-volunteer government service with crucial assistance from Horace Albright, saw economics and patriotism as the twin keys to developing the national parks.  “Popularize to Protect” was the slogan of his very successful PR campaign to promote the parks.  If enough people visited them and enough philanthropists claimed them as causes, they would be safe.  Mather rescued the parks from a variety of unsavory commercial interests and activities, but also allowed railroad interests to pursue park politics, Native Americans to be marginalized, and a group of populist patricians to dominate the selection of park sites.

No one can argue with the success of the national parks, nor their importance, nor the profound satisfaction we as Americans can take in their existence and permanent status.  The paradox clearly stated by Dayton Duncan, who wrote the film, is in the tension between the enjoyment of them by The People and the unimpaired future existence of the natural features.  Duncan compares the broad parameters of the National Park charter to the Constitution, in that both allow for “movement into the future.”  We’ve evolved from “white men with property” to (almost)everybody, and so our view of national parks can perhaps transcend Major Tourist Site.

Abbe garden frog_1_1

The are glimmers of such vision embedded in the film.  Dayton Duncan gets a little teary describing his reaction, as an Iowan, to seeing new land on Earth created in Hawaii Volcanoes National Park.  ( Mark Twain jump-started his journalism career as one of the first visitors to Kilawea).  The spirituality of Muir endures well beyond the earnest pieties of the Serria Club.  Enos Mills and the Rockies, Charles Shelton and Alaska – the list of inspiring heroes and their meccas will continue throughout the massive film.  But if there is a truly radicalizing element in it, it is the off chance that watching it will provoke one to go experience one of these places.  One of the best reviews points out that many Californians could actually travel to one of several national parks in the time they spent watching the Burns film.  I hope you get out and find your special nature spot soon.  Take your time, and let the planet speak to you.  The message might be life-changing.

National Parks: America’s Best Idea

30 minute preview show

(selected footage from many parts of the project)

Long Pond from marshy area_1_1

Long Lake in Acadia National Park

Raleigh Nature posts on the Ken Burns film

 

September 24, 2009

Ken Burns Recounts America’s Best Idea

Filed under: About & reflection, Exotica, Greenways & Parks — Tags: , , — raleighnaturalist @ 10:32 pm
The Bubble Mountains_1_1_1

The Bubble Mountains in Acadia National Park

 September 27 marks the beginning of yet another fantastic documentary by Ken Burns that reveals the heart and soul of America.  National Parks: America’s Best Idea is a 6 part , 12 hour series that

tells the story of an idea as uniquely American as the Declaration of Independence: that the most special places in the nation should be preserved for everyone.  The series traces the birth of the national park idea in the mid-1800s and follows its evolution for nearly 150 years.

North Carolina, with a very strong state park system, boasts only the Great Smokies National Park as part of this system; amazingly, the Great Smokies is the most heavily visited national park.  We share the park with Tennessee.  The Great Smokies Park is celebrating its 75th anniversary this year.  This PBS series, which I have eagerly anticipated and urge you to watch, will focus initially on Yosemite, first sighted by white men in 1851 and worshiped by John Muir and many others.  Yosemite was given federal protection by Abraham Lincoln in 1864.

This is the first instance of park land being set aside specifically for preservation and public use by action of the U.S. federal government, and set a precedent for the 1872 creation of Yellowstone as the first national park.     Wikipedia

 As we follow this series on the blog, I hope to find the time to review a relevant and fascinating book:  Humboldt’s Current and the Roots of American Environmentalism.  The evolution of the national parks is an amazing story of very rich people acting not as royalty or capitalists but as Americans.  I look forward to seeing Ken Burn’s take on this, and sharing more about Aaron Sach’s complex book, which traces the influence of Humboldt, a Prussian scientist who was essentially America’s first professional naturalist, on American explorer naturalists such as Muir.

Raleigh Nature posts on the Ken Burns film

 

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