Region III Quarterly

Volume 1 - No. 1

July, 1939


By Dr. W. B. McDougall
Regional Wildlife Technician.

One of the unique services that the National Park Service is required by law to perform is the preservation of primitive areas for the use and enjoyment of modern man. New modern man, no matter how modern he may be, is still an animal. He is born, he grows, develops, matures, reproduces, and dies like any other animal. But he differs from other animals in his habits. He likes to have a comfortable house in which to live. He likes to have a telephone and a radio handy. He likes to take a bath in a porcelain bathtub, or under a shower, with hot and cold water, anywhere from twice a day to once a week, according to how modern he is, or thinks he is. And he likes to do all his traveling on wheels rather than by the natural method used by all other so-called higher animals.

Primitive man was quite a different animal, so far as habits are concerned. He needed only a very simple type of house, or none at all, and he knew nothing of telephones, radios, bathtubs, and automobiles. He obtained his food and clothing and other necessities of life from the native plants and animals of the region in which he lived. He was a native of the primitive area in which he resided, just as much as any other animals were native. Modern man, on the other hand, is not native to any primitive area. He is native to a sort of artificial environment that he has largely created himself, and in any other environment he is exotic.

The problem of the National Park Services is to permit this exotic animal, modern man, to use and enjoy primitive areas without changing the primitive nature of the areas. By primitive areas we mean areas in which the wildlife communities are unmodified by any activities of modern man. But that definition introduces another term that may need defining namely, wildlife community. During the past two or three years, we have been hearing a great deal about the conservation of wildlife. Too often, however, we find that the conservation of wildlife means merely the conservation of game animals. To the personnel of the National Park Service it means much more than that. To us it means the conservation of all native species of both plants and animals. When we speak of a wildlife community, we mean a community of all native species of plants and animals living together in a natural habitat.

I would like to elaborate as little more on the characteristics of a wildlife community. Perhaps it can best be done by comparing it with a human community. In the latter, man is the dominant organism. He is so dominant that he controls the environment to such an extent that he determines almost absolutely what other organisms may live in the same community with him. Man, of course, is not the only kind of organism that lives in a human community. There are always some other kinds of animals, such as horses, dogs, cats, mice, flies, and maybe cockroaches; and there are trees, shrubs, grasses, and flowers. These various kinds of organisms are not all present because man wants them to he present. He does not care particularly for the flies and mice, but they are all present because man is controlling the environment in such a way as to make a congenial place for all of these other organisms to live.

If, now, we compare this human community with a wildlife community, taking as an example a forest community, we will find that in a forest the trees are the dominant organisms. The trees control the environment almost as completely as man controls his environment, and they determine almost as completely what other organisms may live in the same community with them. There are, of course, many other kinds of plants and many kinds of animals living in the forest community with the trees and, again they are not all there because they are of any benefit to the trees. There are parasitic fungi and destructive insects, for example, which are far from beneficial to the trees. But they are all there because the trees are controlling the environment in such a way as to make a suitable environments for all of the various kinds of organisms.

In a human community, too, we have a more or less definite division of labor. Certain individuals in a human community have the function of growing food plants for the entire community. Others have the function of providing markets for the foods so that the other members of the community can get them. Still others take care of money in banks, and teach the young. And so we might go on with a long list of functions performed by the various individuals in a human community. Likewise in the wildlife, or forest community, there is a similar division of labor. The green plants manufacture food for the entire community. They are the only organisms that can actually manufacture food from raw materials. Certain mosses and other low organisms have the function of forming a ground cover to prevent too great a loss of water from the soil. Certain other organisms act as scavengers to get rid of the dead bodies of both plants and animals. And so we might go on with a long list of functions of the various individuals in this community, just as in the human community.

Perhaps the greatest difference between the human community and the wildlife community is in the fact that in the latter there is no such thing as altruism. In a human community there are always individuals who devote their lives to activities that are intended to benefit the community as a whole, or certain individuals in particular. In the wildlife community, on the other hand, it is each individual for himself, except, perhaps, in those cases in which a mother animal, for a time, takes care of her young. But this difference is due primarily to the lack of consciousness in the plant world, and the lack of what we commonly call intelligence in most animals. If we disregard these two lacking features, however, we find a striking resemblance between the two types of communities. In spite of the fact that in the wildlife community every individual seems to exist for itself alone, the various kinds of organisms have lived together so long in the same community, generation after generation, that they have become adjusted into a sort of harmonious balance--balance between plants and animals; between hosts and parasites; between predators and those preyed upon; which is so near perfection that it is called the balance of nature. The interrelations and interdependence between the various kinds of organisms in such a community are so intimate and so intricate that no single species of either plant or animal, can be removed; and no exotic species can be introduced, without upsetting the balance and initiating a whole series of disturbances. Such is the nature of the wildlife community as it was seen in primitive areas by the early pioneers who came into this country, and can still be seen today in some of our national parks and monuments. There remain two questions - which I would like briefly to answer: Why should we preserve primitive areas for modern man, and how can modern man use primitive areas without spoiling them?

