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"Animal Life As An Asset Of National Parks," A Path-Breaking Essay


Joseph Grinnell, later in life, at his desk at Berkeley/Museum of Vertebrate Zoology, UC Berkeley

While August 25, 1916, stands as the pivotal date in the history of the National Park Service, September 15, 1916, is arguably no less significant. Like August 25 it was a Friday, and indeed exactly three weeks since the Park Service had been approved.

Watching their mailboxes across the country, members of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) looked forward to receiving their weekly journal. Titled Science (and still in publication), its second feature article that September 15, “Animal Life as an Asset of National Parks,” proposed two revolutionary ideas; First, that predators should live unmolested in the parks, and second, that education was essential to the visitor experience.

Neither was especially what the Interior Department wanted to hear. As the presumptive director of its new Park Service, Stephen T. Mather had himself proposed that the parks be operated “on a business basis.” Business meant new hotels and recreational facilities, best linked by new park roads. Wildlife should be “safe” and benign. Simply put, predators were not good for business.

Besides, most park rangers, going back to military days, commonly trapped fur-bearing animals, including predators. In allowing the practice, the Interior Department intended to supplement the rangers’ incomes. As for education, Mather talked more about entertainment, highlighted by bear-feeding shows and other staged events.

Suddenly, his comfort zone was being challenged by two biologists from the University of California. The lead author of the essay, and its senior visionary, was Joseph Grinnell. Born on February 27, 1877, at Fort Sill, Oklahoma, Grinnell grew up watching his father, a physician, administer to Plains Indians living on the reservation.

When Joseph was seven, the family moved to California, settling east of Los Angeles in Pasadena. Los Angeles had barely 50,000 residents, Pasadena but a tenth of that. Still blessed with miles of open space, Southern California whetted Grinnell’s growing interest in ornithology and the simple joys of the natural world. After completing high school and college in Pasadena, he entered Stanford University for graduate study in the biological sciences.

His rise came rapidly in a state increasingly concerned about the future of its biological diversity. In 1908, at only 31 years of age, he was appointed director of the state’s new Museum of Vertebrate Zoology. He needed only to move across San Francisco Bay and take up residence in the town of Berkeley. Now a faculty member of the University of California, he would remain there for the rest of his life.

Inevitably, Yosemite National Park especially intrigued him as a perfect laboratory for his work. Not only was it a large park, it was constantly in the news, most recently with Congress’s approval of the controversial Hetch Hetchy reservoir. The Sierra Club, headquartered in the Bay Area, further included many of the state’s conservation elites.

Thus on October 7, 1914, Grinnell wrote Interior Secretary Franklin K. Lane of his intentions to undertake "a Natural History Survey,” under the auspices of the museum, “along a line through Yosemite from Merced Falls to Mono Lake." Specifically, Grinnell planned to identify all of the mammals, birds, and reptiles in the area to be explored and determine their distribution, habits, and ecological relationships. "In other words," he concluded, "their natural history."

No less important, all of the data was to be compiled in a "permanent published record, in a form to be attractive to the public, both lay and scientific."

Contrary to the writings of Joseph Grinnell, the Park Service pursued predators well into the 1930s. Here, from 1927, California's state lion hunter, Jay Bruce, is welcomed in Yosemite Valley/Yosemite National Park Research Library

Critically, he did not mention the public just for effect. Yosemite was after all a public park. A "natural history of so famous a region” as Yosemite “would doubtless prove of wide acceptance also among people not privileged to visit this national park but who have a general interest in the out-of-doors," he wrote.

Three reports in all were planned; the first, "a technical paper on the systematic status and relationship of the lesser known vertebrate species of the region"; the second, "a scientific treatise" on research problems regarding animal distribution; and the third, "a semi-popular account, in book form, of the natural history of the birds, mammals, reptiles, and amphibians of the Yosemite region, to be illustrated, and to include a discussion of animal life as an asset of National Parks."

This, the Yosemite field guide, was dearest to Grinnell's heart, not only because he wanted to educate park visitors but also because, as he diplomatically suggested, something needed to serve as a philosophical pillar for wildlife protection in all of the national parks.

Because the book would take years to complete (actually ten years), he determined to write a preliminary essay inspired by the term he had used when writing Secretary Lane: “Animal life as an asset of National Parks.” Always a mentor to his staff and students, he chose Tracy I. Storer, his assistant, to help prepare the article for publication.

