Exhausted from work and suffering chronic pain from an injury, Alabama farm boy Harry Walker desperately needed a break. It was 1972, so he and a friend took off to look for America. They landed eventually in Yellowstone National Park, where Harry had a blast with a new girl. Then, Harry was killed by a bear.
It’s a horribly sad story. Sure, Harry did some things wrong, and the National Park Service did its best to blame him for his own death. But the context was more complicated than that, as the NPS knew and as writer Jordan Fisher Smith carefully shows in the absorbing Engineering Eden. For Smith, a ranger for 21 years, Harry’s death by grizzly bear was the tragic result of NPS myopia.
Using the lawsuit brought by Harry’s family as a focal point, Smith introduces us to the debate that consumed the national parks in the late 20th century: How should we save these treasures from depredation? Should we step back and act merely as “guardians,” letting nature re-establish its own equilibrium? Or should we be active “gardeners,” intervening to manage the parks’ ecology?
Following decades of allowing park visitors to feed bears, either directly or indirectly at dumps, the service by 1972 had embarked on a “guardian” experiment by abruptly shutting down the dumps, with no effort to help the bears make the transition. The outcome: a surge of attacks on camps by hungry bears.
Opposing the “guardian” approach was a cadre of wildlife scientists led by the colorful Craighead brothers, pioneers of bear tagging research. Through the conflicts of the Craigheads, zoologist Starker Leopold, Yellowstone scientist Glen Cole and other nature experts, Smith shows that Harry was both the victim of a well-intentioned but misguided strategy and a catalyst for a major course change. Smith believes that change has been for the better—and that Harry’s short life had true purpose.