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Repairing Paradise: The Restoration Of Nature in America's National Parks

Author : William R. Lowry
Published : 2009-08-27

Repairing Paradise. That's a somewhat inauspicious title for a book that examines how to restore natural settings in the national parks. But in light of many scenarios that are playing out across the National Park System -- from parks being overrun by elk, deer, and even people to ecosystem subterfuge -- repairs are exactly what need to be made.

Too often, though, we lack the necessary will -- that from the public at large and more importantly the political and agency will -- to not just identify the problems in the parks but also to identify solutions and then put them to work. In his latest book, Repairing Paradise, The Restoration of Nature in America's National Parks, William R. Lowry takes us to Yellowstone, Yosemite, Grand Canyon, and Everglades national parks to examine four contentious issues that disrupted the natural side of these parks, and identifies keys to how they could be overcome.

These are high-profile parks, perhaps the shiniest of the crown jewels in the National Park System. And yet they've all been confronted by human-caused disruptions that strike at their very essence. Yellowstone grappled with the lack of an apex predator -- the wolf -- in the 1990s, Yosemite continues to struggle with human traffic in its iconic valley, the Everglades has suffered from lack of natural water flows, and the Grand Canyon's masterful sculptor, the Colorado River, has lost its seasonal ebbs and flows to the Glen Canyon Dam.

And yet, the National Park Service Organic Act mandates that the National Park Service manage the park system's natural resources and settings "unimpaired" for future generations. So what went wrong? Why is there a need for a book to instruct us on how to restore the natural pulses in these places?

"They have some of the tools, but as you know, the Park Service is a political agency, and they’re very affected by other political actors and other political forces," explained Mr. Lowry, a professor of political science at Washington University in St. Louis who long has studied environmental and natural resource policy in the United States. "And so, whatever tools they have are somewhat limited in how much they can use them. I think part of the reason for writing the book was, I don’t know if I want to call it frustration, but an attempt to understand why some of these restoration efforts have not gone as well as they should have, or as well as they could have, and why the Park Service has not been able to do what they wanted to do."

The quick, immediate explanation, of course, is politics. For years congressional delegations in Montana and Wyoming opposed efforts to restore wolf populations in Yellowstone. Development surrounding Everglades held a higher priority than did the health of the "river of grass." Power generation, not the Colorado's natural stream flows, has been paramount for the U.S. Bureau of Reclamation that controls water releases through the Glen Canyon Dam. And tourist traffic, not necessarily landscape preservation, has been foremost in the minds of those who manage the Yosemite Valley.

As for external threats, the parks proved disturbingly vulnerable. The previously mentioned self-assessment described 'a mismatch between the demand that the park units be protected and the tools available when the threats to park resources and values are increasingly coming from outside unit boundaries,' he writes. Those threats include air and water pollution from outside sources as well as encroachment by growth and development outside park boundaries. Management reactions to those threats often were ineffective and contributed to the problems in the national parks. At some places, including those discussed in this book, the consequences have been substantial.

The result of the agency's dual mandate, political demands, and the daunting threats to the parks often were policies that did not ensure preservation of the natural environment and frequently caused substantial damage instead.

In examining each of these cases, Professor Lowry points to four keys that can determine the outcome of efforts to set things right, in terms of natural systems, in the parks. One is public buy-in to the proposed solution, another is agency buy-in, a third is the economic consequences, and the fourth is whether the proposed solution is buttressed by science. In the four cases the professor examines, only one -- the effort to recover self-sustaining wolf populations in Yellowstone -- had the support of all four elements. Indeed, at Yosemite the author points to the many different constituencies that must somehow be pulled together on a common vision for the Yosemite Valley.

Years ago, talking about national parks in general, some observers worried that we might love our parks to death. Today, in Yosemite, love is not killing the park, but when so many people have dug in their heels on their own version of romance, restoration is a difficult task. As many poets and singers have noted, "Love hurts." At least for the near future, emotions will continue to make rational discussion and dramatic policy changes elusive goals.

But when it came to wolves in Yellowstone, just about everyone was on the same page -- the public, the agency, the science, the economics. Science underscored how the park's elk herds had gotten unnaturally large in number because this predator was absent. The Park Service and U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service both endorsed and supported the recovery plan. And the economics were favorable (indeed, they proved to be highly favorable) in predicting the predators would become a tourist draw. And how the general public responded to the recovery plan was a highly significant factor in overcoming local political opposition.

... the wolf was framed as more than just a cuddly denizen of the wilderness, writes the professor. The wolf became a symbol of much larger issues, in particular the wilderness -- physical or psychological -- that remained in the United States. Between the summer of 1989 and fall of 1991, for instance, three major U.S. news magazines (Newsweek, Time, and U.S. News and World Report) published articles on the possible reintroduction, complete with eye-grabbing photos of wolves in natural settings.

The animals were not just a biological issue in Yellowstone, but had become a social issue, the author was told by Doug Smith, who oversaw the NPS side of wolf recovery.

