Who was George Meléndez Wright?
Wright in Yosemite National Park. Photo by Carl Russell, ca. 1928.
Taken in July 1929 by Joseph Dixon at the Yosemite Museum, this photo shows Wright listening to Maria Lebrado, also known as Totuya, a granddaughter of Chief Tenaya and the last known survivor of the expulsion of the Ahwahneechee from Yosemite Valley in 1851. Yosemite Nature Notes for September 1929 remarked that Lebrado had been “an interesting and distinguished visitor” to the park museum, and that Wright and his colleague Ben Thompson had “endeared themselves to Maria by their kindliness and their ability to speak to her in Spanish.”
George Meléndez Wright was born into two dynamic families in 1904: the Wrights and the Meléndezes. His father, John Tennant Wright, came from a long line of successful San Francisco-based steamship owners and captains. His mother, Mercedes Meléndez, was born in San Salvador, El Salvador, the second of ten siblings. The Meléndez family was among the most powerful, and largest, families in the country. Both his parents died when George was a young boy, and although he kept in touch with his Salvadoran relatives, he was raised by his step-Grandmother, Cordelia Wright, whom he referred to as “Auntie.” As a child, encouraged by Auntie, he roamed the San Francisco Bay area and came to love and to know its plants and wildlife, particularly the birds. At the age of 16, Wright entered the University California Berkeley as a Forestry student, studying under Professor Walter Mulford. However, he was soon taking classes at the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology taught by the renowned field zoologist Professor Joseph Grinnell, and his assistant Joseph Dixon, the museum’s Economic Mammologist.
After graduating in 1927, Wright joined the National Park Service, and until June of 1929, he worked as an Assistant Naturalist in Yosemite National Park. During this period—and based on several summers exploring the parks of the West, including an expedition to Mount McKinley (now Denali) National Park in 1926—Wright became very concerned about what he would come to call “the problems caused by conflict between man and animal through joint occupancy of the park areas.” Specifically, the transplanted and unnaturally penned tule elk in Yosemite Valley were disturbing to Wright, as was the elk and buffalo situation in Yellowstone National Park. And, throughout the park system, he was alarmed and worried about the overabundance of tame mule deer, the overall scarcity of predators, marauding grizzly and black bears being fed at park garbage dumps as part of accepted policy, and the severe consequences of uncontrolled hunting and trapping within and outside of parks’ boundaries. Scientific wildlife conservation and management had not yet become part of management in the national parks.
In 1929 (with the help of several mentors, including Joseph Dixon), Wright convinced National Park Service Director Horace Albright to approve a ground-breaking survey of wildlife and wildlife issues throughout the national parks in the western U.S., approximately 14 parks at that time. During these early years of the Great Depression, Wright personally funded the multi-year survey, and paid for the salaries of his two colleagues, Dixon and Ben Thompson. George Wright was 25 years old at the time of the survey’s beginning.
This formative work led to recommendations that were published in 1932 as Fauna of the National Parks of the United States, a Preliminary Survey of Faunal Relations in National Parks, which became the first of the important “Fauna” series—publications detailing the results of surveys and research, and recommending various management procedures to maintain natural conditions in protected areas. Their follow-up Fauna publication, Wildlife Management in the National Parks, published in 1934, was soon adopted as official National Park Service policy.
In 1933 Wright became the first chief of the newly-formed Wildlife Division of the Park Service, and under his leadership each park started to survey and evaluate the status of wildlife on an ongoing basis in order to identify urgent problems. Recommendations for restoration were generated, and special attention was paid to rare and endangered species, conflicts, and sources of problems.
Wright associated with the conservation luminaries of his day, and with them worked on conservation projects beyond the national parks. He influenced the nationwide planning for public parks and recreation areas and was named to a commission to work with Mexico in identifying and establishing new protected areas along the international border. In February 1936, while returning from an expedition to what is today’s Big Bend National Park, Wright was killed in an automobile accident along with Roger Toll, Superintendent of Yellowstone and a dear friend. Wright’s life was cut short when he was only 31 years of age. Had he lived, he likely would have become one of America’s foremost conservationists. (He was one of several NPS figures featured in the Ken Burns and Dayton Duncan’s 2009 documentary “National Parks: America's Best Idea.”)
Wright’s contributions are distinguished by a keen perception of ecological problems: he recognized that, even then, protected areas were not biological islands that can stand alone and separate from the surrounding lands. Importantly, he also grasped the significance of long-term human influences on the North American landscape. He was one of the first protected area professionals to argue for a holistic approach to solving research and management problems, rather than separating them into mutually exclusive natural and cultural resource categories. As the historian Richard West Sellars wrote, George Wright's “vision of national park management was truly revolutionary, penetrating beyond the scenic façades of the parks to comprehend the significance of the complex natural world.” With its name, the George Wright Society honors his vision.