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.