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Science and the National Parks Executive Summary The National Park Service (NPS) protects and preserves some of the finest examples of the nation's natural and cultural heritage. Rugged mountains, desert solitude, dynamic beaches, historic battlefields, and rare archaeological sites—in all, the system includes nearly 80 million acres in 361 units. It is a system emulated around the world, a distinctive contribution of the people of the United States to world conservation. The 1916 Organic Act, still in effect today, provides the basic statutory authority for the NPS, declaring its mission to be to 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. Sec. 1) At the time the 1916 Organic Act was written, it was innovative and far-sighted. Protection, it was thought, was the key to the conservation of park resources. We now know, however, that accomplishing the mission of the Park Service requires far more than passive protection; it requires sound understanding of park resources, their status and trends, the threats they face, and the measures needed to correct or prevent problems in these dynamic ecosystems. We now know
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Science and the National Parks that balancing the call to protect resources and the call to provide citizens with opportunities to enjoy the parks is a constant challenge. THE IMPORTANCE OF RESEARCH The 1916 act's mandate has been invaluable in setting a basic course for the NPS, but it is insufficient to guide the agency in a world of accelerating change. Informed resource management is impossible without science in its broadest sense—that is, the acquisition, analysis, and dissemination of knowledge about natural processes and about the human influences on them. Protecting the resources of the national parks1 requires scientific knowledge, and an increasingly sophisticated application of that knowledge. The problems faced by the parks today are too many and too complex to solve without the help of science. Threats to indigenous species caused by exotic species, threats to park resources caused by air pollution or overcrowding, and threats to long-term ecosystem viability caused by the myriad stresses of the twentieth century all jeopardize this unique and invaluable system. Although an adequate science program alone cannot ensure the integrity of the national parks, it can enable faster identification of problems, greater understanding of causes and effects, and better insights about the prevention, mitigation, and management of problems. Science supports resource management so NPS staff can manage park resources wisely, and it supports interpretive programs for the public. Science today is an investment in the future of the parks. With the 20/20 vision of hindsight, any examination of the national park system can uncover many cases in which a lack of understanding of park resources has led to problems—degradation of resource quality, increased conflicts between visitors and resources, or the escalation of minor issues into major problems. Visitor facilities were developed in habitat critical to endangered species before the con- 1 The term ''park'' as used in this report refers to all units of the national park system—national parks, monuments, seashores, historical parks, and other units managed by the NPS.
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Science and the National Parks cept of endangered species was appreciated. Exotic fish species were introduced to improve recreational fisheries without thought to the implications for native species and the predators that feed on them. Fire suppression led to unanticipated changes in the distinctive character of forests. A common thread seen in virtually all such examples is that almost invariably, the initial establishment and management of the parks was done with inadequate understanding of ecological systems. Today, our information base is substantially greater, but so too are the threats the parks face. Today's threats to the parks are difficult to mitigate because they are extraordinarily complex. Research is important in the national parks for three broad purposes: To determine what resources are present in order to protect them, manage them, and detect changes in them. Each park has a special character. Research can guide the National Park Service in preserving it for future generations. In Rocky Mountain National Park, for instance, research runs the gamut from studies of the effects of acid precipitation to surveys of amphibian populations to assessments of the impacts of visitors on alpine tundra environments. CREDIT: NPS photo by Wayne Alcorn.
