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Of Geologists, Paleontologists, And Science in the National Park System
Since boyhood I've embraced a vision of the National Park Service as an agency that not only cared for forested mountains, shimmering lakes, foaming cataracts, dusty trails and a wildlife menagerie that stretched from alligators to wolverines, but also as one with a science mission built around these wonders.
How accurate is that vision?
In Arizona, there is a park built around the grandest of canyons, one with a geologic record that dates billions of years, and yet there is no resident, officially titled, staff geologist for that park. In Washington state there's another park, one that embraces a slumbering, ice-encased volcano, and it has no on-staff volcanologist. In Utah, where dinosaurs walked millions and millions of years ago there now stands a national monument over their graveyard, which still offers untold portals into ancient life, and two-thirds of the paleontology staff are being let go.
These are just the easiest examples of possible gaps in the Park Service's scientific methodology to point to. The case at Dinosaur National Monument is the easiest in light of the uproar that has risen, and is being furiously fanned, over Superintendent Mary Risser's efforts to keep her park's budget in the black.
Do these examples point to a greater problem, one of an agency that won't, or can't, rise fully to its scientific responsibility as caretaker of some of the most wondrous places not just in the United States but on Earth?
The central dilemma of national park management has long been the question of exactly what in a park should be preserved. Is it the scenery -- the resplendent landscapes of forests, streams, wildflowers, and majestic mammals? Or is it the integrity of each park's entire natural system, including not just the biological and scenic superstars, but also the vast array of less compelling species, such as grasses, lichens and mice? The incredible beauty of the national parks has always given the impression that scenery alone is what makes them worthwhile and deserving of protection. Scenery has provided the primary inspiration for national parks and, through tourism, their primary justification. Thus, a kind of "facade" management became the accepted practice in parks: protecting and enhancing the scenic facade of nature for the public's enjoyment, but with scant scientific knowledge and little concern for biological consequences.
Those words were written more than a decade ago by Richard West Sellars, a just-retired Park Service historian who traced the agency's fits, starts, and struggles with science in his seminal work, Preserving Nature in the National Parks, A History. They might, however, be just as apt today.
But don't agree too swiftly. There is some great work being done across the park system. Just look at Great Smoky Mountains National Park and its All Taxa Biodiversity Inventory, or at the climate-related studies being done in Alaska's national parks. And look at what else is going on around the park system in terms of science:
* Isle Royale National Park celebrates 50 years of moose-wolf research this year. This research has directly influenced the park's management of its trails, how it manages pets in the park, and what dates the park is open and closed. Of course, the park also has never had a wildlife biologist on staff.
* Apostle Islands National Lakeshore is actively managing the resident deer herd because science has shown the adverse impacts the deer are having on Canada Yew, a rare native species far more significant than the native deer.
* Shenandoah National Park's long-term watershed and air quality research led directly to the park's declaration of "adverse impact' under the Clean Air Act in the 1990s. Of course, the park lacks an air quality staffer.
* Rocky Mountain National Park's watershed/air quality program led to recent changes in Colorado air quality regulations, thanks to good science and an assertive superintendent.
* Great hydrological research at Everglades National Park for decades has been the basis for the multi-billion dollar Everglades restoration program.
* The Park Service's Air Resources Division in Denver is widely regarded as the national experts on rural air quality and ecosystem impacts.
And certainly it sounds as if Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne backs a strong science mission in the Park Service.
National parks find themselves in changing landscapes, compromised by invasive species that disrupt native plant and animal communities, the Interior secretary wrote in describing to President Bush some of the problems parks now face. Sensitive freshwater species, including native trout, are missing from park habitats. Many ocean fish are in decline, while coral reefs -- popular showcases of dazzling biological complexity -- display signs of distress. Fragmented habitats result in fewer migratory birds returning to national parks.
In response, he writes, (t)he 21st-century National Park Service will be energized to preserve parks and welcome visitors. Stewardship and science will guide decisions. An inventory of all wildlife in parks will be completed, a vital baseline to monitor change and adjust management. Strategic acquisitions will protect landscapes. Parks will be known as America's best classrooms. ... Majestic species that symbolize this nation, such as bison and bald eagles, will thrive in their native habitats.
