BUILDING A SCIENCE PROGRAM
FOR THE NATIONAL PARK SYSTEM
John G. Dennis
[Paper presented at the session: How Can Science be Used More Effectively to Manage National Park Resources? Annual Meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, May 26-31, 1985, Los Angeles, California.]
HE UNITS OF THE NATIONAL PARK SYSTEM have been established to ensure perpetuation of their natural and cultural resources for the use of present and future generations of people. The National Park Service was created to provide the professional human and resource management needed to achieve the stated purpose
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of the National Park System. In its earliest days, the primary need for perpetuation of the System was protection, a need that was met through two actions—"locking the door and throwing away the key" and removing the "bad" influences. With respect to the park natural resources, these actions focused on preventing poaching of "good" animals, preventing lightning and other types of fires from burning the forests, and eliminating "bad" animals—the predators.
As National Park Service personnel gained experience with managing the ever growing number of park units and interpreting the park resources to the ever growing number of visitors, they began to realize that there was more to park management than mere protection, a realization that was accelerated by the natural and cultural scientific sophistication and capability that was developing throughout the nation. The growing awareness of this realization in turn stimulated development of a research-oriented cadre within the Service and ultimately led the Service to spawn a science program.
In addressing the question of "Building a Science Program for the National Park System," I will limit my discussion to the Service's natural and social sciences, since those sciences have evolved in the Service through a separate chain of command than the parallel cultural research program. For this discussion to be effective, it must touch on the history of science in the Service, on the purpose for which the Service conducts science, on the statutory and administrative basis for that science, on the structural options by which the Service manages that science, and on the future problems the Service will ask that science to help it solve. Once these underlying elements have been developed, it will be possible to suggest a framework that can be responsive to both short and long term future needs for information to be produced by that science.
History of Science in the National Park System
Within less than 13 years after its founding in 1916, the National Park Service expressed its growing realization that managing natural area preserves required knowledge by adopting, in 1929, the proposal and private funds of George Wright to establish a wildlife research capability. Under George Wright's leadership, and for the first two years funded out of his pocket rather than out of public funds, the Service developed a research capability that grew to a 27 person division headquartered in Berkeley, California. This division fostered a number of early studies that led to four classic reports published as the first four numbers in the Fauna of the National Parks series. Two of these, A Preliminary Survey of Faunal Relations in National Parks published in 1933, and Wildlife Management in the National Parks published in 1935, established the condition of park fauna and identified a number of significant resource management problems, some of which remain at least partially unresolved today.
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This critical mass of scientific thinking and energy, which accumulated during the early 1930s, disappeared by the late 1930s as the result first of the untimely death of George Wright, second of the loss of the CCC funds that ultimately had been assigned to replace Wright's private funds, and third of the onset of World War II. By the end of the war, the Service's natural science cadre had declined to three biologists who were used more for after-the-fact trouble shooting than for forward looking research. Following a 25 year nadir, the growing interest shown by the nation's scientific and conservationist communities in parks as places for research on, and preservation of, natural systems helped to stimulate the Service to incorporate an ecological concern into its resource management programs. Spurred on by the twin findings in 1963 of two committees convened in response to the request of Secretary of the Interior Udall, the Leopold Committee on wildlife management and the Robbins Committee on research in the parks, the Service in 1967 established an Office of Natural Science Studies as part of the headquarters office. Following several years of rapid staffing and budget growth, the Service in 1971 decentralized this operational science capability into the then eight, and now ten, regional offices while keeping a small central office cadre to help with policy questions and trouble shooting. Since 1971, the central office cadre has grown and shrunk several times in response to internal reorganizations, and the regional programs have evolved somewhat independently in several directions while growing slowly. Today, these ten regional programs plus the central office program manage an annual budget of approximately 18 million dollars (about 3% of the Service's operating budget), about 160 scientists and technicians (about 1.5% of the Service's total permanent personnel), and a large number of $5,000 to $100,000 research contracts.
In dealing with the multitude of park natural resource management problems that have occurred over the years, this science program has contributed to national thinking on a number of broad natural resource management questions. One such question involved the role of fire in natural ecosystems. Another dealt with the ecosystem influence of exotic species as a form of human impact on park natural and cultural resources. A third dealt with management of coastal barrier islands.
