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In To Conserve Unimpaired, University of Utah professor Robert Keiter provides an unvarnished view of “America’s best idea”: the National Park System.

Keiter, the country’s pre-eminent legal expert on the subject, tackles the question: Why does the park idea still evoke so much controversy when its value is so widely acknowledged? For one thing, as he explains, it’s not just about parks. “As highly valued and visible public places, the national parks are inherently political entities … reflecting our larger dialogue about nature conservation and its role in our civic life.”

Keiter traces the evolution of each major idea that has shaped our vision of the national parks. In the early days, the Park Service actively sought to improve visitor experiences by attempting to control nature. Not only did the agency suppress wildfires; it also eradicated wolves to protect more “desirable” wildlife, and fed bears garbage “to create an evening spectacle for park visitors.” If it weren’t for David Brower and the Sierra Club, Colorado’s Dinosaur National Monument would have been inundated by the massive Echo Park dam. But they could not stop the Park Service from punching through a network of new roads to facilitate tourism.

Brower, in fact, captured the dichotomy of all national parks: “part schoolroom and part playground and part—the best part—sanctuary from a world paved with concrete, jet-propelled, smog-blanketed, sterilized, over-insured (and) aseptic … with every natural beautiful thing endangered by the raw engineering power of the 20th century.”

The challenge of conserving those “beautiful things” looms even larger today, as we face the pressures of climate change and ever more people and development. One can’t help but wonder whether the legal mandate governing park management, the Organic Act of 1916, is adaptable enough to endure. In fact, the Park Service’s management ethos did begin to change in the 1960s with the influential Leopold report—by legendary conservationist Aldo Leopold—which recommended that parks be managed to represent a “vignette of primitive America” with minimal human intervention into natural processes.

Keiter shows how the Organic Act can continue to accommodate changing views of the national parks while ensuring that conservation comes first. He points the way toward conserving the parks “unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations,” as the law specifies, through science collaboration, and a heightened sense of social justice, connectivity and diversity, both human and ecological. Yet, as Keiter concludes, “The parks will always be confronted with new demands and threats, testing our commitment to the fundamental principles underlying the hallowed notion of conserving nature in an unimpaired condition.”

This review originally appeared in High Country News.

To Conserve Unimpaired: The Evolution of the National Park Idea

By Robert B. Keiter

Island Press

368 pages, $35

Published in Literature

As I wrote last spring, the pumas of Southern California’s Santa Monica Mountains are dying—slowly, but quite literally—for lack of genetic diversity.

Blocked from migration by freeways, development and the Pacific Ocean, the lions have begun to inbreed; researchers studying the lions have, through DNA tests, found multiple instances of fathers mating with daughters. If it keeps up, the population will go sterile, depriving the tiny ecosystem of its single apex predator.

That’s why it mattered so much that, during the government shutdown, a puma was found dead on Highway 101 at Liberty Canyon, a well-known wildlife migration route between the Santa Monicas and open space to the north. Fewer than a dozen pumas remain in this cloistered range.

When the lion died, the National Park Service researchers who have been studying the animals for the last 11 years had been furloughed. Now that they’re back, we know: This death is just about as tragic as it gets for the lions of the Santa Monica Mountains.

Seth Riley, an urban wildlife expert who works on the NPS puma study, says that his colleague, Jeff Sikich, was able to access the lion’s body shortly after its death and collect samples, which he submitted to genetics labs at the University of California at Davis and UCLA. So far, the UCLA lab has analyzed 15 “loci”—specific positions on chromosomes occupied by “alleles,” or DNA sequences. “And of those 15 loci,” Riley says, “five had alleles that we never see in the Santa Monica Mountains, and have only seen north of the 101.”

Had the lion not been struck and killed by a passing motorist just after midnight on Oct. 7, that genetic material might have soon been circulating among the pumas of the Santa Monicas.

