Engineering change in an agency as large and sprawling as the National Park Service is never quickly done nor easily accomplished, and it becomes even more complicated when that change involves the agency's science mission against a backdrop of climate change.
Yet those closest to the 23-page Revisiting Leopold report, summoned by Park Service Director Jon Jarvis to update the original Leopold Report overseen by A. Starker Leopold in 1963 and bring the agency's approach to natural resources management in the parks up to date, believe the vision can, and will be, achieved.
“I think that the overall set of recommendations is not so much as daunting (but rather) a kind of deep-seating set of principles to follow," said Gary Machlis, the director's science advisor. "The reason I say that is I think actions and progress that serve the mission of the Park Service are never daunting, as opposed to an optimistic move of the agency forward.
“At the same time, these are not recommendations that are toss-offs, or that are easy to implement. If they were, the Revisiting group wouldn’t have done its job," he added. "Daunting implies a kind of, ‘Oh God, can we really do this?’ And the answer is, we need to do this.”
Consequences Of Inaction
The report, issued back in August, envisions both vast consequences and exciting possibilities, depending upon how much to heart its suggestions are 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.
Its goals perhap becomes even more ambitious in light of recent news events and issues: The superstorm known as Sandy that damaged dozens of National Park System units along the Eastern Seaboard and which fragmented, if only temporarily, habitat; political pressures over hot-button issues in the parks, such as whether oyster farming is compatible with wilderness status of Drakes Estero in Point Reyes National Seashore or whether recreational snowmobiling is good for Yellowstone National Park, and; demands for unfettered Border Patrol access to national parks, seashores, monuments, and more in the name of national security.
And yet, those challenges underscore why the Park Service must revisit and revise its approach to natural resource management, and even broaden its staff's skills, maintains Dr. Rita Colwell, a former director of the National Science Foundation and winner of a National Medal of Science for Biological Sciences who chaired the panel that wrote Revisiting Leopold.
"What the science committee and I as chair are emphasizing is this is a new era, that in order to meet the challenges of the 21st century, when you have an entirely new mix, a new demography, you’ve got a quarter of a billion people coming to the parks every year, when we have to address issues like changing climate, encroaching urban populations, the skills that served so well for the first, almost 100 years, have to be enhanced," she said. "The skills for the next 100 years require a highly technical understanding and ability to communicate and reach out to a population that is different from the population of the 1920s."
Gathering Input And Building Support
The task is no small one, and if the outcome of the recent election had been different, the report perhaps might immediately have been destined to become a dust collector. Now, to move it forward, Dr. Machlis said, a series of meetings has been scheduled to gain input on the report and its suggestions.
"Between now and February, approximately, Jon has asked for the Park Service and Park Service stakeholders to go through a series of dialogs and conversations and reflect on the report and write back to him and communicate to him their ideas about enacting the recommendations in this plan," he said. "When that process of reflection is done, I think you’ll see the Park Service making some decisions about whether to go forward on all the recommendations, some of the recommendations, or to not go forward. But this period of reflection is really important."
While there certainly are fiscal constraints that could impact the implementation of the report, the science advisor also thinks the report can help justify the Park Service's budget.
“The report says we’re confronted with extreme constraints on budget," he acknowledges. "At the same time, though, the budget is for a purpose. The public service and the funds for the National Park Service are to achieve the mission. And I actually believe, and this is just me speaking as the science advisor, that one of the first things to make the case for the budget of the National Park Service is to have a clear vision of where should it go and why should it go there."
During the upcoming meetings, with groups such as the National Parks Conservation Association, the Coalition of National Park Service Retires, NatureServe, and the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Dr. Machlis will ask suggestions on moving the report forward.
"And at the end of that, then the Park Service is going to have to make some decisions about enacting and implementing these recommendations," he said.
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."
Dr. Colwell maintains that the Park Service, rather than the U.S. Forest Service or U.S. Bureau of Land Management, both of which have much, much larger public land dominions than the Park Service, is best suited for protecting the country's natural kingdom because of its history.
"The Park Service has a history and an experience that dates back, well, it’ll be 100 years in 2016. And it has been very effective in running the parks. So, definitely, the park personnel, the staff, are highly dedicated," she said. "They have the experience and the know-how and a record of achievement. As the expression goes, 'If it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.'”
In reality, Dr. Machlis added, putting Revisiting Leopold to work does not require a complete makeover of the Park Service's approaches to natural resources management.
“I think, and this is just my opinion, not the opinion of the committee, I think many elements of the Park Service already grasp many elements of the recommendations in this report," he said. "But that’s different than saying the systematic comprehensive set of recommendations in this report are already being done by the Park Service systematically.
“So it’s a very patchy thing. There are many professions in the Park Service that would read this and say, candidly and honestly, ‘Well, we’re already doing that.’ For portions of it. But I think what the real challenge will be," Dr. Machlis continued, "is to bring the whole ship of the Park Service, the whole thing, in alignment moving forward following some if not all of the recommendations in this report.”
Bridging The Political Divide
While politics in Washington have been particularly, and deeply, partisan in recent years, Dr. Colwell is confident that, with carefully constructed justifications, Congress will get behind the report.
“I think it will happen, the support of both Congress and the administration," she said. "When I was director of the National Science Foundation, science was really bipartisan. I was able to increase the budget by just about 70 percent, from roughly $3 billion to roughly $6 billion, because I made very powerful arguments that came up from the community.
"...The arguments were received well by Congress. I think the parks represent this, well, as Ken Burns said, the best idea America has had. And I really believe that. And I believe that every member of Congress is a conservationist. Defined differently, perhaps, but at the base of it, the most conservative or the most liberal, want to retain our history, our cultural and our resoruces."
Too, points out Dr. Machlis, the report itself is bipartisan.
The original Leopold Report, he further adds, "was not completely or comprehensively approved by the Park Service. Many didn’t get it, didn't understand it, didn't see its value. But over time, Leopold’s report began to be a touchstone of the paradigm of how to run parks.
"We won’t know whether Revisiting Leopold has done its job until several years have passed and a new generation of managers adopt the paradigms described in here as their paradigms.”