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Science and the National Parks To understand the natural dynamics and processes of populations, ecosystems, and other park resources. To assess the effects of specific threats and to devise and evaluate management responses. PREVIOUS REVIEWS OF THE NPS RESEARCH PROGRAM Since the early 1960s, when the first major independent reviews of the adequacy of the NPS science program were conducted, many experts have assessed the Park Service's research efforts. Two particularly noteworthy reviews appeared in 1963: "Wildlife Management in the National Parks," known as the Leopold report after A. Starker Leopold, who chaired the special committee, and "A Report by the Advisory Committee to the National Park Service on Research," commonly called the Robbins report after William J. Robbins, the chair of that National Research Council committee. Both reports recommend strengthening the science program. The Robbins report noted Research by the National Park Service has lacked continuity, coordination, and depth. It has been marked by expediency rather than long-term considerations. It has in general lacked direction, has been fragmented between divisions and branches, has been applied piecemeal, has suffered because of a failure to recognize the distinctions between research and administrative decision-making, and has failed to ensure the implementation of the results of research in operational management.... It is inconceivable that property so unique and valuable as the national parks, used by such a large number of people, and regarded internationally as one of the finest examples of our national spirit, should not be provided adequately with competent research scientists ... as elementary insurance for the preservation and best use of the parks. There was little significant progress in response to the recommendations of these reports. Two major problems continued to plague the NPS science program at the beginning of the 1970s: inadequate funds to support a continuing program, and disagreement about who should direct the work of scientists. In 1977, another review of the NPS natural science program was published. Known as the Allen and
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Science and the National Parks Leopold report, after co-chairs Durward Allen and Starker Leopold, it clearly called for the NPS to give science and research much greater responsibility in policy making, planning, and operations. It found no fault with the general direction of the science program, only with its lack of funding, staffing, and influence. Again, however, little action to implement the report's recommendations ensued. Private groups such as the National Parks and Conservation Association and The Conservation Foundation published other reports critical of the Park Service, focusing wide public attention on the threats to the national park system. Under congressional pressure, the NPS conducted a comprehensive assessment of park threats in 1980. That report documented widespread and serious problems in the parks and recommended four actions to better protect park resources: conduct a comprehensive inventory of park resources; establish accurate baseline data and conduct monitoring to detect changes in resources and ecosystems; focus As critics of the National Park Service science program have noted, property as valuable and unique as the national parks should not go without adequate research staff as elementary insurance to preserve the parks. Long-term environmental monitoring is especially needed. CREDIT: NPS photo by Robert J. Krumenaker.
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Science and the National Parks attention on threats associated with adjacent lands; and improve the ability of park managers to quantify and document the effects of various threats. In essence, the NPS identified the same problems and recommended the same solutions as had previous independent review committees. In 1989, yet another report, "National Parks: From Vignettes to a Global View," also known as the Gordon report, criticized the degree to which the NPS has fulfilled its obligations in research and in management of natural and cultural resources. This report recommended that the NPS adopt a "new vision" to meet the environmental challenges of the twenty-first century, "a vision based on the principles of ecosystem management [and] on sound research." In all, a dozen major reviews of NPS science and management over a period of 30 years provided specific recommendations for strengthening science in support of better management of the national parks. Many of the suggested improvements were recommended time and time again. But very few of the recurring recommendations have been effectively or consistently implemented. THE CURRENT RESEARCH PROGRAM According to the NPS, the primary objective of the current science program is to conduct directed research studies that provide information in support of park planning, development, management, and visitor education and enjoyment. Because the resources that are studied run the gamut from biological (e.g., vegetation, wildlife, fisheries) to geophysical (e.g., water, air, caves, soils, islands, minerals) to cultural (e.g., archaeological ruins, monuments) to aesthetic (e.g., scenic vistas, quiet places), the NPS science program must include elements of the biological, geophysical, and social sciences. The current NPS organization considers research part of resource management. Because there is no separate research authority, all scientific studies are funded as part of management. These two distinct but closely related activities were combined to encourage cooperation, although critics argue that the approach is less effective than intended because it reduces the importance of the two separate and vital activities.
