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Scientific Panel Calls On NPS To Recommit To, And Reemphasize, Science In The Parks


Climate change, biodiversity, and the current state and understanding of ecosystem management all were unknown to A. Starker Leopold 50 years ago when he oversaw a report that became the National Park Service's guide to managing wildlife in the parks.

That so-called Leopold Report, though valuable for its time, is now drastically obsolete, so much so that the National Park Service needs to, in essence, reinvent how it approaches scientific study, and management of natural resources, within its nearly 400 parks. That was the message delivered to Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis on the eve of his agency's 96th birthday.

"Resource stewardship within the National Park System of the future must be accomplished while addressing development pressures, pollution impacts, climate change, terrestrial and marine biodiversity loss, habitat fragmentation, and the loss of cultural resources," concludes the report, Revisiting Leopold: Resource Stewardship in the National Parks. "These challenges will only accelerate and intensify in the future. Future resource management based on historically successful practices cannot be assumed as effective park stewardship. Neither is crisis management a sufficient response. Structural changes and long-term investment are necessary to preserve the natural and cultural resources of the National Park System."

The report, requested by Director Jarvis last August when he issued his Call to Action to prepare the Park Service for its second 100 years, was written by a distinguished panel of scientists chaired by Dr. Rita Colwell. Though just 23 pages long, the report envisions both vast consequences and exciting possibilities, depending upon how much to heart the report is taken by not just the Park Service but also the Congress and Americans in general.

Potential consequences are profound: continued habitat fragmentation, loss of species to climate change, loss of groundwater resources, increased pollution.

Exciting possibilities are just as striking: climate-change proof habitats that can serve as refugia for species, species made sustainable through protected and maintained "migration and dispersal corridors," the National Park System "as the core of a national conservation network of connected lands and waters."

The report doesn't place natural resources in a bell jar, either, but rather urges the Park Service to consider cultural and historical resources as well when evolving its science mission.

"Many if not most parks include both natural and cultural resources, and many park resources feature natural and cultural attributes -- Yellowstone bison are both ecologically important and culturally significant. Parks exist as coupled natural-human systems. Natural and cultural resource management must occur simultaneously and, in general, interdependently. Such resource management when practiced holistically embodies the basis of sound park stewardship."

In its pages the report casts the National Park Service as the agency that can best rescue, protect, and preserve America's natural resources. It envisions a National Park System that, while working with other federal, state, tribal agencies, and private groups, serves "as the core of a national conservation network of connected lands and waters."

But achieving that status will take work, the report implied, noting that "(B)oth NPS managers and scientists require training and requisite skills in communications, critical thinking, analysis, science, technology, and mathematics. The NPS should integrate scientific achievement into its evaluation and performance reward systems, providing incentives for scientists and managers who contribute to the advancement of science and stewardship within their park or region."

Public enjoyment of the parks wasn't left out of the committee's review. Indeed, it said the parks should offer visitors "transformative experiences."

"This interaction should both educate and inspire. Such experiences can be a weeklong, confidence-building wilderness adventure, a first encounter with a night sky free of artificial light, exploring a tidal pool with a park interpreter, or the emotional and patriotic response to standing on a historic battlefield or in an early Native American dwelling," the committee wrote.

Just as, if not more, daunting than the words in this report is the task of implementing its suggestions. When the 21st century arrived the Park Service was anything but energized with its scientific mission, according to a distinguished group of unbiased observers.

Over the nearly 90 years since its founding in 1916, the National Park Service has been widely recognized for its success in providing an unparalleled level of visitor services and experiences to citizens of the United States and visitors from around the world. In contrast, Park Service development of the science capability necessary to fulfill its natural resource preservation mandate has been slow and erratic, at best.

So said the National Park System Advisory Board eight years ago in a report on "National Park Service Science in the 21st Century."

To reverse that trend, the Revisiting Leopold report calls on the Park Service to upgrade its technological capabilities and develop "strategies for data sharing and access that can be deployed in support of science, resource management, and park stewardship"; to "undertake a major, systematic, and comprehensive review of its policies, despite the risk and uncertainty that this effort may entail. ... this review should explicitly focus on aligning policies with goals for resource management recommended here, and streamlining, clarifying, and improving consistency and coherence to provide guidance in resource management and decision making," and; "function as a scientific leader in documenting and monitoring the conditions of park systems, including inventories of biodiversity and cultural resources."

