Writing about the environment in the 21st century can pose a serious challenge, in part because it is so easy to repeat the familiar, dismal tale of how humans are ruining their natural surroundings as never before. While this is true enough, its constant repetition can get dull, undermining even the best-researched analyses. Some of the most compelling environmental writing marries this sort of warning with a broader look at nature's complexity and unpredictability, reminding us that even the most familiar environs contain mysteries.
The Flaming West
Few recent books capture this anomaly as well as Rocky Barker's Scorched Earth: How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America (Island Press, $24.95). An environmental reporter for the Idaho Statesman, Barker was standing at Old Faithful in September 1988 when a massive wildfire threatened to engulf one of America's most famous natural monuments; only by running did he and a fellow reporter manage to survive. Later Barker decided to delve into what the conflagration meant in the larger context of our national debate over wildfires, an investigation that ultimately led him back more than a century.
Scorched Earth is part policy treatise, part history and part adventure story. Civil War aficionados and conservationists alike may be surprised to learn that Philip H. Sheridan -- the feisty, former cavalry commander who led the Union's victorious Shenandoah Valley campaign and later ordered brutal attacks on Indian women and children -- played a crucial role in carving out federal protections for Yellowstone. A hunter and amateur ornithologist, Sheridan took control of the national park in 1886 and curbed both rampant lawlessness and the fires that frequently made it so that "the woods popped, cracked and exploded like a scene out of the Civil War veteran's battlefield past." Although Sheridan died in 1888, before his task was completed, Barker writes, "The pugnacious warrior-turned-preservationist had helped create the nation's public lands legacy, saved it from monopoly control, and then initiated the system on which future management would be based."
Later Yellowstone managers, however, struggled with how to control the fires that have raged for centuries out West. Barker chronicles the spirited debate over firefighting that has preoccupied forest experts and federal officials for years. In 1908, Forest Service chief Gifford Pinchot managed to obtain a blank check for fire suppression. This laid the groundwork for both the "10 a.m." policy that compelled managers to put out fires the morning after they broke out and the 1940s anti-fire icon Smokey Bear, who became so popular with America's children that he got his own zip code (20252) from the U.S. Postal Service in 1964 and still receives up to 1,000 letters a day.
Later Yellowstone managers came to understand that ecosystems depend on periodic fires, but as Barker writes, "Thirty-five years of Smokey Bear had hardwired the press and the American public to abhor forest fire. . . . [They] knew they couldn't make America think black is beautiful in Yellowstone." The book provides a harrowing account of the 1988 fire that nearly destroyed one of the country's top tourist attractions, as well as the careers of several senior park officials. In the end, Barker -- who falters only when he delves too deeply into bureaucratic infighting -- conveys a powerful lesson about how Americans have sought to manage the "cataclysmic forces" of forest fires. "We have measured our human progress in part by our ability to control these forces," he writes. "But our humanity may be found in our ability to live with them."
Bringing Out the Good China
No stranger to forest fires, former Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt has spent much of his career grappling with the same kinds of questions that dominate Scorched Earth . How much can we alter the environment around us, and to what extent must we preserve it? In Cities in the Wilderness: A New Vision of Land Use in America (Island Press, $25.95), he suggests that the federal government take the lead in regulating development, grazing and other environmentally harmful activities across the country.
The words "land-use policy" are enough to bore anyone but the most dedicated policy wonk, and Cities in the Wilderness is not pulp fiction. But anyone willing to read Babbitt's relatively short prescription (179 pages) will come away with a better understanding of how politicians negotiate the painful task of satisfying their many constituencies while trying to establish a legacy for later generations.
The book comes alive when Babbitt recounts his efforts to woo sometimes recalcitrant federal partners to his side, as when he "brought out the good china" for a meal with the commanding general of the Army Corps of Engineers during Babbitt's campaign to restore the Florida Everglades. Later, when he was trying to convince President Clinton to create additional national monuments toward the end of his second term, Babbitt handed Clinton an index card during a state dinner comparing the current administration's land-conservation achievements to Theodore Roosevelt's. After Clinton nodded enthusiastically, Babbitt recalls, "I moved on, confident that at last we had a mandate to act not just on the Grand Canyon lands but elsewhere. It all came down to one word: legacy." Indeed, Clinton set aside 22 new national monuments composed of 6 million acres, outstripping Roosevelt's record.
Now that his party is no longer in power, however, Babbitt is hoping the force of his argument alone will convince policy makers to defend what he sees as the nation's heritage, "the freedom and glory of wild open spaces."
Few areas are as wild as the Farallon Islands, a 211-acre archipelago in the Pacific Ocean less than 30 miles due west of San Francisco's Golden Gate Bridge. During the fall, the Farallones serve as the breeding ground for great white sharks, but few witness the spectacle because access to the islands is restricted. Time Inc. development editor Susan Casey, who first caught sight of the massive beasts while working on a BBC documentary on the Farallones in 1998, managed to win over the shark researchers there and spend a few tours of duty monitoring the dangerous seas. The Devil's Teeth: A True Story of Obsession and Survival Among America's Great White Sharks (Henry Holt, $25) recounts her time with Peter Pyle and Scot Anderson, scientists who spent 15 years tracking the sharks' regular California pilgrimage.
Casey has written a lively and accessible book, describing how for years the researchers braved the ocean in the ominously named ship Dinner Plate even though "they had no idea what the animals would do. It wasn't the kind of thing you could look up in a reference manual: Procedures for Operating a Tiny Boat Next to a Feeding Great White Shark." The book is full of entertaining observations, such as how when three sharks circled the boat, they "were in no particular hurry, checking us out like low riders trolling the strip on Saturday night." In gruesome detail, Casey describes regular shark attacks in which the creatures gnaw quarter-ton elephant seals to a bloody pulp. Perhaps most compelling is her account of the tension between a local tour operator and the two researchers, who fear that tourists diving inside cages will desensitize the sharks and disrupt their vital feeding ground.
But while Casey captures the addictive nature of shark viewing -- anyone who has gone diving with sharks knows the thrill of seeing these ancient, toothy creatures underwater -- readers may want to skip the book's disappointing second half. This section, about her experiences on a ship offshore, is far too focused on the details of Casey's daily life rather than on the broader question of how sharks are faring in the region. The Devil's Teeth provides plenty of details of what it's like to live for days on a small ship and head out at the first notice of a shark attack, but Casey is too enamored of her own roughing-it experience to make broader observations about what the Farallones tell us about humans' tendency to interfere with nature's precarious balance. ·
Juliet Eilperin covers national environmental issues for The Washington Post.