A pioneering naturalist

George Meléndez Wright as a forestry student on the UC Berkeley campus in the early 1920s. 

Photo courtesy of Pamela Meléndez Wright Lloyd.

When George Meléndez Wright, BS 1927 Forestry, was hired by the U.S. National Park Service (NPS) in 1927, the agency did not yet manage national parks as ecosystems, based on science, but rather as tourist attractions. For example, parks fed bears for spectators, killed wolves, cougars, coyotes, and other natural predators, and even kept animal zoos.

Wright, who studied forestry, wildlife biology, and conservation under UC Berkeley professors Walter Mulford and Joseph Grinnell, developed a different vision of the parks: natural-functioning landscapes where science and ecology guide the treatment and management of plants and wildlife.

By late 1929, Wright—the first Spanish-speaking professional in the NPS—had convinced NPS Director Horace Albright, BS 1912 Economics, to approve a multiyear survey of wildlife and plant conditions in the national parks, during which Wright and colleagues documented instances of questionable practices by NPS staff and other conflicts between animals and humans.

Albright later named Wright the first chief of the NPS Wildlife Division, based on campus in Hilgard Hall. He served in that position until his death in a car accident in 1936. Mountains in both Denali and Big Bend National Parks bear Wright’s name, as does the nonprofit George Wright Society, which promotes the conservation of parks, protected areas, and cultural and historic sites worldwide.

Conservation writer Jerry Emory, MA ’85 Geography, and other historians credit Wright with making the case for science-based natural resource management of the national parks. Emory’s latest book celebrates Wright’s vision and offers a historical account of a crucial period in the evolution of U.S. national parks and protection of wilderness.

Emory and Alison Forrestel, PhD ’13 Environmental Science, Policy, and Management, Chief of Natural Resources and Science for Golden Gate National Recreation Area, discussed the origins and innovations of science in U.S. National Parks in the 2023 A. Starker Leopold Lecture in September.

Watch a video of the lecture on youtube

Mathew Burciaga