Thursday, September 10, 2009

What You Can Do To Help

Since I first began blogging about national parks and climate change I have had a number of concerned people ask me “What can I do to help?” This blog is dedicated to helping those people find the information they need in order to help both our country’s beloved national parks and our planet.

Let me begin by saying that climate change is not only a problem within the national parks, it is first and foremost a global problem that requires global action to overcome. This means that even if you are thinking “I am only one person, what can I do?” just remember that real, lasting social change often starts out small, on an individual level. Just think what could happen if everyone who felt that way were to actually do something about it and make that one small change in their lives. We could change the world! Being a citizen on this planet means that you are a part of that global whole, and the one small change you do make actually does make a difference to both our national parks and our planet. Ok, I think you get the picture…enough preaching to the choir, here are some very simple things you can do to make a difference in our world and help preserve our national parks, unimpaired for future generations.

First off on a larger scale, the U.S. EPA has a wonderful link listing 25 things you can do to help cut greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions. Here are some examples:
*replace conventional bulbs with energy saver bulbs
*look for energy star qualified products
*seal and insulate your home
*use a push mower instead of a gas powered mower
*compost your food and yard waste
*keep your car tuned
*keep adequate pressure in your car tires
*walk, bike, or use public transportation
*use the power management features on your office equipment to save energy
*educate your children about how they can reduce their impact
*teach children about climate change and ecosystems

TheEPA site also has a GHG emissions calculator that can estimate your household’s annual emissions and offer ways to reduce them.

Next you can support the National Parks Conservation Association, a non-profit organization created in 1919 to support our national parks. The NPCA is constantly conducting studies within the parks with regard to climate change and even has a publication entitled Unnatural Disaster: Global Warming & Our National Parks which is full of information about how climate change is affecting our parks. I highly recommend reading this. While you are there you can find out more about the NPCA, what studies are being done in various parks and pledge your support.

Next you can visit the Climate Friendly Parks website which is a partnership between the NPS, EPA, and the NPCA to help the national parks become carbon neutral and educate their employees and the public about how they can help reduce the impacts of climate change. Here you will be able to see which parks are participating in the CFP program and monitor their progress through the process of becoming carbon neutral. While you are at it you can also find out what you can do to Do Your Part to support the Climate Friendly Parks program.

For those of you who live in the state of Washington you may find this link about what you can do to Help Mount Rainier Become Carbon Neutral informative. You can also learn more about sustainability and how to become a Steward of the Environment at this link also from Mount Rainier National Park.

You can also support your national parks by purchasing an annual pass called the America the Beautiful pass. You can either purchase an annual pass for an individual park or a pass for every national park and federal recreational land in the country. This is the one I choose to get, I believe it cost $80 and it is a bargain for people like me who love to visit our parks and forest service lands. In just a few trips it has paid for itself. The best part of purchasing either pass is if you purchase them actually in the park rather than online, the money goes directly to the park that your pass was purchased in, making it even easier to support the park you love.

Lastly please, please, please (pretty please) vote to increase funding for our national parks. It has been a very common story among everyone in every park I have spoken with that there needs to be more funding for research, repairs, upgrades to greener facilities, maintenance, public education, etc. These places that harbor such unique and pristine environments, rich cultural heritage, endangered and threatened species, spiritual and inspirational landscapes, recreational opportunities galore, and embody the spirit of our nation need your help. They are your treasures, please help to keep them unimpaired for future generations.

An Interview at Pinnacles National Monument

I recently had an opportunity to interview someone at the Pinnacles National Monument in California where I used to work as a park ranger. It seems that a lot has been happening there since my employment in 2002 and it is all very exciting. The year after I left was the first year that the California condor was reintroduced into the park, something that I wished I had the opportunity to get to see for myself. Many of the buildings that were there when I was are now gone and all of the portable trailers for employee housing have since been replaced with dormitories. The park has acquired some land just outside of the east entrance and now has a campground where they offer ranger led interpretive talks about the park along with night hikes to star gaze and stroll along the trails by moonlight, something that I think is absolutely awesome! The park is also home to talus caves which were created by large boulders lodging themselves into the narrow canyons. These caves are home to the Townsend’s big-eared Bats which are listed as a sensitive species. The rock formations in the park are made of rhyolitic breccia which is composed of lava, sand, ash, and angular chunks of rock that ejected from a volcano many years ago. These crags and cliffs are home to over 20 different species of raptors with some species nesting on a yearly basis. Altogether Pinnacles is home to over 140 species of birds. Pinnacles National Monument was established in 1908 to preserve the stunning rock formations for which is was named and originally only protected 2,060 acres. Today the park encompasses 26,000 acres and now protects a rich cultural heritage as well as a unique ecosystem.