Thus on September 15, 1916, they noted with pride its appearance in Science, now with all of the principal words in capital letters, "Animal Life as an Asset of National Parks.”

A National Park Is Not A City Park

Few essays, then or since, have proved as insightful or prophetic. Grinnell and Storer began by listing those advantages of the parks deserving wider notice. Among these, "the study of natural history" placed highest on their list. Broadly defined, nature study was one of the purest forms of outdoor recreation. "In this respect a national and a city park are wholly different," they maintained.

Joseph Grinnell early in his career urged the National Park Service to preserve predators in national parks

"A city park is of necessity artificial, in the beginning at least when the landscape is planned and laid out; but a national park is at its inception entirely natural, and is generally thereafter kept fairly immune from human interference. Herein lies the feature of supreme value in national parks," they concluded. "They furnish samples of the earth as it was before the advent of the white man."

But of course that assertion was wishful thinking. Most national parks, and especially Yosemite, had been extensively modified by grazing, logging, hunting, and fire suppression. Nonnative grasses and weeds had been widely introduced. Across the High Sierra, the grizzly bear was extinct.

No matter, Grinnell and Storer were trying to make a point. Although park landscapes had been altered, they alone offered some hope for protecting biological diversity, especially given the far greater modification the country as a whole had undergone. For that reason alone, similar attempts "to modify the appearance of a national park by laying out straight roads, constructing artificial lakes, trimming trees, clearing brush, draining marshes, or other such devices," were, in their opinion, "in the worst of bad taste."

"Even down timber," they noted, "is an essential factor in upholding the balance of animal life, for fallen and decaying logs provide homes for wild rats and mice of various kinds, and these in their turn support many carnivorous birds and mammals, such as hawks, owls, foxes and martens." Similarly, no undergrowth should be removed other than what was "absolutely necessary," for again many birds and mammals used thickets as "protective havens" from their enemies. The removal of such cover would "inevitably decrease the native animal life."

Of related concern, equal "vigilance should be used to exclude all non-native species from the parks, even though they be non-predaceous," for such reductions would only upset "the finely adjusted balance already established between the native animal life and the food supply."

The phrase “finely adjusted balance” was another bout of wishful thinking. As we now concede (or should), any so-called balance of nature is entirely in peoples’ minds. Everything on Earth is in constant flux. But again, the point being made was to know what changes were unnecessarily harmful. Somewhere in the United States, if not everywhere, wildlife deserved protection.

Especially in the parks, this called for an end to hunting.

"It goes almost without saying," Grinnell and Storer declared, "that the administration should strictly prohibit the hunting and trapping of any wild animals within park limits." Exceptions should be made only for the collection of specimens "for scientific purposes by authorized representatives of public institutions," and this only because scientific knowledge might resolve wildlife problems. Otherwise, hunting and trapping in the national parks were totally out of place.

After all, in parks where hunting and trapping levied a toll on predators, the entire fauna was visibly altered. "As a rule predaceous animals should be left unmolested and allowed to retain their primitive relation to the rest of the fauna, even though this may entail a considerable annual levy on the animals forming their prey."

No other declaration propelled Grinnell and Storer farther ahead of the Interior Department—and Stephen Mather in particular. "The rule that predaceous animals be safeguarded admits of occasional exceptions," the scientists conceded, somewhat softening their earlier statement. "Caution, however, should be exercised in doing so, and no step taken to diminish the number of. . . predators, except on the best of grounds."

As in the Park Service Organic Act itself, so dependent on the word “unimpaired,” phrases like “on the best of grounds” remained open to broad interpretation. However, there was no doubting what Joseph Grinnell was driving at, and here he and Tracy Storer minced no words. "As the settlement of the country progresses," they remarked, "and the original aspect of nature is altered, the national parks will probably be the only areas remaining unspoiled for scientific study."

Still months away from actually being formed, the Park Service escaped their immediate scrutiny. But here it was—a call to action that no government official could ignore. To be sure, the Interior Department still wished to ignore it, preferring to eradicate predators as persistent “killers” [Mather’s term].

Resident Naturalists

Against pure prejudice, Grinnell and Storer offered science. Thus “provision [should] be made in every large national park for a trained resident naturalist who, as a member of the park staff, would look after the interests of the animal life of the region and aid in making it known to the public."

