Independent Review Calls on National Park Service To Bolster Its Natural Resource Stewardship and Science

An independent panel says the National Park Service must bolster its science and natural resource stewardship missions. Yellowstone hot spring photo by Kurt Repanshek.

National Park Service managers must do a better job "to advance natural resource stewardship and science" throughout the agency, according to an independent review of the Park Service's Natural Resource Stewardship and Science Directorate.

While the review by the Academy of Public Administration praised the NRSS' reputation and its quality of work, it also gave the Park Service eight recommendations that it believes would strengthen both the directorate and the agency's overall stewardship and science mission.

Some of those recommendations indicated that the office of Park Service Director Jon Jarvis is not working as closely with the NRSS staff as it should be.

Monitoring environmental and ecosystem change in the National Park System is the responsibility of the NRSS, a wing of the Park Service that manages a septet of programs ranging from air resources and biological resources to geology and social sciences.

The recent six-month review of this directorate by the academy found that the directorate is "a highly regarded organization that provides independent, credible scientific expertise and technical information."

But the role of the NRSS and its impact top-to-bottom in the Park Service can and should be much greater, the report noted.

Given the nation’s documented environmental challenges, the lack of scientific and natural resource expertise in many parks, and the increasing need for landscape scale solutions, NRSS will be called upon to increase its assistance to the parks in order for them to meet their natural resource stewardship responsibilities.

When you realize the scope of the landscapes, ecosystems, and natural resources within the 84 million acres the Park Service manages, and the threats pressing on them, that responsibility can be daunting.

The United States national park system is a treasure often referred to as “America’s best idea.” It consists of 392 parks (a total of 270 of them with significant natural resources), covering 84 million acres in 49 states. Roughly 50 percent of the total acreage of the national park system is located in Alaska. The system has 26,000 historic structures, 2,200 cultural landscapes, and more than 121 million museum specimens and artifacts. The national park system generates $13.3 billion of local private sector economic activity and supports 267,000 private sector jobs nationwide. NPS is entrusted with conserving 74 ocean and great lakes park units in 26 states and 3.1 million acres of ocean and great lake waters.

America’s geologic heritage is exemplified in the park system. More than 160 parks contain
nationally significant geologic resources. These include the Grand Canyon, the ancient fossils of Dinosaur National Monument, the longest recorded cave system in the world at Mammoth Cave National Park, the greatest density of arches in the world at Arches National Park, and the largest and most colorful collection of petrified wood in the world at Petrified Forest National Park. Yellowstone National Park contains over half of the world’s known geysers. Over 150 parks contain scientifically important fossil deposits; 81 parks contain 3,600 known caves; and another 40 parks have known karst systems. Furthermore, 97 parks protect 7,500 miles of shoreline; 52 parks contain geothermal systems; 38 parks have volcanoes as a major feature; and 37 have active glacial features.

The grandeur, beauty, and purpose of the nation’s park system is increasingly at risk due to environmental challenges arising from urbanization and energy development, as well as the impact of climate change on the range of species in the parks, ocean temperatures, water patterns, invasive species, disease migration, and many more. Currently, many parks are experiencing warmer temperatures, melting mountain glaciers, the loss of permafrost and sea ice, rising sea levels, longer wildfire seasons, and species range shifts. Approximately 2.6 million acres are infested by invasive species, some of which may be a result of climate change. Invasive species impose significant economic costs to park lands and surrounding areas.

When you pause to think about it, it's obvious that there are national park landscapes and natural resources that have changed dramatically in just our lifetimes. Places in Glacier National Park where sheets of ice no longer stand. Forests in Yellowstone that are still rebounding from the 1988 wildfires. Streams in Great Smoky Mountains that are increasingly acidic.

The list can continue, whether you look to the impacts Everglades National Park has sustained from water issues, or the possible, though officially unsubstantiated, return of a wolf or two to Rock Mountain National Park.

That workload figures to grow largely as the Park Service works to develop baselines across its expansive system that could help track the effects of climate change.

In producing its review, the academy looked at five key areas NRSS is responsible for:

* Assisting park managers in identifying, monitoring, and understanding park natural resources;

* Evaluating the condition of park natural resources, landscapes, and processes;

* Integrating natural resource information and compliance requirements into decision-making;

* Taking actions to conserve natural resource conditions for appropriate use and enjoyment, and;

* Tackling emergencies and catastrophic events.