Revisiting Leopold is a bold report, both in its analysis of the current state of science in the Park Service and in its recommendations. It might not have been the birthday present Director Jarvis was hoping for, but it carries great possibilities for the future of the park system—if only a resurgent appreciation of "America's Best Idea" can somehow counter the poison of our current politics and the bankruptcy of our economy as that second century dawns.

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I look forward to reading Leopold Revisited, but feel like I must call attention to the elephant in the room (pun unintended): I fear that as long as the National Park Service is subject to the directives of Congress and the administration, the agency will not be able to protect park lands and resources over the long haul. The administration's focus is, has been, and likely will be on economics, on dollars, and the NPS will continue to be pushed down that old, tired path to degradation. Too many of those in top leadership roles still fail to see the connection between healthy ecosystems and healthy economies. Solutions: Pull the NPS from Interior and make it a more independent body (like Smithsonian? - someone else please chime in here about how this could work), and educate politicos about the critical need to preserve wildlands and species or elect politicos who already understand and embrace this as a priority.




[size= small; font-weight: bold; font-style: italic]AGENCY[/size] which of course, are rarely addressed: many superintendents and other

key management officials have little respect for the funding required for science

projects since the traditional activities of law enforcement and search & rescue

consume the largest portion (other than maintenance costs). Among the issues

not resolved are the key officials who are truly charlatans pretending to be

scientists but having little background or passion. One charlatan at Redwood N.P.

dominated the position for 30 years homesteading and vetoing many proposed

projects by scientists he perceived as threats. Other parks harbor these strange

personalities too actively working again those who would contribute much to

our understanding of the parks' ecological complexities. Just consider the NPS's

past record with the Craighead Brothers studying grizzles at Yellowstone,

banning the book, Playing God in Yellowstone 1986 by Alston Chase, two years prior

to the Yellowstone Fires of 1988, ignoring Dr. Stephen Pyne's recommendations on

fire management, ignoring the USFS's work documenting Asian blister rust in high

elevation pines in the Cascade Range including one superintendent at Mt. Rainier vetoing

a SPECIAL WHITEBARK PINE Conference to better understand threats to the old whitebark

pines woodlands. Consider too Michael Frome's attempts to bring light and resolution to

these issues in his book Re-Greening of the National Parks with one chapter devoted to

how Glacier's superintendent persecuted one biologist and the same personality aggressively

attacked a University of Montana botany professor who complained about sewerage

spewed out on the delicate subalpine communities. Another superintendent at Crater

Lake ignored a limnologists warning about possible sewage contamination of the park's

yiv1024696707yui_3_2_0_31_1346044293742832 yui_3_2_0_19_1346085447492785" style="margin-top: 1em; margin-bottom: 1em;">only drinking water and the Lake itself when for decades the NPS allowed a septic

system for Rim Village and Crater Lake Lodge to overflow many tens of thousands of gallons

of sewerage above the pristine lake. Sadly, not much has changed during the past six

decades since Adolph Murie was persecuted by NPS Management (which was actively killing

PARK predators) for his studies placing ecological value on wolves of Denali N.P.

So, until the NPS selects and promotes a NATURAL SCIENCE resource intelligent

cadre of higher management officials, the focus will continue to be on threats external

to the parks not those originating within the agency which clearly has lost sight of its

core mission and continues to seek reprisals against any lower ranked employee who

discusses these issues openly. Thus, Rank-ism Discrimination is "alive and well" with the

NPS. The old analogy of comparing the national park's biological resources to those

collections of The Smithsonian Institution:

We now see what happens when the supposedly well curated collections are turned

over to the agency's security force to manage ! retiring the old-guard scientists in an

effort "to save federal funds."

I'm having trouble visualizing a "climate-change proof habitat."

Science body supports more science in the parks. Education panel supports more education in the parks. Firefighter panel supports more firefighting in the parks.

The budget is in serious trouble, and every special interest begins to circle the wagons. Yes, all of these are important, but the reality is that any new program comes at the expense of old programs that are going to be cut anyways.

The agency has morphed into one of little empires. The way to look like you're doing your job is to invent a new whiz-bang program, even though the last whiz-bang programs didn't work all that well.

The agency has a security force? Really?

