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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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Interesting. Thank you.

Hi imtnbke --

The new national parklands created in the President Carter's Alaska Lands Act (ANILCA; December 1980) authorized the continuation of traditional subsistence activities, as did the wildlife refuges in the same legislation. Because that legislation doubled (plus) the acreage in both Systems (NPS and NWRS) that is pretty substantial an authorization, spatial at least.

The National Park Service itself supported this provision, although not in the exact form as in the final bill, at least by September 1973. Something close to the final provisions were actually included in President Carter's National Monuments -- required to protect the areas because Senator Gravel thwarted the congressional desire to pass the bill in 1978 -- and I believe this is the first time in US History that Presidential Monument Proclamations provided for continued subsistence uses, as a reflection of the cultural interrelationship of subsistence and the monument resources. Those monuments were subsumed into the areas established in the final law, and the subsistence provisions of that law replaced those in Carter's monuments.

The wording and meaning of the provisions have been considered ambiguous because various interests interpreted the meaning of the words and the legislative intent differently, because in November 1980 the floor leader in the US House put an interpretation in the legislative history without mutual consent of the parties to the bill that is one end and because right after the Law was signed most of the people in the mid-level political jobs in the Department of the Interior and staffers in the House of Representative committees were the same people who had been opponents to new parks and refuges. They had a large thumb on the scale of the early implementation of the law.

But, ambiguity aside, it meant that local residents with a history of customary and traditional uses could continue those uses, provided that the primary preservation purposes of the park or refuge were not affected. Presumably, this would include impact on wildlife dynamics. The authorization is accompanied by much more lenient use of technology like modern rifles and motorized access provisions (intended to be primarily snowmachines I believe but expanded by absurdist interpretations to include ATVs and even 4 wheel vehicles if you can believe how outrageous things can get, which raises the issue of the political discipline of what is required to provide moderate subsistence or other activities, and shows why it is much easier even if not appropriate to just say yes to everything or just say no)

At the time in the early 1970's when the NPS was considering these provisions there was world wide recognition that it is important that local people have a stake in the success in wildlife conservation units. Similar exceptions and changes were happening world wide. There was expansion of the believe that the world is a better place if "marginal" cultural systems are not exterpated. There was also a believe growing that phony cultural displays of supposedly 'living history' at the park visitor center were disgraceful. it was hard, though, crafting something that could fit into reality and did not invite suburban kids from Chicago who had broken up with their girlfriend to strike out into a national park to squat, and at the same time, not force local people into a subsistence way of life, or prevent subsistence users when outside of the park from participating in the biosphere culture.

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.

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.

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.

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?)

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?

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

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