And yet, despite these examples and pledges, 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 just four years ago in a report on "National Park Service Science in the 21st Century," a report that has gone missing from the agency's web site.
Was that an accurate assessment? Michael Soukup, who just recently retired after 31 years with the Park Service, believes so. And he should know. Armed with a doctorate in zoology from the University of Massachusetts, Dr. Soukup's last role was as Associate Director for Natural Resources and Science. He fully agrees with the advisory board's summation of the Park Service's "erratic" performance on science. Why? In part because of budgetary constraints, in part because of agency culture.
"We’re a very traditional agency that really loves the romance of the national parks and the romance of the national park system and the romance of the ranger and the romance of the generalist that can do everything. And those days are really, really romantic and wonderful," Dr. Soukup told me last week. "And they’re also gone.
"It’s really obvious that those days are gone when you write an environmental impact statement or you show up at a public meeting and there are people in the audience that want a sense that you know what you’re doing. It’s OK to be a wonderful person, and ride a white horse and wear a white hat, but you have to have something under the white hat these days," Dr. Soukup continued. "There are so many vested interests out there that know an awful lot that you really need to be competitive in what you know, how authoritative you are in support of the things that you think have to be done to protect that park.
"It’s a whole new different game out there and I’m afraid we’ve not been really good at changing gears. I think in the last decade a lot of people in the Park Service have started to recognize that. Our default mode is to always go back to what we’re comfortable with, visitor services, visitor protection, law enforcement and things like that.”
In his book, Mr. Sellars noted that it's reasonable to assume that a sound and thorough scientific understanding of the park system's natural resources would be necessary if the system is to be properly managed. But, he adds, "(A)t least from the early 1930s, this argument was voiced within the Park Service's own ranks. Yet it has not been the view of park management throughout most of the Service's history."
What has driven the managers? Many would argue tourism. Had science -- or simply preservation of natural resources -- predominated, perhaps today the Yosemite Valley wouldn't be so bustling with lodgings, groceries, and gift shops, perhaps the South Rim of the Grand Canyon would not contain a village, rail station, and overcrowded roads, perhaps Grant Village in Yellowstone wouldn't have been erected in prime grizzly habitat.
That's not to suggest science and tourism can't co-exist, for they can and do, as the previous examples illustrate. But can the Park Service literally afford to see tourism and science happily co-exist? Can they both thrive and grow? That's a question that needs to be fielded not by park superintendents, but rather regional directors, the agency's political appointees in the Washington headquarters, and, of course, Congress and the residents of the White House.
A large part of the agency's science (and other) shortfalls can be traced to a lack of dollars. The Park Service has chronically been underfunded. According to the Government Accountability Office, from fiscal years 2001 through 2005, "(A)llocations to 212 of the 380 units fell in inflation-adjusted terms by an average of about 2 percent annually, while the other 168 remained level or increased."
Tied to the funding issue is the fact that, in more and more cases, parks have found themselves with new responsibilities that budgets don't always adequately support. Parks in the Southwest have been forced to grapple with illegal immigration and drug-running, those in the Great Lakes region in recent years have identified more and more problems tied to invasive species, in California marijuana plantations are sprouting across the parkscape.
Still, against this strain, there has been some success in driving science in the park system. Under the National Parks Omnibus Act of 1998, the Park Service finally received an official mandate "to enhance management and protection of national park resources by providing clear authority and direction for the conduct of scientific study in the National Park System and to use the information gathered for management purposes..."
On the heels of that legislation, the Park Service in fiscal year 1999 launched the "Natural Resource Challenge," a 5-year program aimed at bolstering scientific knowledge across the park system. The challenge was charged with accelerating natural resource inventories in the parks, monitoring air and water quality, protecting native and endangered species, controlling exotics, improving resource planning, developing a fully professional staff, enhancing resource stewardship, enhancing the use of parks for research, and using parks for learning. To accomplish that, the challenge funneled roughly $83 million a year, every year, into the Park Service for scientific research and natural resource management.
