Still Unknown, Still Untamed

Jordan Fisher Smith


photo of a man

Jordan Fisher Smith worked as a park and wilderness ranger in California, Wyoming, Idaho, and Alaska for 21 years. As a person whose bedrock of reality is his “affection for wild nature,” he took to writing in the 1990s in an effort to extend his protection of wilderness beyond the reach of his badge. And did he have some rich material to work with!

Smith’s first nonfiction book, Nature Noir, was a national bestseller. Based on the last 14 years of his career as a ranger in California’s Auburn State Recreation Area, the book chronicles his encounters with violent drug users, amateur miners, and dead bodies, and reveals the darker side of what goes on in some of our parklands. At the same time it also reveals his love for the wilderness. “Much of what is seemingly known and tamed is in fact unknown and untamed,” he wrote in Nature Noir. “The world continues to be mysterious and accidental. It may well turn out to be a more dangerous world for all our efforts to domesticate it.”

In his new book, Engineering Eden, Smith goes back again to this idea of humans domesticating the world – a notion whose hubris has bothered him for quite a while. Weaving together the narratives of a young man’s gruesome death at the hands of a grizzly bear, the history of the world’s first national park, and the evolution of the modern conservation movement, the book explores the larger issue of our efforts to manipulate and control Earth’s ecosystems in the name of preserving them.

“I was interested in the spectrum of intervention, in other words, how much right do you give yourself to control and manipulate and engineer nature in order to save it or improve it,” he told me, when I spoke with him just days after he’d sent off his final draft to the publisher. “I thought the whole question was pertinent to the increasing urge that I’m seeing around me to engineer nature.”

An excerpt from our conversation.

Tell me about your new book and how it came about.

This book came out of a couple of things. Many years ago as I started working as a ranger, I was involved briefly in trapping, tranquilizing, and moving troublesome bears at Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks. There was something about this business of handling wild animals and doing things to them that both fascinated and troubled me for long time. Many years later I went back and went through the handling records of every bear that I ever touched and every bear I ever knew, and without exception they had all come to a bad end of one kind or another, most of them very soon after they were moved.

Moving bears from one place to another did not save bears. It sometimes contributed to their early death. What I saw was something of a tragedy. That was sort of one of the starting places of the book.

The other starting place was a fascination with a character, Starker Leopold, who was the eldest son of Aldo Leopold and by all accounts the closest of the children to his father and his father’s work. These two men were so close and their work was so much contiguous that it’s almost impossible to pick their work out as separate individuals. But for some reason Starker Leopold, who was incredibly influential and quite famous during his life, has been all but forgotten by history since his death in 1983.

And then, finally, round the time that the second assessment of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change came out, I began to see scientists who worked in wilderness areas in national parks sort of befuddled. What was getting to them was the sense that with the full implications of climate change and the largest extinction of other life since at least the Pleistocene or probably since 65 million years ago, they weren’t sure what they were supposed to be doing anymore.

When you talked about preserving national parks, what would be possible to preserve? What should their role be? There was discussion of all kinds of things by that time, things like assisted migration — the movement of organisms north or uphill — all kinds of intervention. I became fascinated with the question of how much we should intervene in the ecology of these protected areas.

This was around late 2007 and that was the moment when I began thinking about writing a book that had to do with the question of what makes a place natural. Is it a place that has parts that you work to save? Or is it the fact that it’s the one place on earth that you don’t mess around with? In other words, how much right do you give yourself to control and manipulate and engineer nature in order to save it or improve it? This has been a controversy in the wilderness movement that goes back to about 1963.

I thought the whole question was pertinent to the increasing urge that I’m seeing around me to engineer nature — from cell biology on up, from biotech on up.

And the conclusion you reached was?

I think the questions I’ve raised in this book have never been conclusively answered. Nor should they be. They are more useful as questions we should always ask ourselves when we undertake these kinds of interventions.

So you are saying we should decide whether to intervene or not on a case-by-case basis?

Yes. A great many of the worst things that I’ve seen happen with science were done in an atmosphere that lacked a critical faculty, which I would say is doubt. We should be asking ourselves these sorts of questions about the moral right and the practicality of engineering nature. If you look at the biggest things we’ve done as human beings — for example the hijacking of the carbon cycle and the nitrogen cycle and the sixth great extinction — if you really consider these things, they are all accidents. Meaning that nobody set them up as a program, they just happened. There are a number of people around now who really think it’s time for us to step in and be in charge. They are saying, look, we are already in charge. We are already controlling Earth, we just have to admit to ourselves that that’s what’s going on and step up and take control. But I think that to think that this catastrophe that we have created — which is really the substance of accidents — in some way prepares us to be in charge of the Earth and its ecology is a little bit like saying that being involved in a traffic accident qualifies you to be a highway safety engineer.

But even prior to the existence of parks and preserves, Native Americans had been actively managing the land for thousands of years, right?

