Is "natural regulation' leading to unnatural results?

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  Karl Hess Jr., in Rocky Times in Rocky Mountain National Park - An Unnatural History, raises ethical questions about the future of Rocky Mountain National Park, "a unique, irreplaceable wonder, a shimmering blue strip of hope on the prairie horizon." Combining eloquence and detailed research, Hess calls for drastic changes to ensure that good stewardship becomes the final objective.

Hess builds a strong case and I believe him to be wholly justified in his criticism of park administration. Rocky Mountain has been weakened by political influences and an inbred bureaucracy unable to examine and renew itself.

While I'm not certain that I agree with his principal argument - that the damage caused by the large elk herd to Rocky Mountain's winter range proves the failure of the park policy of natural regulation - his conviction is useful.

The abundance of elk in the mountains is unnatural and decidedly damaging to vegetation as we see it today. With unabated human encroachment in bordering foothills and lowlands, elk are blocked from their natural habitat. The public needs to weigh the proper place and purpose of elk, and how much civilization is willing to yield in the elk's behalf.

I am concerned, however, that some of the critics of natural regulation, having been trained in for-estry and range schools, want to manipulate wild animals as if they were managing domestic livestock. A good scientist needs a control where manipulation is minimal, where wildlife and plant communities are allowed to regulate themselves. Considering that elk are heavily manipulated everywhere else in the West, a few places ought to be reserved for systems to work without human intervention.

"'Naturalness' and wildness in the park can and should be strived for with the balanced understanding that neither of the two can ever be fully realized," writes Hess. But how to go about it in the Rocky Mountains? Hess offers as one possible scenario: removing Rocky Mountain from the national park system and designating it an independent and irrevocable "conservation trust." There would be no mandate for management other than conditions already set by its designation as a biosphere reserve. That's a fitting goal, but what about all the rest of the national parks? Do we take the whole system apart?

Federal agencies like the Park Service and Forest Service talk about "involving and educating the public," but they don't know where or how to begin; the enlightenment of managers is more critical. In natural resource schools, the "ranger factories," they prepare to deal in rules, regulations, carrying capacity, permits, enforcement, studies of resource damage, funding, interagency coordination that never seems to work, and research that is more safe than significant.

Hess is on target when he writes: "Effective reform of Rocky Mountain's administration entails changing the way people respond to their duties." That is gospel - and you can substitute the name of the national park nearest to you. And when he adds that the revolving door of National Park Service directors and their appointed science program leaders has been a destabilizing influence, Hess is undeniably right again. Rocky Times is challenging and valuable. It merits attention and discussion.


Michael Frome has been a park ranger and journalist for more than 40 years. He is the author of Strangers in High Places - The Story of the Great Smoky Mountains and Regreening the National Parks. He is a professor at Western Washington University.

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