Under the challenge, one superintendent tells me, the park system has added more science-related professionals in its ranks and is doing more, scientifically, than it was say a decade ago.
(But that doesn't mean politics don't from time to time override good science. Proof of that can be seen in Yellowstone National Park, where more than $10 million has been spent on a series of snowmobile studies, each of which concluded by saying the park's resources would be better off without the machines. And yet the Bush administration has decided snowmobiles should remain in the park.)
The good the Natural Resource Challenge provided the parks can't be overstated. But the fact remains, with 391 units and 84 million acres of resources -- natural, cultural and historic -- there's not enough money to fund everything. Superintendents more often than they like find themselves forced to prioritize their operations not simply because that's sound management but because of funding shortfalls.
In 2004, the Park Service, ostensibly in an effort to get a better handle on its finances, developed a "core operations analysis" process under which individual parks would strive to identify their core mission as well as essential park activities and funding levels. At Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility, this effort was viewed as a thinly veiled attempt to cut park funding by 30 percent over five years.
Perhaps no region in the Park Service has been as aggressive in pursuing "core ops" as the Intermountain Region that spans Montana, Wyoming, Colorado, New Mexico, Utah, Arizona, Oklahoma and Texas. At Rocky Mountain National Park in recent years officials cut $105,000 by promoting a division chief from within to fill a deputy superintendent position and then leaving the division chief job vacant. And they merged a handful of other positions to save $72,200 and shut down the relatively lightly visited Lily Lake Visitor Center to save $36,000.
Wise moves? Perhaps. But can that be said of all spending decisions? Was PEER correct in saying this budget cutting was nothing more than a political agenda?
Grand Teton National Park officials, looking at buckets of red ink, turned campground operations over to concessionaires. At Canyonlands National Park officials cut $200,000 by abolishing the position of deputy superintendent when he retired in January 2005, a savings of roughly $122,000; did away with a heavy equipment operator's position after he retired, a savings of $42,600; did the same with a part-time equipment operations position when he retired, a savings of $26,600; saved another $6,700 through vehicle fleet reductions, and; decided they didn't need a contractor to haul water to the remote Hans Flat ranger station, a savings of $2,800.
And now core ops is overhauling -- some might say dismantling -- the staff at Dinosaur National Monument by doing away with staff and outsourcing research. Superintendent Risser says a core ops analysis led to her decision to do away with two of the three individuals in the monument's paleontology division. That decision has led folks to pillory both Superintendent Risser and Dan Chure, the staff paleontologist left on board. The heated debate, captured in the comments to previous Traveler posts on the matter, have been highly emotional, spawned some personal attacks, and at times taken on a "he said, (s)he said" diatribe.
Already the core ops process has slimmed down other divisions at Dinosaur, cutting roughly $700,000 from Superintendent Risser's budget, and the additional two positions identified to be eliminated from the paleontology division should save about another $200,000, when benefits are factored in. Some of that savings, the superintendent tells me, will pay for more research in the monument via the Cooperative Ecosystem Study Unit system the Park Service created with universities around the country.
"What we've found is that one dollar put into a CESU gets us $32 in research. Putting some money aside, putting it into an agreement with a university, we can generate much, much more research than we would just through staff personnel," says Superintendent Risser.
Too, the monument needs to invest in more than just paleontology, she says, pointing to fisheries research, river research, botany, resource protection and on and on. And with incredibly tight budgets, the park has to make concessions, according to the superintendent. Already many of the staff are doing two jobs, and obvious savings no longer exist.
"I completely understand the frustration of being told your job is going away," says Superintendent Risser. "I understand that completely. I can imagine how hard that is to hear, because I know how hard it was to tell people that. It's not something I wanted to do. That's not why I got into the Park Service.
"... We truly aren't the heartless people that we come across as being," the superintendent says.
Is Dinosaur a microcosm of the park system, or an anomaly?
