I found Engineering Eden: The True Story of a Violent Death, a Trial, and the Fight Over Controlling Nature (2016) by Jordan Fisher Smith when I was looking for a book to fulfill the “in the wild” square for my bingo card. It’s not a book I had heard of before, but it seemed exactly the kind of book I would have an interest in and enjoy reading.
Harry Walker was twenty-five years old and living on his family farm in Choccolocco, Alabama when he took off with a friend. His adventure ended in tragedy when he was killed by a grizzly bear in Yellowstone National Park in 1972. Walker’s family ended up suing the National Park Service for the death of their son, culminating in a trial in Southern California. Smith uses this court case to shed light on the history and management of the National Parks. Specifically, Smith points out how national parks were never wilderness Eden’s, but were highly manipulated attractions. These manipulations were often ignorantly pursued, causing incredible damage to the parks and their animals–especially with hindsight.
Like I mentioned above, this book is right up my alley. First, I love national parks and I love backpacking, so the places Smith describes are near and dear to my heart. (I actually went backpacking in Wyoming right after I first got a hold of this book, but I decided to wait to read it until I was not backpacking alone in grizzly country. This turned out to be a very wise choice because there are some gruesome grizzly attacks that would have scared the crap out of me alone in the woods.) Second, I was a lawyer who specifically focused on public lands and public lands management in school. In addition, I was excited to read that the plaintiff’s attorney in Walker’s case attended Pomona College, my alma mater (It’s a pretty small school, so this doesn’t happen too often.)
I did enjoy this book, and I learned a lot. However, I wish it had been a little more focused. There’s a lot of information in here, with plenty of detail. But there are so many people, and Smith jumps around so much from park to park that it’s sometimes difficult to follow or know what to focus on. Besides the trial and some history, Smith narrows in on three controversial management practices in the parks. One was dealing with the overpopulation of elk after most of the predators had been exterminated. In the 1960’s the elk were being shot to control their numbers, but a new director decided that the habitat would limit elk numbers (it didn’t). The second was dealing with fires. The park service went from suppressing every fire before realizing there was a detrimental effect on the ecology.
Finally, the third was management of bears. Back in the 50’s and 60’s, people were feeding bears by hand and using dumps overrun with bears as tourist traps. It’s something you wouldn’t even imagine now, and it led to many negative interactions between bears and humans. Things may have gotten even worse when they shut down the trash dumps around 1970 in Yellowstone and hungry bears wandered into campsites where food was still plentiful and easy to get. This was the situation that Larry Walker wandered into in 1972.
Smith shows how two thought systems were fighting for dominance when it came to park management. Some wanted as little human intervention as possible while others thought human intervention necessary and helpful. The Craigshead brothers were on the latter side. They were wildlife biologists who were researching grizzly bears in Yellowstone for decades in the 1950’s and 1960’s. They vehemently disagreed with the Yellowstone director about the best way to cut out dumpster diving bears. They believed it should be done slowly, with perhaps carrion dropped off far away from people, in closed areas of the park, to keep hungry bears away from people. Ultimately, they were probably right, but I didn’t agree with their philosophy. These brothers were carting birds of prey chicks from their nests as pets and collaring every grizzly and elk they could get their hands on. I know they gleaned a ton of information from all this, but I am personally a fan of research that minimizes intrusions on the animals. In addition, I felt the majority of the problem stemmed from the feeding of bears for decades. There was always going to be some repercussions when that was stopped.
The way Harry Walker’s case was used as a lynchpin and slowly drawn out throughout the book, I was expecting some big revelations about his death. And although it was a tragedy for him and his family, he did camp illegally in the park and left food all over the campsite. It’s very likely closing the dumps contributed to Walker’s death, but he also contributed. In fact, the book discussed a number of other grizzly attacks and murders that were more damning of the National Park Service with less contributory negligence on behalf of the victims.
After going into great detail about so many people involved in wildlife and park management, there is a ton of information shoved into the epilogue, including the introduction of wolves in Yellowstone and climate change. I wish Smith had limited some of the discussion of every wildlife researcher in the 1960’s–and who they studied under–and focused more on the trial and the situation at Yellowstone. Other parks and statistics could have been brought in for context, but I feel the book could have had more focus.
On the whole, I found this book very interesting and informative. As you can tell from my long review, I learned a lot and had many opinions about the whole thing. However, I did get frustrated in the middle and end of the book wondering where the author was going and what he was trying to show. I was not convinced that the trial was a miscarriage of justice, and I was not convinced that everything would have been just fine if they’d only listened to the Craigshead brothers.
CBR15Bingo: “In the Wild” because it’s all about wild animals in the National Parks