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Science and the National Parks Park Service research and resource management activities are organized at three levels of authority: in the Washington office (WASO), in the 10 regional offices, and in the individual park units. The Washington office develops general policies and standards, sets national priorities, and coordinates servicewide research programs. Most research is planned by and conducted under the direction of the 10 regional offices. As a result, there is not one science program in the NPS, but 10 separate programs, each different in form, function, and effectiveness. All are ultimately funded by management and dependent on the emphasis committed by senior managers in the regions and parks. The Park Service maintains a smaller research staff than is found in other federal land management agencies—typically around 2 to 3 percent of its staff. By contrast, 8 to 10 percent of the staff of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service are research personnel. The organization of responsibilities varies significantly from region to region within the NPS. In some cases, members of the resource management staff, including any scientific staff, report to the superintendent of a park. In other cases, scientific staff members at parks and in cooperative study units report to regional chief scientists, while resource management specialists report to the superintendent. Some regions arrange for much of their research through extramural contracts or cooperative agreements; in others, most research is done by NPS staff. The question of whether the leadership of the NPS science program should be centralized or decentralized is controversial. The decentralized, regional approach to the science program was instituted in the early 1970s to make research more responsive to park needs. But the decentralized approach sometimes is inefficient and results in fragmentation of effort. It creates great variations in research quality and effectiveness and in scientists' morale from region to region and from park to park. Also, where research and resource management are funded from the same part of the budget, the two activities end up competing for support. Given the shortage of staff and funds throughout the NPS, conflicts between researchers and managers—with their different goals and methods—can be severe and counterproductive.
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Science and the National Parks Millions of visitors enjoy the national parks each year—267,841,000 in 1991 —and they benefit from science. After the fires of 1988, an interpretive display at this burned site in Yellowstone National Park explained that the devastation here was particularly severe because the trees were already dead and very dry before the fire, casualties of a major windstorm a few years earlier. CREDIT: Chris Elfring, National Research Council. The absence of a distinct science program hampers research planning, tracking of expenditures, and accountability for results. The lack of formal structure and clear leadership in the NPS science program also hampers attempts to assess it. The decentralized approach brings many different operational models and reporting structures and makes any kind of an audit of scientists, funding, and other characteristics extremely difficult. It is not possible, for instance, to determine accurately the amount of money allocated to NPS research, because research and resource management are funded under the same budget activity—natural resource management. In addition, it is not always possible to separate resource management from law enforcement and various other activities undertaken by park rangers. In fiscal year (FY) 1992, about $92.7 million was allocated for natural resource management. The NPS estimates that research funding grew
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Science and the National Parks from about $18.5 million in FY 1987 to about $29 million in FY 1992, but it is not possible to confirm this estimate. At the same time, NPS identified $250 million to $300 million in needed but unfunded natural resource projects. Questions about the effectiveness of science to support park management—and especially questions about organizational structure and funding levels—have been raised throughout the history of the NPS science program. Park personnel, advocacy groups, and independent advisory groups have repeatedly concluded that the science activities are not meeting management needs. If it is so easy to identify the deficiencies in the program, why is it so difficult to change or restructure it? The NPS science program is unnecessarily fragmented and lacks a coherent sense of direction, purpose, and unity. As the trustee for irreplaceable samples of the nation's natural and cultural heritage, the NPS should be among the most forward looking and progressive resource management agencies in the federal government, and research should be an essential element in its mandate. RECOMMENDATIONS In conducting this study of science in the national parks, the National Research Council's Committee on Improving the Science and Technology Programs of the National Park Service originally set out to evaluate the scope and organization of current NPS natural and social science by performing a peer review of NPS research activities. However, the committee soon determined that the crucial problems in the NPS research program are not at the level of individual projects. Instead, they are more fundamental, rooted in the culture of the NPS and in the structure and support it gives to research. Thus, the committee concluded that the real need was for an assessment more broadly focused on the research program and its place within the agency. The call for change made in this report is not new. But given the lack of response to so many previous calls for change, how can the present report succeed in inspiring action? The members of the committee believe that increased funding or incremental changes alone will not suffice, and they call in-