The death underscores the need for some sort of safe passage wildlife could follow out of the Santa Monicas and back again at Liberty Canyon, which is “one of the only places along the 101 freeway where there’s natural habitat on both sides,” which is critical for animals to safely cross, Riley says. The last puma that came from the north, P-12, crossed here in early 2009, and from what Sikich observed at the site where the body was found, this recent lion seems to have made it all the way across the freeway and run up against a 10-foot right-of-way fence.

The California Department of Transportation has twice had grant applications rejected for a $10 million underpass at this site. Round three comes up soon.

Riley says there’s much more work to be done on the lion’s DNA—scientists are hoping to test 54 loci, not just the 15 already analyzed. But it’s already clear that, had he been able to establish himself in the southern mountains and breed successfully as P-12 did, the now-dead lion’s impact would have been huge.

“When you have a small population and not a lot of reproductive males,” Riley says, “individual migration events make a big difference.”

Judith Lewis Mernit is a contributing editor to High Country News, the site at which this was originally posted. The author is solely responsible for the content.

Published in Environment

Tired of school, broke and eager for a change, Christine Byl took to the woods with a National Park Service trail crew.

Much later—after 16 summers of manual labor in Alaska and Montana, maintaining, repairing, designing and building bridges, ditches and trails—she came to realize that “a deep education is one of both head and hands.”

Through sheer physicality, Byl breaks open encrusted dichotomies: nature-culture; work-pleasure; male-female; mind-body. “An authentic life,” she finds, “will be built, at least in part, on ordinary verbs: wake, plant, dig, mend, walk, lift.” She comes to revere tools and the artifacts that define us as they did our flint-wielding African ancestor, Homo habilis. Fans of Thoreau might cringe at the trail crews’ sometimes industrial arsenal, and the scope of the landscape alteration involved. Yet much of the work is conservation.

“Just as we mark the world when we live in it, so the world marks us,” Byl writes.

Her co-workers’ hands—with their “knobby joints, chapped knuckles … a purple thumbnail, taut tendons in the wrists”—are badges of belonging that she cherishes all the more as her own hands start resembling theirs. The skills she acquires, which have served down-to-earth folks forever, apprentice her “not just to mastery but to history.” Wearing her blue-collar, feminist sensibilities on plaid flannel shirtsleeves, Byl refuses to romanticize grunt work. Nor does she see nature as automatically redeeming self or society.

As a rookie in an agency dominated by men, she learns from both “lifers” and “newbies,” from mule-packers and shop mechanics, from “tough-ass women kind enough not to laugh in my face.” Dirt Work brims with this subculture’s rich humor and jargon. A “hitch” is a work shift (eight days). Green Park Service pants and fleece make up a “pickle suit.” A “traildog” is a crewmember whose duties include “logging out”—clearing deadfall from trails. Older crewmembers pop “vitamin I” (ibuprofen) like candy.

Byl now runs her own trail-design and construction business near her favorite place—Denali National Park, in Alaska. “Our work speaks for us,” Byl writes, speaking on behalf of all traildogs, who seldom brag about what they do. And her work speaks volumes for this woodswoman and wordsmith.

This review originally appeared High Country News.

Dirt Work: An Education in the Woods

By Christine Byl


256 pages, $24.95

Published in Literature

In the fall of 2011, biologists Dan Cooper and Miguel Ordeñana installed 13 remote cameras in a 4,000-acre patch of wild hills known as Griffith Park, above Los Angeles.

Each month, they combed through predictable images of a near-urban ecosystem: Coyotes marking; bobcats stalking; deer browsing the chaparral. One evening last March, however, they got a shock: A photo captured at 9:15 p.m. on Feb. 12, 2012, showed a large cat-like creature ambling along a trail above the iconic Hollywood sign.

There could be no doubt: It was a mountain lion.

