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George Melendez Wright

By Dayton Duncan

The story of the national parks is much more than the story of the spectacular places Americans have set aside for future generations. It is a story of people; people from every conceivable background and walk of life who were willing to devote themselves to saving some precious portion of the land they loved, and in doing so reminded their fellow citizens of the fuller meaning of democracy.

Ten years ago, when Ken Burns and I first started out to tell that story, I started “meeting” many of them. That’s how I got to know George Melendez Wright, who soon became one of my personal heroes. While not exactly unknown, Wright remains a cipher to a large majority of National Park Service employees, let alone to a vast American public — and we quickly decided he deserved far greater recognition.

The son of a sea captain and a mother from El Salvador, Wright’s fingerprints can be found in a number of parks, even though he started out as an assistant park naturalist in Yosemite before convincing his bosses that he should conduct a study of wildlife conditions in the parks — something that had never been done before. His survey resulted in the creation of a new Wildlife Division, and though only 29 years old, he was put in charge and soon became a rising star within the Park Service. Wright gave the movement for creation of Everglades National Park a crucial boost by urgently reporting, “Unless this area is quickly established as a national park, the wildlife there will become extinct.” Twenty years before Laurance Rockefeller’s philanthropy made Virgin Islands National Park possible in 1956, Wright had called for its creation. Without Wright, the trumpeter swans might not have found refuge at Red Rock Lakes and instead joined the passenger pigeon in the mournful list of vanished species. If Big Bend ever becomes part of an international park, extending across both sides of the Rio Grande, we’ll have Wright to thank for initiating the idea.

But his major contribution was showing that, in order to thrive and evolve, the park idea has relied on the commitment of individuals willing to point in a new direction. Like Martin Luther King, Jr., challenging the nation to apply the tenets of the Declaration of Independence and finally admit that “all men are created equal,” Wright challenged the Park Service to live up to its founding document and apply the injunction of “unimpaired” preservation to animals within park borders, whether they had previously been treated as pets to be pampered or pests to be eliminated. We take both men’s views for granted now, sometimes forgetting how courageously revolutionary they were — and how long it took for their dreams to take hold. As former park superintendent Ernest Ortega told us, Wright “was the savior of wildlife in America’s national parks, but more importantly, George Melendez Wright is the savior of the national park ideal.”

During his survey, he found that park managers were not only routinely killing predators of all kinds, rangers in Yellowstone were even stomping pelican eggs to reduce the number of birds, which they considered competitors with fishermen. Despite “paper” regulations against feeding bears, even Park Service directors such as Horace Albright and Stephen Mather loved nothing better than to have their picture taken giving scraps to black bears, and grizzlies were a major attraction at park dumps. Hay wagons routinely doled out winter forage to elk, deer and bison. Wright sensed that “the very heart of the national park system” was imperiled by an attitude that narrowly defined the park ideal to preserving pretty views for tourists in automobiles.

He proposed that nature be allowed to take its course in the parks; that every species — even the hated predators — be left to “carry on its struggle for existence unaided.” National parks, he contended, were not zoos. However self-evident they may seem to us now, Wright’s proposals for wildlife in the parks were nothing less than radical for their time. “Our national heritage is richer than just scenic features,” he prophesized. “The realization is coming that perhaps our greatest national heritage is nature itself, with all its complexity and its abundance of life, which, when combined with great scenic beauty as it is in the national parks, becomes of unlimited value.”

Wright combined a poet’s eloquence and a scientist’s powers of observation with what seems to me at least to be the passion of a belief in something larger. “If we destroy nature blindly, it is a boomerang which will be our undoing,” he wrote. “Consecration to the task of adjusting ourselves to [the] natural environment so that we secure the best values from nature without destroying it is not useless idealism; it is good hygiene for civilization.” Whether he was describing the thrill of encountering a bear in the wild, the song of a Mearns quail (“the voice of eternity in the wind on the desert”) or the reverie he felt in watching thousands of water birds and feeling that “the illusion of the untouchability of this wilderness becomes so strong that it is stronger than reality, and the polished roadway becomes the illusion, the mirage that has no substance,” Wright brought soulfulness to his science.

And when he met a tragic death in a car accident in 1936, at age 31, the Park Service — and the nation — lost a leader who, Horace Albright believed, would have one day become the agency’s director. But even without him, his vision for preserving nature in the national parks would ultimately be embraced as official policy.
George Melendez Wright was a hero and an idealist. A hundred years after his death, the parks will still be moving to the measure of his thought. But, if Ken Burns and I have anything to say about it, he will not be forgotten.

Webmaster's Note: Dayton Duncan is an award-winning writer and documentary filmmaker who has been involved for many years with the work of his colleague Ken Burns. Their much-anticipated series THE NATIONAL PARKS: AMERICA’S BEST IDEA will air on PBS starting in September. Jump here to learn more about the documentary. This is adapted from an article appearing this summer in the George Wright Forum.

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