The establishment of Everglades National Park in 1947 brought the Service's natural resource managers into a new ecosystem where they rapidly began to realize that the traditional suppression response to wildfire not only was difficult to achieve but also was counter-productive as a protector of the natural ecosystem. This realization encouraged the Service to support research on the question that eventually contributed to a decision in 1956 to adopt a case-by-case prescribed fire policy for Everglades, an approach which represented a significant exception to current Service fire management policy. Similarly, studies by non-Service scientists in the Sierra Nevada parks
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during the 1950s and early 1960s identified ecosystem changes that were occurring due to the fire suppression practices then in effect. The results of these observations were discussed in the Leopold Report of 1963, influenced the Service's development of a fire research program in these parks in the 1960s, and, together with the experience gained in the Everglades and elsewhere, contributed to the adoption of a major change in the Service's fire management policy nationwide to include provision for a prescribed fire program designed to achieve desired ecosystem conditions.
Research on exotic species impacts on park natural ecosystems also has contributed to park resource management practices and to Service policy development. Management efforts to deal with the controversies brewing over proposed management plans for exotic goats in the Hawaiian parks and exotic burros in the Southwestern parks included the sponsorship of research which proved valuable in documenting impacts of exotic species on park resources, in providing methodological information about alternative management actions, in developing factual information for park interpretive programs, in refining Service policy regarding exotic species, and in successfully demonstrating the legal validity of the Service's NEPA compliance program.
Purpose of Science in the National Park Service Statutory
and Administrative Basis
Unlike most other federal agencies that conduct science programs, the National Park Service does not have any specific statutory language directing it to engage in natural and social science as part of its assigned mission. Instead, the Service has determined that, to perform its mission effectively, it must have current information about park resources and about the visitors who want to use those resources. This information is used directly to support resource management decision-making, for preparation of environmental compliance documents, for monitoring the results of natural resource management actions, and for development of park interpretation programs. Because of the specific, applied nature of this purpose, the Service has developed a natural and social science program that is directly coupled with its resource management activities and that has no independent life, funding, or purpose of its own.
Although there is no direct statutory language guiding the Service's development of a natural and social science program, there are many indications from the Congress that the Service not only is authorized, but is expected, to conduct necessary natural and social science activities. One such indication is the provision to the Secretary of the Interior of general authorities to conduct research and engage in cooperative research agreements. Another indication is the regular
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appropriation of funds to the Service specifically for conducting research activities. A third indication is the growing number of statements in recent Servicewide and specific park enabling act legislation calling for decisions and actions based on studies, on research, on technical information produced by necessary field studies, on periodic monitoring, and on specific indications of human carrying capacities. The sum of these indications is that the Congress considers necessary natural and social science activities to be those projects which will yield information of direct benefit to natural resource management decision-making. Given that natural resource management is defined as "the manipulation of human activities to achieve predetermined natural resource conditions," the role of science in the National Park Service thus is to provide information on how natural resources interact among themselves and through time, on how human activities affect natural resources, on how to mitigate undesireable human impacts to those resources, and on how to measure and describe the conditions that result from the combination of natural ecosystem dynamics, human impacts, and human mitigation efforts.
Structural Approaches to the Conduct of Science by the
National Park Service
The Service both identifies the need for, and applies the results of, its science activities at the individual parks. It achieves these tasks of identification and application through the park Resource Management Plan, which is a document that identifies resource deficiencies, projects the activities needed to resolve those deficiencies, and determines the order of priority and costs of those activities. Some of the identified activities are specific management practices that need to be applied. Others are statements of research needs and of projected pathways by which the results of the needed research will be applied to the solving of resource problems.
While the Resource Management Plan identifies needs and projected costs and priorities, it does not necessarily show how the needed research will be achieved. Under its present structure, the Service achieves that research by having a Park Service scientist conduct it, by having another agency or contract scientist conduct it, by actively soliciting other scientists to do their independently funded work in parks in ways that will benefit the park needs, or by passively waiting until a scientist appears in the park with a proposal to conduct the research. If the Service chooses to conduct the work with Service scientists, it may assign the research to a resident park scientist, to a Regional Office scientist, to a Service scientist stationed at a university based Cooperative Park Studies Unit, or to a Service scientist based at one of several central office research groups. If the Service chooses to conduct the work by a contractual agreement, that agreement may be an
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Interagency Agreement with another federal agency, a Cooperative Agreement with a state agency, university, or other group that wishes to contribute some of its resources to the project, or a contract with a university, a research firm, or an individual scientist. If the Service chooses to solicit other-funded scientists to perform the research, or to wait for an interested scientist to appear, the Service may provide logistic, lodging, or equipment support to encourage the scientist to work in the park.