Until that moment, the only surprising sight had been the occasional homeless person. "It was like finding Bigfoot," Cooper says. "The difference being that Bigfoot doesn't exist, so you couldn't really hope for it."

Griffith Park is, technically, part of the Santa Monica Mountains, which begin in slide-prone bluffs along the Southern California coast, rise to 3,000 feet and then taper off until they disappear at the Los Angeles River, 45 miles inland.

The mountains, state parks, open-space preserves and a recreation area managed by the National Park Service form a patchwork ecosystem that functions, albeit in a strangled way, as it has for thousands of years. Only eight to 10 lions remain in the mountain range, all in the Western reaches—but they still play a key role managing deer and coyote. Cooper, who monitors the park on behalf of local neighborhood groups, was gratified to have documented the first evidence of a mountain lion so far east, on this "very constricted peninsula of habitat" in the city.

Cooper called National Park Service biologist Jeff Sikich, who leads a research team studying the Santa Monica lions. Sikich managed to capture the lion, take blood samples and fit it with a GPS collar. A genetics lab at UCLA determined that it had indeed been born in the Santa Monicas. The biologists named it P-22—the 22nd puma that Park Service researchers had collared since their study began in 2002.

Puma concolor, alternately called the mountain lion, puma or cougar, is not an urban predator; it has not adapted, like the coyote or the raven, to the perilous bounty of cohabitation with humans. That P-22 made it to the Hollywood Hills is close to a miracle. A 3-year-old, 110-pound male, the lion was probably looking for his own home territory to avoid a turf battle with another male lion, the most common cause of death among his kind here. Cooper surmises that he followed a deer into the park, first crossing one freeway screaming with traffic, and then negotiating his way through golf courses, swimming pools and clusters of six-bedroom homes with ocean views.

Once he arrived east, he stayed. "We've learned that the whole park is its territory," Cooper says. But it's a tiny, lonely one: P-22 may find enough meals in the park's other wildlife. What he won't do is find a mate.

"Where the lion can go from here," Cooper says, "that's really an open question."

It's not just a question that applies to P-22. The Santa Monica Mountains' big cats die in all kinds of ways: on freeways, by ingesting rat poison, getting shot by poachers. But there is no greater threat to their survival than the simple fact that they are imprisoned where they're born.

Any route out can be deadly for an individual lion. No way out will ultimately be deadly for them all.


When I meet Jeff Sikich one August morning on a Malibu road in the heart of the mountains, I think they've sent the wrong guy. The 37-year-old looks too young to be the world-renowned expert I've read about. Only when he takes off his park-ranger cadet cap do I notice a few convincing flecks of gray in his close-cut hair. He is tall, thin, taciturn and focused. When I ask him whether it's a bother having journalists tag along during his work, he answers promptly: "Yes."

Sikich travels frequently to Peru to study the pumas of the Andes; he recently taught South African biologists his darting techniques. But most of his work is more mundane: trudging up hills, radio in hand, waving a duct-taped antenna in the air and listening for beeps from a box. Sometimes, he walks dirt trails or bushwhacks through the sage and poison oak to get at his target. Other times, he drives up steep roads in suburban neighborhoods, startling their elderly residents. ("Is he a police officer?" one freshly coiffed octogenarian in smart green sandals asks me. "No," I assure her. "He's a biologist.")

The beeps come in different frequencies to distinguish individual lions. Listening is exacting work: Even on Sandstone Peak—at 3,111 feet, the mountains' highest point—lawn mowers, weed whackers and boats at sea all interfere with the pings Sikich is seeking, which emanate from a collared mother and her two 4-month-old kittens. When Sikich hears them, he pencils in the time and GPS coordinates on a ledger.

It's early still; fog from the ocean settles in the gaps between the green-and-dun mountains. "Mom's been here the past two nights," Sikich says, pointing inland to a small granite escarpment. "She probably made a deer kill, buried it, then went back and grabbed the kittens who were over on the other side of that ridge."