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Science and the National Parks stead for a fundamental metamorphosis. It is time to move toward a new structure—indeed, toward a new culture—that stresses science in the national park system and guarantees long-term financial, intellectual, and administrative support. There are three key elements: There must be an explicit legislative mandate for a research mission of the National Park Service. Separate funding and reporting autonomy should be assigned to the science program. There must be efforts to enhance the credibility and quality control of the science program. This will require a chief scientist of appropriate stature to provide leadership, cooperation with external researchers, and the formation of an external science advisory board to provide continuing independent oversight. AN EXPLICIT LEGISLATIVE MANDATE To eliminate once and for all any ambiguity in the scientific responsibilities of the Park Service, legislation should be enacted to establish the explicit authority, mission, and objectives of a national park science program. The National Park Service should establish a strong, coherent research program, including elements to characterize and gain understanding of park resources and to aid in the development of effective management practices. To provide a scientific basis for protecting and managing the resources entrusted to it, the Park Service should establish, and expand where it already exists, a basic resource information system, and it should establish inventories and monitoring in designated park units. This information should be obtained and stored in ways that are comparable between park units, thereby facilitating access, exchange, integration, and analysis throughout the park system and with other interested research institutions. The NPS should support and develop intensive long-term, ecosystem-level research projects patterned after (and possibly integrated with) the National Science Foundation's Long-Term Ecological Research program and related activities of other federal agencies. The ways
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Science and the National Parks resources are used and appreciated by people should be documented. In addition, National Park Service researchers should have more input into the development of resource management plans. Effective interaction between research results and resource management plans cannot take place without both a strong science program and a strong resource management program. The National Park Service should also establish and encourage a strong "parks for science" program that addresses major scientific research questions, particularly within those parks that encompass large undisturbed natural areas and wilderness. This effort should include NPS scientists and other scientists in independent and cooperative activities. The goal is to facilitate the use of parks for appropriate scientific inquiry on major natural and related social science questions. SEPARATE FUNDING AND AUTONOMY The National Park Service should revise its organizational structure to elevate and give substantial organizational and budgetary autonomy to the science program, which should include both the planning of research and the resources required to conduct a comprehensive program of natural and social science research. The program should be led by a person with a commitment to its objectives and a thorough understanding of the scientific process and research procedures. The National Park Service science program should receive its funds through an explicit, separate (line item) budget. A strategic increase in funding is needed, especially to create and support the needed long-term inventories and the monitoring of park resources. BUILDING CREDIBILITY AND QUALITY To provide leadership and direction, the NPS should elevate and reinvigorate the position of chief scientist, who must be a person of high stature in the scientific community and have as his or her sole responsibilities advocacy for and administration of the science program. The chief scientist
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Science and the National Parks would work from the Washington office and report to the Director of the NPS, provide technical direction to the science and resource management staff at the regions and in the parks, and foster interactions with other research agencies and nongovernment organizations. In addition, the chief scientist should establish a credible program of peer review for NPS science, reaching from the development of research plans through publication of results. To help the NPS expand the science program and increase its effectiveness, the Park Service, in cooperation with other agencies, should establish a competitive grants program to encourage more external scientists to conduct research in the national parks. The program should include scientific peer review that involves both NPS scientists and external scientists. The National Park Service should enlist the services of a high-level science advisory board to provide long-term guidance in planning, evaluating, and setting policy for the science program. This independent advisory board should report to the director, and its reports should be available to the public. REALIZING THE VISION To build a science program that fulfills its potential—that meets the needs of resource managers, helps the public understand and enjoy park resources, and contributes to understanding our changing world—the Park Service must give the science program immediate and aggressive attention. Pressures on these national treasures are increasing rapidly. It is shortsighted to fail to organize and support a science program to protect the parks for future generations. And it is a waste of a unique resource if the parks are not used, with proper safeguards, to help address the scientific challenges faced throughout the biosphere. The current Park Service leadership has expressed its recognition of the need for a reinvigorated science program, as well as the importance of the parks in a broader scientific context. It is time to translate that recognition into action.
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Science and the National Parks The conduct of research is fundamentally different from that of most other NPS functions. It operates on a schedule not determined by the calendar of Congress, but on the calendar of the natural or cultural phenomena being studied. Products from research come with answers frequently surrounded with small or great uncertainty. The design of an experiment and the interpretation of the results often depend on the scientific process as it is conducted in another discipline or in a different part of the world. If the NPS is to meet the scientific and resource management challenges of the twenty-first century, a fundamental metamorphosis must occur within its core. This committee's vision for the NPS science program is ambitious but obtainable. The national parks are, after all, simply too valuable to neglect.
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