National Parks and Wildlife: Smoke and Mirrors of Environmental History

By: Amanda Artz

National Parks were established under extreme forms of control and manipulation, catering to the romantic expectations of park visitors.  Americans viewed parks as places of perfection; untouched landscapes filled with all-natural beauties where they could escape from the growing urbanization and disappearing frontier of the western world. “The Park Service practiced a selective kind of preservation, promoting some elements of nature and opposing others–altering natural conditions largely in an attempt to meet the public’s expectations and enjoyment of the parks” (Sellars 1997).  By catering to the clouded visions of what National Parks were dreamt to be, the Park Service essentially turned them into something far from what they should have been; largely unnatural, completely managed lands that required the constant control of humans.

For many people, the process of conquest and nation building seemed to alter the essential nature of the west, so the first National Parks were seen as places to share national identity and an appreciation for natural beauty (Spence 1999). But of course, wilderness preservation went hand in hand with native dispossession, and uninhabited wilderness had to be created before it was preserved (Spence 1999).  Many Americans viewed wilderness as an unpopulated Eden that should be set aside for the benefit and enjoyment of vacationing people (Spence 1999).  “The fact that Indians continued to hunt and light fires in such places seemed only to demonstrate a marked inability to appreciate natural beauty.  To guard against these ’violations‘, the establishment of the first National Parks entailed the exclusion or removal of native peoples” (Spence 1999 pg 4). Wilderness concepts seemingly forgot that native peoples shaped the environments for centuries, giving rise to parks that were more representative of old fantasies about a continent awaiting “discovery” than actual conditions at the time of early European detection (Spence 1999).  When it came down to it, Americans cared more about the scenic grandeur of a landscape than for the well-being of the natives who called these landscapes home.  Indians truly distinguished the landscape, but Americans were much more concerned with the colossal mountains, giant trees, and majestic waterfalls that surpassed everything else in the known world, and with the bragging rights that came with them (Spence 1999).  The concept of monumentalism fueled expectations, and wilderness became more of an American invention than an actual existing entity (Spence 1999).

America’s perception of a human-less wilderness spread beyond the removal of Indians towards the removal of visitor impact in the parks. The national embarrassment of the commercialization of Niagara Falls inspired the idea that naturalness needed to be maintained in areas of high scenic interest (Spence 1999).  Because of this, the first true professions to emerge in the National Park Service were engineers and landscape architects, who purposely avoided intruding on scenery, but also aimed to display scenery to its best advantage with the proper placement of buildings, roads, and trails (Sellars 1997).  They designed plans “to screen unattractive developments from view, and planned intensively developed areas, with parking lots, sidewalks, buildings, lawns, and gardens.  The resolve to blend new construction with natural surroundings—to develop the parks without destroying their beauty—formed the basis of landscape architecture’s central role in National Park development” (Sellars 1997 pg 50).  In reality, scenery was the key attribute that sets a National Park aside to be protected and conserved for all generations, not biodiversity and its preservation and continued success.

Destruction in National Parks frequently occurred to enhance the enjoyment of visitors.  Road and structure building was an acceptable practice as long as it was coordinated with the aesthetics and scenery of the Park  (Sellars 1997).  Wildlife and their habitat were not taken into account, and the understanding of ecology was usually incomplete (Warren 1997). “It is important to note that while the Park Service was steadily building up its landscape architecture and engineering capability, it was content to only borrow scientists from other bureaus to manage National Park flora and fauna–a telling reflection of how much greater the Service’s interest was in recreational tourism than in fostering innovative strategies in nature preservation” (Sellars 1997 pg 70).   The fact that the Park Service cared more about scenic value and tourism than it did for the plants and animals that inhabited a park is alarming, but soon enough wildlife was also looked upon as a valuable resource (Warren 1997).