Mom is P-19, the lone survivor of four born in May 2010; her kittens arrived last April. Biologists thought it a hopeful sign that P-19 would whelp so young, right on schedule; it meant she had food. But the kittens' blood tests were less encouraging; they showed P-19 had mated with P-12, an itinerant male from a larger habitat to the north. P-12 had fathered two litters of kittens before. Among them was P-19.

The father-daughter tryst was the second instance of first-order inbreeding documented among the Santa Monica Mountains' puma population. The lions are now at risk for what biologists call "inbreeding depression"—the same fate that befell a puma subspecies, the Florida panther, 20 years ago.

"They were going extinct," says Robert Wayne, the evolutionary biologist who oversees the DNA-testing lab at UCLA. "They had undescended testes, holes in their hearts, defective sperm." The Florida population only survived because they were, as Wayne puts it, "genetically rescued" in 1995 with the release of eight female panthers imported from Texas. Only the offspring of the imports have thrived.

The isolated cougars of the Santa Monicas don't need such a dramatic solution; other genetic strains roam not far away. Just 15 miles north of where P-19 is raising her kittens, space yawns open in the Santa Susana Mountains, which link to hundreds of square miles of contiguous habitat in the Los Padres National Forest. But to move that direction, animals have to cross all eight lanes of the Highway 101, which connects the cities of Los Angeles and Ventura.

Sikich takes me to a place on the 101 where there's natural habitat on both sides, the aptly named Liberty Canyon. From the north, the canyon funnels wildlife onto a lightly used road under the freeway; P-12 crossed here. But an animal making its way down the slope south of the freeway, a narrow channel of green through the housing tracts, would have to brave a vacant three-story office building to find that route. "We've had animals turn around here," Sikich says. "The ones that risk the freeway usually end up dead."

Biologists, wildlife advocates and the California Department of Transportation have long lobbied for an underpass here whose entrance would make sense to wildlife. It would cost $10 million, but it would offer a safe option for animals compelled to migrate north. It might have lured P-22 toward more promising lands than Griffith Park. And it might have opened up a route for the unnamed young lion that, on May 22, 2012, tested his boundaries and found himself stranded in a city.


Courtesy Santa Monica Police DepartmentThat Tuesday morning, janitor Rogelio Rodriguez showed up for his pre-dawn shift at a downtown Santa Monica office building and heard a strange scratching sound. When he went to investigate, he saw a fawn-colored feline, 6 feet long and half again as tall, pawing on a wall just a few feet away. The animal turned around and saw Rodriguez, then ran past him into a courtyard. Rodriguez called the police.

Later blood tests revealed the lion came from the Santa Monicas. A young male, not quite 2 years old, he had likely wandered down during the night, crossing three miles of backyards or following the beach. He was now more trapped than when he started.

Wildlife agents first tried darting the lion, but the drug didn't take. Instead, the animal ran. Glass walls 8 feet high surround that courtyard, "but the thinking was that if he could get in, he could get out into the street," says assistant chief of California Fish and Wildlife Dan Sforza; pumas can spring to the top of 15-foot cliffs. Local police officers tried to hold the animal back with pepper spray, but when "he came toward the glass, the police shot him."

Bystanders were horrified. Blogs and comments overflowed with protests. But Seth Riley, the principal investigator on the Park Service study, says that the saddest part of the story came later, with the lion's DNA tests. "He had some unique genetic markers not seen in our other Santa Monica lions," he laments. "And he never got to pass them on."

Last year, the California Department of Transportation was turned down for a federal grant to fund the Liberty Canyon underpass. Riley insists the cost is justified.

"These mountain lions are the ultimate challenge for conservation," he says. "If the system is able to sustain large carnivores, it says something good about the way we're able to conserve it."

If it's not, the fragment of wilderness known as the Santa Monica Mountains will devolve into another large urban park.

This story originally appeared in High Country News.

Published in Environment

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