Earth Week speaker to explain how a grizzly killing changed the face of national parks

Jordan Fisher Smith


BG Independent News

Nature has a way of asserting itself.

Jordan Fisher Smith noted a small example of that as he walked into Hanna Hall on the Bowling Green State University campus.

During his talk to the 40 students in Amilcar Challu’s American Environmental History class, he showed them a shard of limestone.

The building represents human ideas of architecture set in stone. Now nature, through freezing, thawing and the movement of water, is having its way with human design.

Or maybe it’s the dandelion, an invasive species, rising up through the concrete sidewalk.

“That’s wildness,” he said. “That’s the unexpected that happens without human intervention and design.” Or maybe, that assertion comes during the 1972 celebration of the 100th anniversary of the founding of Yellowstone Natural Park. In the midst of all the activities, a hiker Harry Eugene Walker is pulled off the trail, killed and eaten by a grizzly.

That’s the subject of Smith’s book “”Engineering Eden: The True Story of a Violent Death, a Trial, and the Fight Over Controlling Nature,” a finalist for the PEN/E.O. Wilson Literary Science Writing Award. He’ll speak about the book and the National Park system tonight (April 18) at 7 p.m. in the Student Union theater.

Though Yellowstone was created in 1872, people knew nothing about how to run them. They served as “nature management kindergarten,” Smith told the class. Officials were guided by a few “crude rules.” Plant-eating animals were good, and the predators who ate them were bad. Fire was bad.

So after human market hunters killed off the elk and bison, park officials decided they needed to get rid of the natural predators, the wolves and cougars.

Without those carnivores, the elk and bison populations rebounded and increased unchecked. The elk stripped the park of the willow that grew near wetlands, depriving birds of nesting areas, and the beavers of the material for building dams that helped maintain those wetlands.

By the 1970s everything was out of balance, and behind the scenes, park officials faced a tough choice. Should they make changes to restore balance like closing the open garbage dumps where the grizzlies were feeding knowing that a visitor may be killed?

They closed the dumps. Harry Walker was dragged into the woods screaming. Walker’s parents sued the park service with the assistance of an activist interested in the preservation of the grizzlies.

The story is a courtroom drama about nature. In “Engineering Eden” Smith strives to write “a well-told story, deeply researched, that doesn’t tell you what to think.”

He didn’t start off to be a writer. His path started growing up in Redwoods country in northern California. Looking at a crosscut slab of redwood in a museum he could see the tree on the tree marked with the key moments in world history going back a 1,000 years.

He realized at a young age that when people write the history of our times—if there’s anyone left to write history – they will view what action we took on the environment as our defining moment.

Smith was a climber, back-country skier, firefighter, and for 21 years a park ranger. It was the realization of the toll of global warming on the wilderness he loved that pushed him to start sharing his views in print and as a National Public Radio commentator.

He is concerned about the election of a president who doesn’t believe that human-caused global warming is happening.

Private property is one of the principles “that makes a free society work.”

But, he added, “one sign that things are going terribly wrong is when someone can own something and utterly destroy it for the next generation.”

The national parks, which served as a model for parks around the world, seek to preserve nature for future generations. The national parks, Smith said, are “the pyramids of our civilization.”

“The inspiration of our society was to intentionally leave something alone,” he said.

The parks have rebounded since 1972, he said. All the animal species that were there at the founding, now live there.

In questions prepared by students, he was asked about the concern about crowding caused by the 4 million visitors a year – in 1972 there were 2.5 million.

That crowding, he said, is along the roads. Walk 30 minutes from the road, and the land is still empty.

Still there’s the recurring debate between those who follow naturalist John Muir, who believed nature must be left to its own devices without the meddling of “Lord Man” and those of conservationist Aldo Leopold who believed that “nature needs our help… to get it back where it’s healthy.”

The key is striking a balance between the two, Smith said. Any action should be pursued with “a healthy regard for our own ignorance.”

“Ecosystems are more complex than we can think. … Our brains can’t handle it all,” he said. “That’s wildness. It’s good to respect it and not think we’re in control of everything.”