During the pioneer days of America, wildlife still had its greatest value as a source of food, clothing, and other necessities of life. These values still remain to a certain extent but they are far surpassed in modern times by esthetic, educational, and recreational values. As a means of enabling modern man to build up his health, his intellect, and his esthetics sense, the value of primitive areas can scarcely be overestimated. Our older national parks were in all cases set aside primarily to rescue from the immediate dangers of private exploitation, certain climax examples of nature's scenic achievement or geologic wonders. Little thought was given to plant and animal life. Soon, however, it began to be realized that the beauty of almost all park areas is due largely to plant life. In general, this is no more and no less true in parks than everywhere else. The whole surface of the earth is made beautiful by the plants that grow on it. Practically every object of interest in nature has its beauty enhanced by plant life. If it is a canyon or a stream, you will invariably find it placed in a green frame, formed by the green vegetation on either side, and much more beautiful than it would be without the frame. Furthermore, one of the most interesting things about this type of beauty, I think, is that it is constantly changing.

I remember one time I was standing at the top of Jupiter Terrace in Yellowstone National Park, talking to a group of tourists. This beautiful terrace is being rapidly built up by deposits of travertine and so is constantly changing. It is brilliantly colored by myriads of microscopic plants, the blue-green algae, that grow in the hot waters flowing over the terrace. As we stood there, I noticed an artist sitting up on the bank making a painting of the terrace. I called the attention of the tourists to the artist, and told them he was performing a very valuable service because never again would that terrace look the same as it did that day. The artist was preserving it for us on canvas as it was at that particular time, and that was a valuable service. But I also called attention to another fact, namely, that Nature is the only artist that can paint a picture that will change every day and be beautiful all the time.

Plant life, then, is perhaps the greatest source of beauty in the universe. Add to this, animal life, and you have Nature's highest expression of esthetic beauty and charm. There is probably no normal modern human being who, before he becomes too fixed in his habits, cannot learn to enjoy the beauty of the primeval forest with its age - old trees, its undergrowth of flowering shrubs, and its moss-covered ground that bespeaks long years in making; none who cannot learn to enjoy studying the wood warblers and their calls as they seek their food high in the forest ceiling; or to seek out and become acquainted with the mammals that dwell in such a place, from the tiny shrew to the huge black bear or the lumbering moose. For such purposes as these, all plants and all animals have equal values, except, perhaps, that rare ones are more alluring because harder to find.

In the National Park Service we do not speak of "game animals", because we hunt with cameras instead of guns, and all animals and all plants are equally fair game. We stalk an animal, or seek an elusive wild flower, sometimes for days before we are able to get the sort of "shot" at it that we want. When we finally get it we get a much greater thrill, than we could ever get by killing something. It takes all species of native plants and animals to make up a complete wildlife community, and for that reason we often find it necessary to give special protection to predatory animals in our park areas because they are so much persecuted elsewhere. I remember one good friend who was deploring the extermination of predatory animals in many places and who, said, to me: "Mac, it makes me mad to think that when my son gets a little older I will not be able to take him somewhere and show him a timber wolf running wild in its natural habitat". He was right in feeling that way, for the educational value of being able to see and study a wolf would be just as great as in the case of a deer.

I think I have sufficiently answered the question as to why we want to save some of the primitve areas with their wildlife communities intact for the use of modern man. The other question as to how modern man can use primitive areas without spoiling them, has also been partially answered. He must hunt with nothing more formidable than a camera; he must travel within the area on foot rather than on wheels; and he must leave nothing in the area that he took in with him and bring out nothing that he did not take in.

Proper land use is always a moot question in park areas. Some of our park lands have to be opened to intensive use of the automobile traveling public, but some of our primitive areas must be left intact in order that those who wish to do so may see and study complete wildlife communities just as those communities might have been seen and studied 150 years ago.

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Date: 17-Nov-2005