Since I knew someone that still worked within the park I was able to have a very candid and openhearted conversation about what was going on in the park with regards to climate change. My correspondent, who I will call NPS employee to protect their privacy, informed me that the park has partnerships with North County High, Salinas High School, Hartnell Community College, and a non-profit organization called Pinnacles Partnership. The schools get to come explore the park and learn about the cultural and environmental resources found there, which is a great step in my opinion to create a community of caring, aware, nature loving park advocates. Pinnacles Partnership provides funding for many programs at the park including education and youth programs, habitat restoration, and recovery of the California condor. I next asked NPS employee if there was much talk within the park about climate change and they informed me that there was actually a lot of talk about it. The downfall to all this talk was that everyone talking about it was going in a million different directions and not getting anything done. I next asked about the parks status in the Climate Friendly Parks program mentioning that I had noticed that the Pinnacles had completed the workshop and had applied but had not yet completed their greenhouse gas inventory. NPS employee said that they already knew this and sadly stated that it had not yet been completed because everyone in the park was too buried in other projects to collect the information and that it was low on the list of priorities. NPS employee did inform me that there was an exhibit at the public information center entitled “Climate Change, What Can We Do?” which informs the public about steps they can take to reduce their own greenhouse gas emissions. NPS employee expressed that they would feel so happy if only one person every day saw this and practiced these habits to reduce their GHG emissions.
Finally I asked NPS employee this question, “What is/are the most frustrating thing/s going on with regard to research and public education about climate change within the parks?” to which I got this reply:
“I don’t really see what other parks are doing, what studies are going on in the parks. How can we affect people at home? How do we make it matter to them? What kind of research is going on in other parks and how are they relating to their visitors? Is the information they relate to the public based on speculation or fact? I would really like to see how climate change is directly affecting plants and animals within this park and how that is affecting the park as a whole. I feel that the parks must work together on this issue in order to make things happen.”
This has really had me thinking a lot about what I can do as a passionate advocate of our country’s national parks. There are a lot of ideas bouncing around in my head about this right now. Once again it has been proven to me that there needs to be some sort of communication and information sharing happening here that is currently absent from present procedure. Once again I am coming away from an information gathering session with more questions than answers. Perhaps it is here that I will find my answer. Maybe the answer I seek is indeed in the form of a question.

Friday, August 28, 2009

Climate Change & Our National Parks

What are some of the effects climate change could have on our national parks? Why is it important to understand these impacts and what does it mean for our future enjoyment of these places?

In order to understand the effects of climate change on our parks we must first understand the impacts of climate change on our global environment. Some things, such as warmer average temperatures, are kind of a “no-brainer” but what does all of this mean? How will it impact the flora and fauna, our hydrologic cycle, or our air quality? It is a relatively easy determination to make because it is already happening. Here are some examples of the effects:

 -Changes in soil temperature & moisture affects soil microflora & microfauna
 -As temperatures change animals seek different & more optimal habitats
 -Sensitivity to temperatures affects the reproductive biology of many species as well as how they rear their young
 -Temperature increases can cause a reduction in the number of species within a community
 -Population densities & geographic distribution of insects change as ambient temperatures change in their ranges
 -Sex of many reptile species is often determined by temperature thus the effective population of one sex limits that populations genetic diversity
 -Global temperature changes can lead to massive reorganizations of the time, activities, and movement patterns of animals
 -Drought causes leaves of plants & trees to turn yellow as chlorophyll production is reduced, cavitation increases and plants dehydrate making them more attractive to phytophagus insects leaving vegetation susceptible to insect outbreaks
 -As sea ice cover declines, arctic marine ecosystems will suffer from coastal erosion, melting of tundra/thawing of permafrost, loss of algae, elimination of ice associated communities such as polar cod, and a loss of habitat for ice platform dependent species such as polar bears, seals, and walrus.
 -Increased wildfire frequency
 -Increased windstorms sometimes causing the mortality of entire stands of trees and leaving the stressed survivors susceptible to disease and insect infestation
 -More extreme and unpredictable weather patterns (floods and droughts) cause damage to resources