“Visions of bountiful wildlife was the lure of the western land, and as such, close to the heart of America’s westering experience” (Warren 1997 pg 4).  Maintaining such a situation required heavily manipulated management–preserving the scenic facade of nature and wilderness, the primary basis for public enjoyment (Sellars 1997).  “The Service’s treatment of large-mammal populations did not follow a policy of letting nature take its course; rather, it involved frequent and sometimes intensive handling, such as killing predators or nurturing favored species” (Sellars 1997 pg 75). The Park Service conducted ranching and farming operations to maintain the presence and success of favored species, and those species that threatened the favored plants and animals were eradicated or reduced to a point where they would not affect populations of the more favored creatures.  Bison in Yellowstone were treated like domesticated livestock (Sellars 1997). They were fed hay farmed on approximately six hundred acres of Park land, and population sizes were controlled by slaughtering for meat or donations to parks and zoos (Sellars 1997). “The Service valued Park grasslands mainly as pasturage for ungulates, rather than as areas biologically important for plants and other life forms” (Sellars 1997 pg 70). To enhance the food supply and entice animals to stay in the Park boundaries of Yellowstone, winter feeding of deer, antelope, and bighorn sheep was implemented, which used fifteen hundred tons of hay during a 15 year period (Sellars 1997).  To further meet visitors’ expectations, the Service set up zoos in the Parks to guarantee that tourists would have a chance to see the more popular animals (Sellars 1997). For example, the Park Service imported a small herd of Tule elk to Yosemite, which were not native to the park and were kept behind fences (Sellars 1997).  Regardless of naturalness or integrity, the Park Service did anything and everything they could to match the pre-conceived expectations that Americans carried about National Parks.

The most controversial management practice of the Park Service was the killing of predators in order to protect more popular species (Sellars 1997).  “Determined to keep the National Parks unimpaired, the Service acted as though the predators themselves were impairments–threats to be dealt with before they destroyed the peaceful scenes it wished to maintain” (Sellars 1997 pg 71).  Predator control was seen as a means of protecting those “species of animals desirable for public observation and enjoyment,” and that the “enemies” of those species must be controlled (Sellars 1997 pg 72). The rangers responsible for predator control were often allowed to sell for personal profit a percentage of the hides and pelts of the predators that they killed (Sellars 1997). In addition, the Parks sometimes hired predator hunters.  To ensure the satisfaction of tourists, the Park Service killed thousands of animals that it should have been protecting, all because of this skewed perception of “wild”.

More extensively than any other wildlife, the Park Service manipulated fish populations (Sellars 1997). Their goal was to make fishing a leading National Park attraction and a major aspect of tourism management (Sellars 1997).  “Although the Service sought to halt the poaching of mammals in the Parks, it enthusiastically sanctioned not only the regulated taking of fish but also the introduction of numerous non-native species” (Sellars 1997 pg 80). The Park Service planted millions of fish into various lakes and rivers, including non-native rainbow, brown, brook, and lake trout (Sellars 1997). Non-native fish planting was practiced regularly along with introduction of non-native trees, shrubs, and grasses for landscaping developed areas (Sellars 1997). Introducing non-native species can have dramatically negative impacts on native populations that can be out-competed by the non-natives, causing negative effects on an entire ecosystem.  The careless, ignorant, attitude of the Park Service towards non-native species provides further proof of the true intentions of National Park establishment.

The historical implications of Park and wildlife management can be seen as an underlying theme of the deception and greed of early America.  Nothing influences action more powerfully than economic benefit and growth of our country, and for this growth, the western landscape and those “lesser beings” who call it home have continually paid the price.  Once we re-visit the historical operations of Parks and truly understand the wrongness of their management, we can continue to restore a more ecological, scientific approach to Park management and finally put to rest the embarrassing façade that once defined our National Parks.

Sources:

Spence, Mark D. 1999. “Dispossessing the Wilderness: Indian Removal and the Making of National Parks.

Sellars, Richard. 1997.  “Preserving Nature in National Parks: A History.

Warren, Louis. 1997. “The Hunter’s Game: Poachers and Conservationists in the Twentieth Century America.”

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