Of Beasts and Men


Playing God in Yellowstone: The Destruction of America's First National Park, by Alston Chase, Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 446 pages, $24.95

Grizzly bears are dying off, and the managers of our national parks are to blame. That, at least, is the verdict of Alston Chase in his controversial recent book, Playing God in Yellowstone.

A few decades ago millions of tourists flocked to parks where they could watch from bleachers while grizzlies dined at man-made dumpsites. Other animals, used to handouts from humans, also thrived in popular park sites.

All this dramatically changed in the mid-'60s under the influence of the environmental movement. Our national parks came under caustic attack for their "unnatural" integration of man and beast. Spurred on by the environmentalists' creed, in which all that was "natural" was good, park managers tore down the bleachers and abandoned the dumps where grizzlies had fed. They also mounted a "minimal management" campaign founded on the belief that preservation of our parks and their animals would result naturally if only man were kept away from beast.

In challenging this creed, Chase has aroused astonishing hostility. Senators have called hearings on the fate of the grizzly. Environmentalists have shunned him, for it is not the Park Service alone that Chase faults. Indeed, it is above all the environmentalists' dogma that he attacks—a dogma that has shaped national park policy for two decades.

Playing God in Yellowstone is about wilderness lost, but it is about much more. It is a classic picture of the inevitable conflict between officials justifying public action already taken and those who inquire without respect to "official truth." In his amply documented essay Chase details the difference between mission research, in which results have a priori boundaries that coincide with the aims of management, and scientific research done the old-fashioned way—by careful observation, in which conclusions are open to revision upon the presentation of better evidence. Mission research has been winning, and Yellowstone has lost.

Chase, through extensive tracking of evidence, has captured a fabulous story for us about how Yellowstone National Park has suffered despoliation at the hands of public agents who are supposed to care for it. The Park Service, responsible for park management, and in most cases (but not all), acting within the law, is portrayed as the nemesis of uncommon beasts, common man, and common sense in the northwest corner of Wyoming.

Park Rangers shoot up grizzlies with "angel dust," give them mortal doses of tranquilizers, drop them from helicopters, or all three in the name of "bear management." All this despite their marching orders that demand protection of wildlife. Park officials say elk are too few or too numerous, according to the dictates of policy rather than according to data rigorously gathered and analyzed. Officials surreptitiously introduce wolves, evidently extinct in Yellowstone, into the park, bent on putting flesh and fur to their own myth that the park is successfully being restored without human interference to its pristine, pre-European, steady-state condition. The official description of that pristine state, Chase observes, conveniently excludes native Americans from the ecosystem despite conclusive evidence that they played a major role in its "natural" balance.

Chase recounts a grisly story about the merging of goals of special-interest environmental groups and Department of Interior, especially Park Service, bureaucrats doing no less than one would expect—"doing good" by using a public agency to provide private goods, and "doing well" by expanding the Park Service budget and span of control.

Nowhere has he developed this theme more keenly than in his account of Grant Village, where he explains the politics of tourism with all its sordid manifestations at all levels of government, from Cabinet secretaries to state legislatures to local townships. Here we find the essence of management of common property, where transferable private property rights and attendant responsibilities do not exist. These are case studies of importance that any environmentalist should have to refute before approaching the public for further funding of public lands.

The studies illustrate vividly that preservation of species and wilderness treasures is ultimately unsafe in the hands of public managers who are inevitably responsible to political processes. But these useful case studies, Chase's thoughtful discussion of the struggle of a science of ecology to emerge from the wackiness of the movement that surrounded it, and his detailed (although altogether too long) natural history of the park still leave room for criticism.

Perhaps Chase was too bewildered and exhausted from the dramatic telling of his story to suggest a way out of the dilemmas of Yellowstone. He describes with great insight the multiple incidences of government failure, even pointing out that the majority of park officials were well intentioned. But he misses the obvious solution—exposing the park to private market forces. Or does he?

Privatization would generate an accurate valuation of such storied wilderness and its native creatures, not just by Americans but by the world. My guess is that Chase would not bet on people acting in a free market to preserve the wilderness to his taste despite the eloquent, heartrending prospectus for a "wilderness company" that he has in effect provided.

Chase's reluctance to suggest a market solution renders his lampooning of the environmentalists and his harpooning of the Park Service less effective. Isn't he merely saying he would like those who practiced "primitive chic" as part of a quasi-religious, naturalist movement to accept the results of careful scientific research before lobbying Congress and the bureaucracy so that the "right" message, his message, is sent from the grass roots?

I admit cheering for his searing branding of the environmentalist movement, but I balked at the sneering quality of some of his criticism. For example, he points out that the primitive chic environmentalist view of the simple life "was a luxury few could afford.…It became the life-style reserved for writers, legatees of trust funds, marijuana farmers, and other non-commuters." He then observes that this lifestyle was "of questionable ecological value" and "was not the best use of earth's finite resources." Yet how does Chase purport to know this, especially after he himself has clearly articulated the struggling character of the science of ecology and underscored the subjectivity of cosmological statements such as "best"?

Sneers and jeers aside, a tip of the brim is due to Chase, who has persevered in his inquiry, considered the facts he gathered, and assembled a highly plausible story. His work gives the reader much to think about that extends far beyond the wilderness of Yellowstone, even unto the gates of Washington.

John Sommer is a professor of political economy at the University of Texas, Dallas, and an adjunct scholar of the Cato Institute in Washington, D.C.