Given that the purpose of the Service's support of natural and social science is to apply scientifically valid information to natural resource management decision-making, the Service has developed several strategies for applying the information and has adopted the Office of Personnel Management's research grade evaluation process for affirming the validity of the information. Strategies for applying the information range from having the scientist talk and work directly with the resource manager in the decision-making process and in follow-up monitoring, to having the scientist prepare informal reports to management that provide the basic data and conclusions as they relate to the management problem, to having the scientist present his findings and implications for management to professional society meetings, and to having the scientist publish his findings in formal, reviewed scientific papers. In adopting the research grade evaluation process for Service scientists, the Service measures and rewards the performance of its scientists through use of peer review of the scientist's job description, independence of authority, and scientific productivity. Although the measure of scientific productivity includes the direct science extension activities conducted by the Service scientist, it places great emphasis on the scientist establishing the scientific validity of his work by publishing peer reviewed articles and by being sought by the scientific community to participate in scientific activities. This process places the Service scientist in the challenging position of working primarily on short term, other-directed, applied problems but being expected to produce longer term, more basic, independently generated research products.
In my view, this structural coupling of scientist with resource manager that the Service has adopted provides the program its effectiveness but creates potential for significant weakness. The effectiveness arises from several factors. First, the chain of communication of research findings is kept to a minimum—from supplier to user, with no middle man. Second, the scientist learns first hand what information the user is seeking. Third, the user learns first hand under what constraints the scientist must operate and what management exceptions must be made if the scientist is to obtain the information the user seeks. The potential for weakness arises from three sources. First, the close linkage between scientist and manager creates a real risk that the researcher can lose his scientific objectivity either because the manager exerts pressure for the research to prove a point or
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because the scientist becomes caught up in the management goal and fails to consider adequately all alternate explanations of his data. Second, in times of budget and personnel limitations, the manager often is tempted to put scarce resources into management, rather than research. Third, by focusing all of his efforts on the management problem at hand, the scientist may fail to give enough time to keeping up with developments in his field and thus become obsolete.
Future Natural Resource Problems that will Require
Scientific Information for Decision-Making
The National Park System began because people realized that the unique resources of Yellowstone were in danger of becoming overrun by human activities that would destroy their uniqueness if permitted to continue unchecked. Every decision since the Yellowstone Act of 1872 to establish a new unit of the National Park System has been made in recognition of similar dangers to other significant natural or cultural resources. Because of continuing expansion of legitimate human activities throughout the nation and world, it is clear that future natural resource problem-solving will have to mitigate impacts resulting from these activities.
There are three major classes of problems with which National Park System scientists will have to deal. The first will be the ever-increasing capability of humans to alter environments, ecosystems, and species. The second will be the continuallly growing isolation of park natural ecosystems due to land use changes taking place outside park boundaries, a problem that is exacerbated because many parks either are ecologically too small or have boundaries that do not reflect ecosystem needs. The third will be the continuing growth of human desires to visit and enjoy the natural ecosystems contained in parks.
Research needed for dealing with impacts of environmental alteration will range from monitoring the ecosystem responses to global climatic changes due to injection of carbon dioxide and trace gases into the atmosphere, to determining the effects of air pollutants on species and the ecosystems of which they are a part and devising ways to mitigate those effects, to finding ways to mitigate the impacts of those exotic species which can not be removed from park ecosystems, to assessing the probable impacts of genetically altered species on the functioning and composition of natural ecosystems. Research needed for dealing with the growing isolation of park ecosystems from similar natural ecosystems will include determining whether or not species diversity will decline from a natural condition to some lower level that is in equilibrium with the absolute size of the park and, if it does, how to mitigate the decline. Such research also will need to determine whether the isolation of park natural ecosystems will lead to such a genetic isolation of park biota that park species will be threatened with
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extinction due to genetic stresses unless suitable mitigative measures can be developed and adopted. Research dealing with the isolation factor also will need to investigate whether the park system can, if so desired, be managed to represent all natural components of the broad region of which the park is a part, even if the park, itself, did not originally contain all of the components. Research dealing with increasing visitor use of park resources will be needed to determine how to measure the nature of human impact on park resources, how to mitigate those impacts, how to determine what makes a quality visitor experience and when managing for such an experience is appropriate, and how to identify and quantify at what point visitation to a given park at a given time has reached the maximum level that park resources can absorb without becoming permanently degraded.
Building a Science Program for the Future
In my view, National Park Service science has evolved in concert with at least the key advances of the scientific community, if not in total, and in several cases has participated in a leadership role. The past structure and practices provide an adequate mechanism for continuing the Service's science program into the future if the Service wishes to use the available tools. Of foremost importance is the volunteer and cooperative component—encouragement of this component through logistic support, provision of technical advice and assistance, willingness to provide partial financial support on occasion, establishment and use of designated research natural areas, and incorporation of this component into park natural resource management advisory functions will provide the National Park System with a wealth of information that otherwise never would be obtained. In this scheme, the Service's own scientific cadre provides the backbone for the total scientific capability needed for effective natural resource management and ensures that the absolutely pressing information needs are met in a timely fashion.
