A searching study of a tragedy and the legal contest that followed it, one that shaped the course of national park policy in the modern age.
Is a natural environment modified by humans still natural? It’s not just a question for philosophers. In 1972, when a young Alabaman was killed by a bear in Yellowstone National Park, a swirl of questions hinged on the larger issue of how autonomous nature should be allowed to be. Are national parks run for the benefit of humans or of the wildlife that inhabits those places? Such questions are not inconsequential, and, as Smith (Nature Noir: A Park Ranger's Patrol in the Sierra, 2005) chronicles in this provocative account, they absorbed many thinkers, from ecologists to park administrators and, of course, lawyers and judges. The case of the young man was unfortunate and perhaps avoidable, but bears were, after all, part of the entertainment that drew people to Yellowstone. The case also highlighted a divide between environmentalists of various stripes on whether natural places should be allowed to operate under their own rules—enter this park on danger of being eaten—or regulated to ensure the safety and comfort of humans. Arguing for regulation, if guardedly, the eminent naturalist Aldo Leopold’s son Starker put the question so: “Only fools are comfortable operating with less than complete knowledge in a contingent world, but we have to get used to it.” The Park Service, after decades—and that lawsuit, which Smith charts in circumstantial but not overwhelming detail—reaffirmed the findings of what has come to be known as the Leopold Report, using scientific methods to help move threatened populations, triage habitat, and the like—all necessities, it seems, in the face of hordes of humans. Smith, who understands that nature is “a web of complex relations,” tells this complicated story clearly and well.
Excellent reading for students of park policy, wildlife management, and other resource issues.