True. For example, Post Pleistocene vegetation in California evolved with Indian fire. It is common knowledge now that prior to the Euro-American conquest, Native Americans managed the land. I think we have to be a little careful about how this applies to us now, because [this fact] is used also by people who say, therefore, we also ought to manage the land.

When you say “managed,” you know pre-contact Native Americans didn’t have chainsaws, they didn’t have
helicopters, they didn’t have gene splicing. So sometimes the truth that Native Americans managed the land is subverted into the point of view that therefore, we, with all our numbers and our modern technology and our power, ought to take control and manage the land like they did.

I think that is a false equivalency.

Well, the NPS too, has been actively managing the land in our parks. Given your long association with the Park Service, could you tell us if there has been any change in the way it does this?

Huge! Huge. The story of the National Park Service encompasses the development of the science of ecology. Remember, when Yellowstone was created in 1872 there was no science of ecology. The science of ecology emerges so very late in history, about the same time as nuclear physics. So the story of what went on in national parks — particularly in Yellowstone or Yosemite — the very old national parks, encompasses the whole development of our understanding of how nature works.

And as such if you know what to look for when you walk around Yellowstone, you can see these successive managerial regimes written on the land.

If you drive into the north entrance of Yellowstone and proceed up the hill, you’ll pass trees that are “highlined.” The foliage has a peculiar
flat-bottomed appearance, because elk and other hungry grazing animals ate everything they could reach from the ground. That’s from the late nineteenth and the early twentieth century, when it was believed that killing off wolves and mountain lions would benefit nature, so there were a lot of elk in the park. By 1995, wolves were reintroduced. Cougars have come back. There are fewer elk now, but some trees still look like this. So when you fix a previous, faulty, managerial regime, nature sometimes doesn’t turn on a dime.

So how would you describe the current managerial regime at the parks?

The current managerial regime is a lot of question marks. Park biologists are documenting that nature is changing in the face of climate change. They know they can’t prevent that change. So they are focusing their action on protecting individual species in any way they can. They are
trying to document as much as they can what’s there now and what was there, so that they can track things. But I wouldn’t say that there’s a comprehensive strategy for saving national parks in the face of climate change and extinction.

Is that because there are so many unknowns?

Yes. Nobody’s ever been through this before. And also, the other thing that happened by the early 2000s was that the word “natural” collapsed under the weight of its own vagueness. If you look at the management polices of the national parks and wilderness areas and even the enabling language, it basically says that you the minders, you the rangers, will keep this place in natural condition. And natural condition, you know, can’t be accomplished anymore, if natural condition is presumed to be the conditions that prevailed, let’s say, at the time that Yellowstone was founded. There’s no going back.

In your book you mention the competing roles of national parks as tourist resorts and nature refuges? Do you think the NPS is doing a good job of dealing with these competing roles?

Yes, I think the Park Service is doing a good job. There had been, in the past, criticism of some things the Park Service did because they tended towards what Edward Abbey called “industrial tourism.” You know, hotels and structures and so on. But in general I think the Park Service does a magnificent job of managing the sheer numbers of people who come to the parks and in some way reducing their impact.

An example of this is the fantastic job that Yellowstone has done with its grizzlies. The work of people like Yellowstone biologist Kerry Gunther and
his associates is really quite magnificent in terms of reducing the problems between human beings and grizzlies when there are people crawling all over the place. I think it’s remarkable what they do.

National parks sort of started out without anybody having really thought about, well, what are you going to do when you throw grizzly bears and people in the same place? Considering this, it’s a rather unlikely idea that we would allow people to walk around in the middle of these predators. And yet it’s been done and it’s been done very well.

However, I’m hearing some: “What are we going to do now?” talk now within the Park Service. Both Yellowstone and Yosemite had 4 million visitors last year, and I think there’s a sense that there’s a limit [to visitors]. So there are some sort of agonizing decisions to be made about whether you want to ration use of the national parks in the same way that wilderness is rationed. You know, you have to get a wilderness permit to go into many places, and in some of the more popular wilderness areas like the Sierra Nevada, sometimes you can’t get a permit to get in. I think those kinds of things are more difficult to talk about.

As a former ranger, what do you think should be the guiding principles for rangers today?

The one thing rangers should always focus on, regardless of their specialization — whether it’s law enforcement, rescue, fire, or resource management — is to know their own park; it’s biology, geology, history, archaeology. To know the names of flowers and when they bloom; to understand animal and bird migrations; to track what’s going on around them and be available for little teaching moments for everyone they come in contact with. Our time in history will ultimately not be distinguished by war in the Middle East, or by the center of gravity of the world economy moving to China, or any of the other things we think it’s about. What will characterize this time is this largest [species] extinction for millions of years, the advent of climate change, and the collision between human beings and nature. So if you are a ranger, you need to be ready to teach people about what there is here and how precious it is.

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