The necessary tools for administering the Service's own scientific cadre already exist, although it may prove valuable to refine them in response to further experience with their use. There are three key components of these tools. The first component is making the Service's managers at all appropriate levels of the organization responsible for choosing and utilizing their own preferred scientific organizational structure. The second component is assigning each manager who has direct responsibility for a park's natural resources a major role in the process of identifying the park's information needs and incorporating the requirements for satisfying those needs into the assigned Service scientist's annual work plan and performance standards. The third component is ensuring scientific competence and progressiveness of the Service's scientists through active use of the technical review and
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certification processes provided by the research grade evaluation process.
Given rigorous use of the cooperative approach and structural tools outlined here, the Service's science program will continue to serve individual park short term information needs effectively. For this program to serve the longer term and system-oriented needs, as well, the program will benefit by developing a structure to provide for development of resource inventories, representative monitoring of the status of those inventories with time, and routine investigation of ecosystem processes. In addition, the program will benefit by greatly increasing the emphasis on use of techniques and analytical procedures that are statistically and procedurally valid. Furthermore, the strength of the Service's scientists can be enhanced significantly by ensuring that they are expected to deal with National Park System oriented research as well as with park specific research, and that they are expected to deal with the scientific community on an interactive basis. With these additions, the Service's science program will become truly comprehensive and forward-looking and will adequately respond to the Service's ever-growing need for sophisticated and system-oriented natural resource information.
The National Park Service's ecosystem protection and preservation mission early led Service personnel to recognize the need for scientific information to support management of park natural resources and park visitor activities. The Service traditionally has met this need through a combination of Service scientists, contractors, and volunteers, with the relative proportion at any given time being a function of availability or scarceness of Service funds, personnel, and emphasis for conducting science. The Service presently has a small, but well established, multi-disciplinary natural and social science program that actively is working on short term park needs for resource information and is providing information that natural resource managers are applying in their park management activities. This current science program provides the nucleus necessary for building a science program for the future that will meet future needs for information regarding three major sources of probable impact to park natural resources. These sources include the continually growing capability of humans to modify ecosystems and climates, the increasing tendency for park natural ecosystems to become isolated from other natural ecosystems by human changes to landscapes outside parks, and the continuing growth of visitation to, and the expansion of visitor activities in, the natural zones of the National Park System.
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Albright, H. M. 1933. Research in the national parks. The Scientific Monthly 36:483-501.
Allen, D. L. and A. S. Leopold. 1977. A review and recommendations relative to the NPS natural science program. Memorandum Rept. to Director. National Park Service, Washington, DC. 15 p.
Conservation Foundation, The. 1972. National parks for the future. The Conservation Foundation, Washington, DC. 254 p.
Lamprey, H. F. 1972. On the management of flora and fauna in national parks. Background paper for Session VIII (1), Second World Conference on National Parks, Yellowstone and Grand Teton National Parks, Wyoming, September 18-27, 1972. 18 p.
Leopold, A. S., S. A. Cain, C. M. Cottam, I. N. Gabrielson, and T. L. Kimball. 1963. Wildlife management in the national parks. Trans. N. Amer. Wildl. and Natur. Resour. Conf. 28:28-45.
Martinka, C. J. 1985. New role for science in national parks. Paper presented at the 50th N. Amer. Wildl. and Natur. Resour. Conf., Washington, DC. 15 p.
Robbins, W. J., E. A. Ackerman, M. Bates, S. A. Cain, F. F. Darling, J. M. Fogg, Jr., T. Gill, J. M. Gillson, E. R. Hall, and C. L. Hubbs. 1963. A report by the advisory committee to the National Park Service on research. Nat. Acad. Sci., Nat. Res. Coun. Rept. 156 p.
Sumner, L. 1964. Wildlife policies in the national parks. Presentation to the 1964 Spring Session, Stephen T. Mather Interpretive Training and Research Center. National Park Service, Washington, DC 5 p.
Sumner, L. 1983. Biological research and management in the National Park Service: a history. The George Wright Forum 3(4):3-27. (Original paper dated May 1967).
Wright, G. M., J. S. Dixon, and B. H. Thompson. 1933. A preliminary survey of faunal relations in national parks.. Fauna Series No. 1. US Govt. Print. Off., Washington, DC. 157 p.
Wright, G. M. and B. H. Thompson. 1935. Wildlife management in the national parks. Fauna Series No. 2. US Govt. Print. Off., Washington, DC. 142 p.
John G. Dennis, Biological Resources Division, National Park Service, Washington, DC.