Those who reviewed the NRSS and produced the 142-page report stated that "it is critical for NRSS to work with the NPS Director and other senior leaders to develop a readily explainable index of park natural resource conditions and trends. This will not only inform the nation’s policy-makers and key NPS decision-makers, but also educate the public about the state of their national parks."

"Moreover, to conserve park resources for current and future generations, the Panel believes that additional steps should be taken across the Service to ensure that critical NRSS data, information, and expertise are integrated into decision-making at the national, regional, and park levels," the report added. "What matters most is the role that NPS’s natural resource programs can perform for the nation as a whole. In this vein, the Panel believes that NRSS’s mission will become even more important in the future given the nation’s daunting environmental challenges, the lack of scientific and natural resource expertise in many parks, and the increasing need for “landscape scale” solutions."


Because the national parks are in a more natural state than other lands, they are extremely valuable to the nation as places where broad ecosystem changes can be monitored and documented. To strengthen natural resource stewardship and science across the Service, the Panel has eight recommendations for the NPS Director and the NRSS Directorate. Identified briefly below, the body of this report contains detailed discussions of each recommendation and associated implementation actions.

Responding to Environmental Challenges

* Recommendation 1. To respond to the significant environmental challenges that originate outside of park borders and adversely impact park resources, the Panel recommends that NPS and NRSS continue to develop and support landscape-scale networks and partnerships.

* Recommendation 2. NRSS should increase its professional and personal presence among national park units to ensure that they are not only aware of the Directorate’s full suite of services, but also able to make the best available use of NRSS expertise.

* Recommendation 3. The Immediate Office of the NRSS Associate Director should be increased to ensure that the Directorate has the necessary human capital physically present in Washington, DC, to address critical national-level issues.

* Recommendation 4. NRSS Division Chiefs should report directly to the Associate Director of NRSS.

* Recommendation 5. NRSS should engage in a workforce planning process to develop a comprehensive recruitment, retention, and training strategy to meet future workforce needs. This is particularly important given the significant projected retirements of NRSS employees, especially at the higher grade levels.

Utilizing the Best Available Science and Educating the Public[

* Recommendation 6. The NPS Director and NRSS should work collaboratively to establish a vision and process for ensuring scientifically-based decision-making at the national, regional, and park levels.

* Recommendation 7. The NPS Director and NRSS should work collaboratively to develop the framework for an index with a small set of indicators that show the condition and trend of park natural resources over time. This index would increase the public’s knowledge about the condition of the natural resources in their national parks, thus responding to the top voted idea from the Academy’s online dialogue with NPS employees.

Improving the Performance Measurement System

* Recommendation 8. NRSS should work with the NPS Director, DOI, and OMB to simplify its performance measurement system in order to improve its usability for managers across the Service and to educate the public.

Comments

I wonder if it will ever be possible for the NPS to get its scientists back from the USGS?

I was not thrilled when "re-inventing government" caused the NPS to lose its research staff during the Clinton years. I was also not thrilled as park resources management became a totally separate function from park education and interpretation.

I have always felt that park interpreters needed to retain some involvment in research projects to establish an intimacy with park resources and upgrade personal knowledge of the park and that park researchers and resource managers should, from time to time engage, the visiting public and communities outside the park so that the relevancy of their work could be communicated to more general audiences.

Owen

Absolutely! the NRSS should have a MUCH larger role in the NPS....science, front and center. As time passes, there is only going to be more and more pressure on the parks.

There _was_ going to be a major science initiative in NPS, not getting the scientists back from USGS, but getting NPS research scientists shared among parks to do the place-based, resource-based science that doesn't fit the USGS incentive structure. Gary Machlis conducted a 6 month listening tour of regions, many parks, other agencies, etc., to characterize needs & ideas. I say "was" because the same week the National Leadership Council approved the plan, an oil well blew out in the Gulf. DOI is focused on a 20 year research strategy on how the oil affects the coupled human & natural ecosystems. When the dust settles, we'll see what's left of the NPS science initiative.

With flat or declining budgets, we scientists need to prove we are cost-effective, saving resource managers & superintendents time & money, and helping them do a better job. Connections to interpretation are vital too, but I'm not sure we can convince the bean-counters that money for science for interpretation is important, so that may have to be an unfunded byproduct instead of a funding justification.

I'm curious to see other NPS folks' reactions to recommendation #7, in light of the "part of superintendents' annual evaluations shall be based on trends in conditions of resources" language.

here