The Why Files The Why Files --

Parks or Playgrounds?
POSTED 30 DEC 2004

vintage poster with deer and headlights reads: don't kill our wild lifeWhen the landscape of a country changes as dramatically as the U.S. did in the 20th century, keeping 21 million acres of national parkland "unimpaired" is a colossal task. We couldn't begin to cover all of the science involved (and you'd never sit through it), but our sources tell us the critical step for the future of park conservation is setting priorities. So, we asked, what are they?

Background poster designed by James Wagner for NYC : Works Progress Administration, Federal Art Project, [between 1936 and 1940].
From the Library of Congress, Prints & Photographs Division, WPA Poster Collection [LC-USZC2-1001]

You have to start somewhere
"Inventory work is the biggest need," says Bill Wade of the Coalition of Retired Park Employees. "Most parks would say they still don't have an ability to do that; there's very little dedicated money."

Trying to protect a natural area without taking stock of the life within it is like trying to make chocolate cake without flour, says Wade. Yet in many national parks, there has never been a census of resident plants and animals.

Water rushes over mossy rocks in forest.What's under these rocks? Scientists say taking inventories is the first critical step in protecting park ecosystems. National Park Service photo

"No one has ever had the resources to inventory the plants the animals, so we have no clue as to what the total scope of the natural resources are for many of the national parks," says Wade. "Unless you have that baseline, you don't have any real way of saying whether things are getting better or worse or staying the same."

While the Natural Resource Challenge has provided some funds for such research, park managers will need to collaborate with independently-funded scientists, and in some cases the general public, to gain the necessary manpower.

Big science. Little amphibians
Ken Dodd, now a zoologist with the Florida Integrated Science Center, directed a four-year project to count and classify the amphibians living in the foggy pockets of Smoky Mountain National Park. It was the first project of its kind in an area where there are more frogs and salamanders than anywhere in the U.S.

"We have a very poor understanding of species diversity in virtually all parks and wildlife refuges," says Dodd. National park inventories have tended to focus on big, charismatic vertebrates like bears, he adds.

But amphibian populations have been declining in many parts of the world, and the creatures are notoriously sensitive to changes in climate, air pollution and acid rain. For those reasons, scientists think of them as "indicator species." Watching for declines, deformities, or population changes is like taking a park's temperature. And the footprints of more than nine million visitors each year, Dodd suspected, might be putting the peepers and newts at risk.

Stately trees on rocky outcropLarge-scale inventory projects, like the amphibian count in the Great Smoky Mountain National Park, shown here, are critical for conservation. National Park Service photo

It took him four years and a small army of research assistants, but Dodd and his team overturned rocks and waded through puddles in every corner of the park counting salamanders and frogs. In the end, they found few surprises. Of the 44 amphibian species known to live in the park, two-the northern leopard frog and green salamander-- seemed to have disappeared. Dodd added two species to the list as well. Some areas in the park where people had commonly spotted amphibians in the past were, indeed, rich with life. In other areas, especially those far away from roads and trails, Dodd's team found hopping neighborhoods where none were known to exist.

"We have an estimate of abundance and know where the areas of highest diversity are now," says Dodd. Building inventory programs in parks across the country will require two things, he adds: more money and better cooperation with independent researchers.

Hold your breath.


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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