If the parks needed entertainment, it should begin with education. Every visitor should be a pupil. Even then, the naturalist's "main duty would be to familiarize himself through intensive study with the natural conditions and interrelations of the park fauna, and to make practical recommendations for their maintenance."

And yes, maintenance (history can just see Mather biting his lip) included the protection of predators. "Plans to decrease the number of any of the predatory species would be carried out only with his [the naturalist’s] sanction and under his direction.”

Mather defer to a naturalist? Now that would have been one for the history books. But yes, Grinnell would spend the rest of his life cajoling the Park Service to accept scientists as its premier managers.

Their management tasks accomplished, naturalists would devote the remainder of their time to public education, through "popularly styled illustrated leaflets and newspaper articles. . . and by lectures and demonstrations at central camps." In this manner they would not only advance conservation but also "help awaken people to a livelier interest in wild life, and to a healthy and intelligent curiosity about things of nature."

The scientists concluded from personal observation, "Our experience has persuaded us that the average camper in the mountains is hungry for information about the animal life he encounters." But a few suggestions for study were usually "sufficient to make him eager to acquire his natural history at first hand, with the result that the recreative value of his few days or weeks in the open is greatly enhanced."

Here, rather than from within Mather’s office, may be found the origins of interpretation. Pre-National Park Service, most of the formal education consisted of motivated teachers bringing their students to the parks. The Interior Department showed little interest. Nor at first did Mather. Writing Grinnell to acknowledge having seen “Animal Life as an Asset of National Parks,” he said only: "It contains much material which will be valuable to us in our plans for the parks." He said nothing specific about public education.

More encouraging, Grinnell received a letter of congratulations from C. M. Goethe, a prominent land developer in Sacramento, California. Goethe had first written in January 1909 to inquire about the museum's series of public lectures on local zoology.

Exchanging letters back and forth, Goethe and Grinnell discovered each other's commitment to outdoor education. "I have never forgotten the talk that we had in our home years ago," Goethe wrote, "when we discussed nature study in general and your remark to the effect that scientific men were so busy with extending the frontiers of their research that they did not always recognize a responsibility to the great mass of the unscientific." Science magazine itself, he complained, had such a limited circulation. "The question arises in my mind," Goethe therefore concluded, "how can we give this wider publicity?"

Of course, Grinnell had not waited for Goethe or anyone else. No sooner was he directing the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology than he urged his students to become be active in conservation, especially game-protection laws.

The Extension Department of the University of California then provided his favorite avenue for reaching the general public. Also a favorite course, "Birds of California," drew 27 students in September 1916. "Included in the class," reported its instructor, Dr. Harold C. Bryant, "were three well-known physicians of San Francisco, and their wives; two well-known business men, several teachers, and a number of other notables of San Francisco society."

If that sounds elitist today, recall what Grinnell was up against. An academic in an academic setting, he needed to defend his public outreach. "I will be glad to incorporate the main facts into my report to the President for the current year," he replied to Bryant with thanks, then added a note of praise. "There is no one else in the University, or in the state, for that matter, to subserve the function you have chosen."

Grinnell’s challenge remained to convince the Park Service that instructing the public mattered. Shrewdly, he furthered that campaign by recommending how the museum’s research could be applied. On September 1, 1917, for example, he reassured Director Mather that with fieldwork on Yosemite completed, he would now be turning attention to his "most important" objective—preparing "the 'popular' account” of its natural history. Solid professional research furthered the public good. What more could the Park Service—or the University of California—ask?

Further corresponding with Horace M. Albright, Mather's chief assistant, Grinnell then continued to press his case for interpretation. "I feel convinced that the National Park Service has an important function to perform in the spreading of a knowledge of general natural history," he wrote Albright in September 1918. Ideally, the Park Service would come to appreciate its enviable position for reaching "an important class of people at a time when they are willing and anxious to get such information."

Again writing Mather on June 6, 1919, Grinnell focused on Yosemite. He still had in mind "a natural history leader or guide," who would "be available for service at the several public camps of the Valley, particularly those with the largest registration, such as Camp Curry." The guide should have "the highest standing as a biologist," be of a "pleasing personality," and be "a facile and polished speaker." It followed that "he should not be a casual pick-up, of unpolished language and manner." The leader or guide would "give twenty minute evening talks on local natural history—birds, mammals, reptiles, fishes, forests, flowers—perhaps two or even three such talks could be given at different centers in one evening." It could further be arranged for the guide "to take out 'bird classes' forenoons."

