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Science and the National Parks 1 Introduction The national park concept is a distinctive contribution of the people of the United States to world conservation. More than 100 nations have followed this country's lead in establishing parks or equivalent reserves to protect areas of natural, scenic, or cultural importance. Most of these nations have studied the U.S. system as a model for national park management. Today, the U.S. national park system contains nearly 80 million acres in 361 different units, including such diverse areas as Yellowstone National Park, Antietam National Battlefield, Indiana Dunes National Lakeshore, Mammoth Cave National Park, and the White House. The enormous diversity within America's national park system is reflected in the broad mission and responsibilities of the National Park Service (NPS), the federal agency charged with primary responsibility for conserving the physical, biological, and cultural resources of the parks.1 The NPS is responsible not only for conserving geographic sites that range from extensive wilderness ecosystems to urban recreational areas and historic places, but also for protecting rare geologic features, managing diverse plant and animal populations, and preserving 1 The term ''park'' as used in this report refers to all units of the national park system—national parks, monuments, seashores, historic parks, and other units managed by the NPS.
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Science and the National Parks priceless scientific and cultural artifacts. In carrying out its responsibilities, the NPS must consider both natural and cultural resources, as well as the interactions between people and these resources. The national parks are more than natural and cultural treasures—they are an important source of national self-esteem. They give Americans pride as well as access to places of significant aesthetic, recreational, and spiritual value. These interests, and a devotion to the concept of public stewardship of the nation's heritage, have been important forces behind maintaining and expanding the national park system. CONDITIONS TODAY Conditions in the parks today give cause for concern. Against a backdrop of significant human alterations to the Earth's landscape, the national parks have become "besieged treasures" (Forgey, 1990). Although the national parks were created for the enjoyment of the American people, increasing numbers of park visitors, and the facilities needed to accommodate them, are overwhelming some parks. Air pollution, often from distant and diffuse sources, already has compromised aesthetic values within several of the largest national parks, especially Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Sequoia-Kings Canyon, Shenandoah, and Great Smoky Mountains national parks. Actions outside park boundaries are producing critical changes in ground and surface water, accelerating pest introduction, increasing stream sedimentation, and threatening wildlife populations. The parks are increasingly subject to diverse human influences that threaten further attrition in biological diversity and accelerated damage to aesthetic values, and imperil the integrity and stability of park ecosystems. In some instances, destruction of the very resources for which individual national parks were established is now increasingly probable and, in fact, is under way in some areas. For example, air pollution has degraded the renowned scenic vistas of Grand Canyon National Park (NRC, 1990), beach erosion has threatened the historic lighthouse at Cape Hatteras National Seashore (NRC, 1987a), and operation of the Glen Canyon Dam on the
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Science and the National Parks The national parks are subject to a range of threats—including the proliferation of exotic species, water quality degradation, and air pollution. Problems that result from activities on adjacent lands, such as pollution from power plants like this one in the Four Corners area, are particularly difficult to address. CREDIT: David Policansky, National Research Council. Colorado River upstream of Grand Canyon National Park has caused significant damage to riparian ecosystems (NRC, 1987b). Increasing human populations, pervasive changes in the environment, and increasing demands on the nation's natural resources present the managers of our national parks with a critical challenge to bring about better public understanding and more effective conservation of the "besieged treasures" contained within our national parks. Park managers also are challenged to make use of the national parks as unique, protected ecosystems where research can extend science and improve society's ability to deal with environmental change. CONSERVATION AMIDST CHANGE The idea of keeping special places and their natural and cultural resources inviolate for the benefit of unborn genera-
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Science and the National Parks tions is a powerful one, yet the language of some of the early national parks legislation was not adequate to ensure full realization of that concept. The Yellowstone Park Act of 1872, which created the world's first national park, calls for a "public park or pleasuring-ground" (30 U.S.C.A. §21), and its enactment ushered a revolutionary idea into human thought and values. But over time it became clear that the Yellowstone legislation and other acts that created park sites did not accomplish the whole job of protecting natural and cultural resources. To enhance the legislative mandate, in 1900 Congress passed the Lacey Act (16 U.S.C.A. §§701, 3371–78, and 18 U.S.C.A. §42) to protect wildlife and natural features, and in 1906 it passed the Antiquities Act (16 U.S.C.A. §§431–33) to allow for the reservation of federal lands as national monuments and to halt commercial exploitation of cultural and historic objects taken from the public lands (Coggins and Wilkinson, 1987). But it is the National Park Service Act of 1916 (the Organic Act), still in effect today, that provides basic statutory authority for the NPS, declaring the agency's mission to be [T]o conserve the scenery and the natural and historic objects and the wild life therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations (16 U.S.C.A. §1). In this simple language, the Organic Act united the well being of the American spirit, perhaps indeed the human spirit, with the survival of the nation's aesthetic, natural, and cultural heritage. At the time it might have seemed that the resources would survive in the newly protected areas without much additional help from humankind, but we now know that accomplishing the agency's mission in the face of myriad growing and complex threats requires sophisticated understanding of park resources, the forces of change that affect them, and the measures needed to protect them. The NPS's original management strategy generally assumed that its mission could be achieved through passive management, simply by keeping direct human encroachment to a minimum and by maintaining the "natural" status quo for recreational enjoyment. The 1916 mandate emphasized