It is perhaps that lack of general public support, along with political interference, that has hamstrung Yellowstone officials in dealing with snowmobiles in the park. Through most of the last decade study after study after study pointed to snowcoaches as the environmentally acceptable mode of recreational travel in the park, and upwards of 80 percent of the 850,000-900,000 people who took time to comment on winter-use in Yellowstone supported a phaseout of snowmobiles. And yet ... the issue lacked the national appeal that wolf recovery was able to garner, noted Professor Lowry.

"The Yellowstone wolves I think may be the best example we have of a repair effort that actually did meet those (four) conditions and did achieve restoration. It’s interesting that in the same park, Yellowstone, the snowmobile situation, or the bison situation, neither one of them have we gotten very close to a good resolution," the professor said during a recent telephone interview. “While there was overwhelming public support (for the snowmobile phaseout), I don’t know that that issue was ever framed quite as compellingly as it could have been. Maybe it could have been framed in some way that would have engaged a much larger public. Most people in the American public, I think this is fair, if you ask them about Yellowstone snowmobiles, there’d be overwhelming support for changes in the policy. But they would just be responding to a question.

“It wouldn’t be something that they were thinking about very much or that they were very engaged in, as compared to the Yellowstone wolves, where the broader American public got incredibly supportive and really pushed to make changes and kind of drove the policy and drove the Park Service to be much more responsive to those demands," Professor Lowry added. "I don’t know that that kind of mobilization has been there regarding the snowmobiles. Have you seen any covers of magazines, popular press magazines like Newsweek or Time, where they have covers of the magazines with Yellowstone snowmobiles on it. We had a lot of those with the Yellowstone wolves. My point being, although there’s broad support for these kinds of changes, I’m not sure that that kind of support has got to the point of engaging the larger public in a way that would lead them to provide a lot of pressure on the politicians to say to the Park Service, ‘Hey, you need to change this.’"

Not surprisingly, in light of all the hurdles that must be cleared to truly affect meaningful change in national parks, overnight solutions are not in the offing. But some of these places can't wait too much longer for solutions to both be identified and implemented.

“I think the changes that have been proposed for places like the Everglades, they need to happen pretty soon," said Professor Lowry. "I would encourage some patience with the Park Service. I think the Park Service generally tries to do the right thing with these places ... so I guess the patience would be acknowledgment that the Park Service has to deal with a lot of forces in order to get things done that they want to do in these places.

"And a lot of these efforts, my patience wears kind of thin with some of the arguments I hear about the parks. We haven’t set aside that much land in this country to be preserved in pristine condition, so what we have set aside I think we need to be pretty vigilant and make sure that we do protect it," he added. "Not just protect it, but we need to repair it from the damages from previous polices that have affected it.”

And when it comes to "repairing" the damage, one can't always expect to return settings to their original, pristine condition, he said.

“Here’s one example why it’s so hard to talk about restoration to some certain condition: These places are always evolving, so what is that condition?" he wondered. "Are you just picking out some particular moment in time when you want to restore it to? What I would rather talk about, and what I try to talk about in the book, are our efforts to try to repair the damages from policies that we have pursued in the past that have negatively impacted these places. You can repair them ... to the end that you could achieve some kind of quality or some kind of environment that you would hope reflected something that was there before we damaged these places.”

Repairing Paradise (Brookings Institution Press, $28.95) is a book valuable for national park lovers who want to better understand how the parks' resources are both impacted and managed, and for advocacy groups seeking to affect change.


For those interested in Park restoration, the second-largest such project in history is now underway in Olympic NP: the Elwha River restoration.

The concept of the need to "repair" the parks is indeed intriguing. The 1916 Organic Act does state "unimpaired" but also throws out the "provide for enjoyment" conundrum. This is the set of horns the NPS seems to have been caught on throughout its life. Do the parks direct the user's traffic to certain locations; building roads, trails and facilities? Or does it maintain the wild setting that is wrongfully said to be without people? Who gets turned away at the entrance is the interesting question if a more exclusionary method is adopted.

It would seem to me that we in the country are trying to find a way to MAKE paradise, rather than allow it to make itself. I have heard NPS staff jokingly state the new motto of the NPS as "Desperately trying to maintain the illusion that things are as they never really were." This was in reference to the attempts to either remove "invasive species" or to try to exclude the public back to 1920s levels. Neither accounts for the changing uses and demands that the world is bringing to the doorsteps of the parks. The parks are not remote islands in the world, able to ignore the events around them, either political or natural. A fence or row of boundary signs does not make what is inside more natural. Humanity will have an impact on anyplace they are, as will all of the other creatures on the Earth.

It would seem better to let the parks become the leaders and stewards of the knowledge about the lands than merely trying to hold back the flood of the population. Imagine if the NPS could develop outreach programs that helped the visitors see their own communities as the natural places they are. Nature exists even where we don't see its grandeur. Walk slowly along the edge of an urban vacant lot and nature will surprise you in its attempts to turn that rough ground to vibrant life. When the people who think they need to escape to the parks see "wild" in their small birds and life in their grass, the NPS will be truly successful.

I am planning to pick up a copy of Mr. Lowry's book and see his ideas.


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