The Why Files The Why Files --

Parks or Playgrounds?
POSTED 30 DEC 2004

First, the good news
There have been some high-profile research efforts in the national parks. In Michigan's Isle Royale, for example, the Park Service supported a four decade-long study of gray wolves and moose, a study that has now become a textbook example of predator-prey relationships. And thousands of permits are issued to visiting researchers each year. But historically, critics have charged that the National Park Service has given attention to making parks look good to visitors but little more than lip service to ecological health. A 1992 study by the National Academy of Sciences, for example, found that "almost of the parks was done with inadequate understanding of ecological systems."

Full moon rises over dusky blue and black hills.The moon rises in Shenandoah National Park. NPS photo

In 1993, then-Secretary of the Interior Bruce Babbitt created a new agency -- the National Biological Survey -- to build that ecological understanding. But the agency was short-lived. Critics within the Republican Congress were worried that its plans to identify and count species might interfere with landowners' rights. In 1995, the biological survey was shuffled into the U.S. Geological Survey, operating on a budget a fraction of its original size. (See "Bringing science to the national parks" in the bibliography.)

Park research got another boost in 1999, with the introduction of the Natural Resource Challenge. The Challenge doubled the Park Service's annual natural resource budget to about $200 million. Researchers used the money to inventory and monitor species within the park, stamp out invasive species, and support science education.

Backpacked hiker stands atop rocky outcrop in green hills.
Beautiful vista or ailing forest? Only science can tell. NPS photo

It's report card season.
Will the National Park Service flunk science?

In 2002, the National Park Service Advisory Board asked a committee of experts for a progress report. In its March 2004 report, the group praised the Natural Resource Challenge but urged the government to give more support to nuts and bolts research. The group recommended:

Giving full status to aquatic and marine plants and animals, protecting biodiversity within park waters.

Determining whether the National Park System includes a representative portion of land, freshwater, and marine ecosystems.

Asking how trails, rivers, and other recreation corridors can be used as "biological linkages" between parks.

Bringing science teachers to the parks as seasonal employees, to boost their efforts in the classroom.

Establishing a central agency to conduct and manage research efforts in the parks.

Working with researchers and the private sector to create an "Electronic Encyclopedia of America's Natural History."

Expanding and continue large-scale inventory projects that take stock of all species of plants and animals.

Increasing funding available to parks for managing invasive species.

Dozens of people mill around, waiting for geyser eruption.Waiting for Old Faithful? Try waiting for Washington. NPS photo

It's a tall order. The group hoped that laying out research priorities would encourage conversation in Washington. But Sylvia Earle, a National Geographic oceanographer and member of the committee, told the New York Times that the report "languished" for seven months, until the Coalition of National Park Service Retirees posted it on their website in October.

"The political leadership of the Department of the Interior and the National Park Service just seem to be unwilling pay attention to recommendations of scientifically-based groups," Bill Wade says of the report. "Once we broke the report by posting it on our website, it showed up same day on Department of Interior's website. They said they were 'studying' it."

Study this.


Megan Anderson, project assistant; Terry Devitt, editor; Sarah Goforth, feature writer for this story; S.V. Medaris, designer/illustrator; David Tenenbaum, feature writer; Amy Toburen, content development executive

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