"I've been here for three-and-a-half years," says Superintendent Risser. "This is what we've been doing ever since I've been here, is having to cut, having to cut. Other parks (in the Intermountain Region), when we went through this core operations process, our facilitators kept coming up with wonderful ideas about saving money, and almost every single time we've said we've already done that, we've already done that, we've done as much cutting as we can. I don't know how to cut anymore. I don't know where we can make other changes at this time."
In that context, perhaps critics of her decision with the paleontology staff should not condemn Superintendent Risser or Mr. Chure but rather complain to their congressional delegations about the Park Service's funding woes.
While Superintendent Risser and her colleagues might be doing the best they can with the dollars they're handed, it's also possible that they're unintentionally undermining the Park Service's science mission. Here's another snippet from the National Park System Advisory Board's 2004 report on science in the parks:
The Park Service science capability should include what no partner can provide: an institutional memory that arises from career National Park Service scientists working in parks over many years. To achieve this capability, the Service must recruit systems ecologists and other science synthesizers. Over the long term, these personnel will develop a deep, cumulative, and usable corporate memory that will provide the breadth and depth of knowledge necessary to inform park management about preserving the integrity of the national parks in perpetuity. ... The Science Committee believes that, given the high public regard for the national parks and the National Park Service, there is great potential for the organization to play a significant leadership role in the 21st century, thereby advancing the preservation of natural heritage in the United States -- and perhaps throughout the world. But to assert the influence that it can, and to become the world leader that it must be, the Park Service must continue to develop a robust, professional scientific natural resource management program.
To Dr. Soukup, who set up the CESU program, trimming Dinosaur's paleontology division to one person who will oversee outside researchers will not allow that vision to come to fruition.
"The job of assembling and making sense and building that knowledge base over time is not going to be done by professors who come and go and researchers that are project-oriented," he says. "You’ve got to have people on site for good parts of their career, really digesting and assimilating and translating all of the information into a usable body of science that you can take to the daily management of the park. If you short-change that, you’re never going to become really careful, thoughtful, and knowledgeable enough I think to really manage well.”
While Dr. Soukup sympathizes with Superintendent Risser's fiscal plight and the added responsibilities the monument has taken on as it has grown from an 80-acre reservation dedicated entirely to fossils to more than 200,000 acres with a range of resource issues, he believes the Park Service should respond not by whittling away and outsourcing science but by responding with financial resources.
"I would argue that the Park Service budget is not where it should be and it’s really suffered in the last five or six or seven years because the cost-of-living increases and the fixed costs have not been budgeted. It’s been sort of a starvation period for parks, and a lot of parks have had to cut back," he says, adding that the agency's interpretive division has suffered greatly.
“There’s been a lot of erosion of capabilities in parks. She makes a good point,” Dr. Soukup continues. “No one’s really looking strategically at the funding needs of the national park system. It’s kind of a piecemeal, every year it’s kind of a jump ball between the agencies and between the administrations. It’s not being done in a way that really gives you a lot confidence as a citizen that things are really being taken care of.”
Park superintendents, he said, should demand that they be given all the resources they need to properly manage their parks. The lack of a staff geologist at Grand Canyon and a volcanologist at Mount Rainier are head-scratchers, Dr. Soukup said.
“I guess there is a hydrologist in the Grand Canyon, but there’s no stratigrapher. You would expect, if I were superintendent of that place, I’d want the most knowledgeable people about those resources on my staff," he said. "I’d want knowledgeable people who could talk to the most knowledgeable if they happen to be at a university or some place.
"You have to be comfortable understanding what you’re managing. You’re not the manager of a Marriott chain. You’ve got to know something about the resources that you manage, and for those parks not to have a very heavy investment in being credible authorities on the resources they manage I think is a real short-sighted situation.”
And yet, superintendents don't hold the purse strings, they don't make money after dark in a back room. They struggle to play the cards they're handed. Blaming them for being forced to cut programs and staff isn't the answer. Demanding more for the park system from political appointees and elected officials just might be.