The report was requested by Jarvis. This is hardly a case of a special interest lobbying for itself. (Is science really a special interest? If so, what isn't?)

I took a few minutes to read the report.

Maybe this kind of thing has to be abstract and speak in broad generalities, but as Barbara alludes to above, it seems to shy away from addressing the practicalities of administering an institutional system that has many demands placed on it, many of them conflicting. Even the term "stewardship," that popular conservation buzzword, which appears in the report 29 times, is vague. Who decides what stewardship consists of?

I can no more easily address the report's broad generalities than I can write on cotton candy. In a few places, however, the report is a bit more specific and makes itself amenable to comment.

On page 7, the report says that a "national park should present a vignette of primitive America," meaning the U.S. "before the arrival of Europeans on the continent." But let's be honest: we're not going to let the parks operate as if the earliest peoples still inhabited North America. There are countries that allow traditional commerce in their parks—Cape Verde is one of them—but, for reasons William Cronon and others have pointed out, the backcountry territory of our national parks relies on a vision of "primitive America" that never was—at least not since humans arrived from Asia many thousands of years ago. The report seems to stick to that vision. If anyone tried to let native peoples reestablish themselves inside the parks, conservative conservationists would be howling.

On page 15, the report says that "NPS managers and decision makers will need to embrace more fully the precautionary principle as an operating guide." Admittedly, the parks have to be conservatively managed, but the precautionary principle lies at the extreme end of conservative management. Basically, the precautionary principle is a philosophy that if any harm could conceivably result from an action, that action must be avoided. (You can find it on Wikipedia.) It's a recipe for stultification and stagnation, and is widely criticized as unworkable and leading to unintended bad results.

Finally, on page 19 the report advises the NPS to create a cohort of scientists whom the agency would "station" in parks. That strikes me as odd, because I have the impression that most science is carried out in institutions like universities where people interact and generate ideas. Being in a park would seem to be somewhat of a research and academic dead end in most cases.

I wish the report had just said what the I suspect the authors desire: get rid of mass tourism in the parks, don't allow motorized access to them (or any form of transport that didn't exist in 1870, even bicycles or other human-powered devices), vastly scale back commercial operations, and make the parks more pristine. In sum, keep as many people out of them as possible unless they're engaged in the most wholesome of pursuits, according to the drafters' view of wholesomeness. That's a defensible position and maybe even an admirable one. But it's almost certainly politically impossible.

Parks in Alaska WERE authorized to 'continue' traditional hunting, fishing, trapping and gathering. It makes a difference, practically but also realistically to continue an opportunity for use, don't you think imtmbke, than trying to create some phony replica of long gone cultures? So you are wrong about the park service opposing traditional uses, but are setting up a straw dog in envisioning how and where to implement such a proposal. Pre-columbian peoples were what has been called "ecosystem people" meaning like any creature living within the rules of the environment, their numbers and capacity were governed by the resources available immediately. Now, almost all people are "biosphere people" meaning our population can grow and the resources we use can come from half a world away, meaning the impact of such people living off the earth today is simply nothing like it is for the people or for te impact on that habitat and environment as it was in pre-columbian times.

So the real point now is to try to free a park environment from the sort of all consuming manipulations our global world imposes on a habitat, because that local habitat limits to growth like water supply, food supply, massive capacity to change environment through direct force and technology, etc etc, are restraints natural habits no longer have available to moderate the freedom from such restraints of biosphere people.

You don't have to create a costume pageant to seek to restrain this global "biosphere" forces from a park. The pre-columbian metaphor still makes sense if one does not become to tendentious or literal.

A final point I would use to question your conclusions. A lot of natural resources and archaeological and even architectural studies are 'field studies' with a lot of inventory, monitoring, observing, testing information in the field. This is not a new idea. It is not true that all science happens in the Ivory Tower, though some scientists are disposed that way. Even among archaeologists, "the cowboys of science," you will find some who would maintain that remote studies are all you need. But there is still lots of room for field science.

Hi, Jim Pepper,

That's what I had in mind! Not some ersatz attempt at recreating, e.g., the Anasazi (impossible), but just what you're describing. I didn't know that had ever been authorized in any U.S. national park. I'm all in favor of it.

Do the Alaska national parks allow this? If so, why not in the lower 48 too? (Or do they? If so, I haven't heard about it.)

I appreciate your other points too.

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