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Science and the National Parks conservation and suggested a simple inventory of land forms, vegetation, creatures, and artifacts. It assumed a natural equilibrium, where the task was to ensure an "unimpaired" state. Today, as an established federal agency guided strongly by tradition, the NPS remains in many respects committed to this philosophical tenet. The 1916 mandate, however, was written before ecology began to mature as a scientific discipline; before the changing nature of natural systems was recognized; before the landscape-changing processes of succession were well understood; before population dynamics, habitat fragmentation, and ecosystem disturbances began to be understood; and indeed before human intervention was felt in the parks on a scale that ranges from local to global. Ecological science now recognizes that change is central to the structure and functioning of all ecosystems, and it is now evident that the managers of the parks must understand the changes—both natural and anthropogenic—that occur. To conserve ecosystems unchanged is simply impossible. Natural events, such as the eruptions of Kilauea and Mount St. Helens, have accomplished massive transformations; earthquakes, hurricanes, floods, forest fires, landslides, and subsidence all affect land forms and life. Succession, weather, food supplies, predation, and disease affect animal populations and plant communities. Human events also have brought vast changes—acid rain, chemical pollution, ozone depletion, and now perhaps global warming with its attendant climatic changes, all contribute to changes in the parks. As the importance and prevalence of ecological change has become increasingly recognized, there has been an evolution in the interpretation of the NPS mandate. This evolution has occurred even though the law itself has stood unaltered for 75 years. In the infancy of the agency, with the best of intentions but contrary to the directive to leave resources unimpaired, the NPS carried out massive interventions in the national parks which by today's standards would be appalling. Wolves, cougars, coyotes, and grizzly bears were killed; deer and elk were fed artificially; natural fires were suppressed aggressively; parks were logged; introductions of exotic fish radically changed native river and lake ecosystems; exotic plants were introduced to convert mead-
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Science and the National Parks ows to livestock pastures; swimming pools and laundries were developed on geysers and hot springs; hotels and roads were built in sensitive wildlife habitat or in scenically obtrusive locations; ski lifts were erected and slopes were cleared in several parks; and many large concession complexes were built in sensitive environments. Today, public concern, the increasing sophistication of park managers, and the efforts of some enlightened biologists, conservation-minded citizens, and political leaders have largely deterred such interventionist practices. The era of "firefalls"—when concession employees pushed bonfires from the top of Glacier Point in Yosemite to entertain visitors with cascades of sparks—has ended. But the challenge remains to find a balance between conserving natural resources and providing visitors with a memorable experience. The park system is diverse—361 units including national parks, seashores, riverways, battlefields, and monuments. There is diversity within each park as well. Fort Jefferson National Monument, at the southern tip of Florida, preserves a fort built in 1846. At the same time, the monument protects a coral reef ecosystem that supports a diversity of marine life, including the sea turtles that were once more abundant in these warm waters. CREDIT: NPS photo by Richard Frear.
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Science and the National Parks The 1916 act's mandate has been undeniably valuable in setting a basic course for the Park Service, but it is insufficient to guide the agency in a world of increasing scientific knowledge and accelerating change. To maintain the nation's parks as unique places where natural processes predominate, the NPS must increase its understanding of the natural processes and phenomena that characterize the parks. Informed resource management requires science in its broadest sense—that is, the acquisition, analysis, and dissemination of knowledge about natural processes and about human influences on those processes. There is a lengthy history of scrutiny of the NPS science program by external advisory groups, as discussed in Chapter 3. Although prompted by differing concerns, those reviews all conclude that research is necessary to ensure effective management of the parks. Unfortunately, these repeated exhortations have gone largely unheeded, even though they are all the more relevant today. And even where action has been undertaken, it has been marred by inconsistent administrative support and fluctuating budgets. THE CHARGE TO THIS COMMITTEE At the request of NPS Director James M. Ridenour, the National Research Council (NRC) in 1990 convened the Committee to Improve the Science and Technology Programs of the National Park Service. Members of the committee were appointed for their expertise in botany, forestry, ecology, geology, hydrology, wildlife management, air pollution, atmospheric chemistry, sociology, landscape architecture, scientific research program management, and park system management. Under the supervision of the NRC's Board on Environmental Studies and Toxicology and its Commission on Geosciences, Environment, and Resources, the committee received the following charges: Review the evolution of NPS scientific studies and research programs, their coordination and integration with other NPS programs, and the results of earlier evaluations of the NPS science program.
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Science and the National Parks Analyze the scope and organization of current NPS natural and social science activities related to current and potential environmental issues, national park planning and resource management, and environmental information needs. Evaluate current NPS systems for quality control, quality assurance, funding, and financial management of NPS natural science, social science, and technology programs. Produce a report of the committee's findings and recommendations, including options for enhancing the quality, productivity, efficiency, and relevance to planning and management of NPS scientific research activities. This report is about the role of science in park management and the ways by which the parks can contribute to the natural and social sciences. Information was gathered from formal sources (e.g., past published reviews of the NPS science program) and from extensive conversations with scientists, managers, and other experts both in the Park Service and elsewhere. The report discusses the value of research for managing and protecting the resources of the parks, the real costs of failing to conduct and use adequate research, the history of previous reviews of science in the NPS, and the lack of progress toward improving the use of science in support of the NPS mission. Because the national parks today contain some of the least disturbed ecosystems in our country, this report also argues that the parks are increasingly valuable as sites for scientific research on ecological problems that transcend the boundaries of the parks. In this role, the parks contribute to a basic understanding of ecosystem dynamics and natural processes and provide a valuable baseline for comparison with human-altered ecosystems. This report argues that science should pervade the NPS's resource planning and management philosophy; without an adequate science base the NPS cannot solve today's problems or meet tomorrow's challenges. This will require substantial reorientation and commitment within the agency, for good science requires strong leadership and continuity of support.
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