As Grinnell still envisioned the position, the "resident Park Naturalist" would be a full-fledged member of the National Park Service "administrative staff, to hold office in the Valley from May 15 to September one." Competition for the appointment would be nationwide, not only to guarantee "the most far-reaching results" but also "to secure the approval of the best educated classes in the country."

Always the professor, he believed the best candidates (beginning with his own students) would be found in leading universities. "Simply to illustrate the type of man needed," he concluded, "I would name, as eminently qualified, Professor J. O. Synder, of Stanford University; Dr. Loye Holmes Miller, of the State Normal School, Los Angeles; Dr. Harold C. Bryant, of the University of California; and Mr. Tracy I. Storer, of the University of California, and also of the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology."

Mather was still frustratingly noncommittal. "This will acknowledge your letter of June 6," he wrote Grinnell, "with the interesting suggestion you have made of having a natural history leader or guide available in Yosemite Park during the summer season." He would still have to take the matter up with Assistant Director Albright. For example, certain "legal restrictions would be placed on such an appointment." In either case, it was "quite likely that the proposition would have to receive the consent of the Civil Service Commission."

The Birthplace of Interpretation

Rather than wait for the Park Service to make up its mind, Grinnell, with the assistance of C. M. Goethe and others, determined to strike out on his own. By getting interpreters placed in popular resorts surrounding Yosemite, he intended to prove what they could do.

Grinnell scored his major success at Lake Tahoe, where Harold C. Bryant and Loye Holmes Miller were retained to give lectures and nature walks, generally under the auspices of Fallen Leaf Lodge. It worked. On July 19, Bryant wrote Grinnell to inform him that Mather had stopped by. "He stated the nature guide proposition had gone through," Bryant noted. "He wanted me to go to Yosemite immediately under civil service appointment."

Of course, Grinnell’s plan had also backfired. Because Bryant was already committed at Lake Tahoe he had to turn Mather down. "I certainly hope that the matter does not drop there," Grinnell replied, his letter dripping with disappointment. "The main thing is to get a precedent set."

Fortunately, Mather was as good as his word. His offer to both Bryant and Miller held until the following year, when they and two other naturalists, Ansel F. Hall and Enid Michael, officially inaugurated park interpretation in Yosemite Valley. "Am getting a fine start," Bryant reported to Grinnell early in June. "There is plenty of interest. Could keep several guides busy. Have great difficulty in limiting the classes. Started with 20 this morning and ended with 27." No words proved sweeter music to Grinnell’s ears.

But yes, he let Albright take the credit for Mather, and after all Mather had agreed. That, too, was very shrewd. He wanted to get his students jobs. Befriending the Park Service was the way to start. Meanwhile, at least one pillar of “Animal Life as an Asset of National Parks” had been realized. Although rarely would naturalists achieve veto power over management, they were finally on the Park Service staff.

As for the necessity of protecting predators, it would be decades before the Park Service heeded Grinnell through another of his brilliant protégés, George M. Wright. There again, in telling the story of Wright the Park Service often forgets Grinnell. It was again Grinnell, supporting his student Wright, who lent credibility to the Park Service’s Wildlife Division, formed in 1929. Wright’s principal ideas were still Grinnell’s, up to and including the protection of predators.

With Wright’s untimely death in an automobile accident in 1936, the Park Service would largely forget his research, along with Grinnell’s, who died in 1939. The Wildlife Division was itself transferred out of the Park Service in 1940, then to the Bureau of Biological Survey (later the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service).

Unquestionably, the return of wolves to Yellowstone National Park in 1995 marks what Grinnell had hoped would be happening in the national parks by 1925. Certainly, he had pleaded that no predators be exterminated in the first place.

Who is similarly the conscience of the Park Service now? Among all of the centennial publications, where is anything matching “Animal Life as an Asset of National Parks?”

Perhaps it is enough to remember Grinnell. In other words, the conscience is indeed within. It began with Grinnell’s students and still persists. In truth, all of us who have served the parks as interpreters have Joseph Grinnell as our intellectual grandfather.

There is further a lesson in that for anyone vitally interested in the national parks. Someone on the outside has to care before the insiders will respond. The consummate outsider and natural scientist, Grinnell knew how to care.

It is a record of effectiveness now a century old. Thus when you enjoy an interpreter’s program, or thrill at seeing a wolf, tip your hat to the essay that first made a difference, “Animal Life as an Asset of National Parks.” 

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