These examples are merely a drop in the bucket of what we are faced with in regards to the effects of climate change on our environment. While it is understandable that Earth undergoes periods of warming and cooling it is evident that our planet is currently undergoing a very serious and disconcerting period of rapid change. In the last century our planet has warmed an average of 1.3F. This rate of warming is faster than anything on record for the past 1000 years. Emissions of greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide, nitrous oxide, and methane have been on the rise since the beginning of the industrial revolution. The concentration of these gasses in the atmosphere is more than 70% higher than pre-industrial levels, and according to the EPA combustion of fossil fuels account for most emissions in the US. Like it or not our environment is changing. Alpine species are running out of higher ground, polar species are running out of ice, droughts, floods, heat waves, and intense hurricanes have increased, glaciers and snow packs are disappearing, sea level is rising, arctic sea ice is thinning, and our oceans are becoming more acidic. Bearing this in mind, it is not hard to imagine how climate change will, and already is, affecting our national parks.

It is no secret that Rocky Mountain National Park is currently undergoing a battle with bark beetle infestations that are killing millions of trees. It is believed among entomologists that these massive infestations are a result of climate change. Remember those phytophagus insects? These insects are specialized to detect ultrasound and vibrations from cavitation (the breaking of water columns in trees) caused by drought and reduced chlorophyll production.

In November 2006 over 18 inches of rain fell in just 36 hours in Mount Rainier National Park. This was the most damaging flood in the park’s 108 year history, breaking utility lines, washing out roads, trails and campgrounds, and filling streams and reservoirs with mud and debris. Some major roads through the park were closed for a year. It is estimated that rebuilding will cost between $36 and $100 million.

Glacier National Park may soon be called “Puddles” as many of the glaciers retreat from view and often disappear altogether. Dan Fagre, a USGS ecologist who works at Glacier, estimates that by the year 2020 there very well may be no more glaciers in the park. This means more than just less ice in the park. It also means the destruction of fragile ecosystems that have taken thousands of years to develop destroying the treasures the park was created to protect.

A hot dry climate weakens trees and vegetation making them more susceptible to fires. Record heat waves make for extremely dry vegetation and can even turn good intentions into disasters. A prescribed burn for brush control in Yosemite National Park recently jumped fire lines and as of yesterday evening (August 27, 2009) has burned an estimated 2200 acres and is only 10% contained.

The North Cascades National park is one of the largest and most rugged alpine wilderness in the Lower 48 and its 300 glaciers cover more area land than any glaciers than in any other national park south of Alaska. It is home to grizzly bears and wolves as well as virgin Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata) and Douglas fir (pseudotsuga menziesii). As the climate warms glaciers retreat and alpine meadows disappear leaving high-mountain species like the pika no where higher to go.

Alaska‘s national parks provide valuable habitat for caribou, which is still central to the diet and culture of many Alaskan Natives. A warmer climate has pushed the caribou as far north as they can go as the tundra ecosystem is being pushed steadily north. In some places in Alaska warmer winters increase the frequency of freeze-thaw cycles which creates thick layers of ice that caribou must break through in order to forage. In other places the snowfall is so heavy that caribou have a hard time finding food under deep snowpack.

Biscayne National Park in Florida, a popular marine vacation destination, generates millions of dollars every year for local economies. The coral reef that attracts so many visitors is now fading, its brilliant colors turning white as they lose the tiny algae living inside the cells that give them their color. This bleaching also causes long term changes in the communities of fish that live on the reef. Diseases that thrive in warmer water have increased dramatically since 1994.

The Great Smoky Mountains National Park is the most visited park in the country. Every year more than 20 million people drive along the Blue Ridge Parkway which connects the park with Shenandoah. Increased traffic and the resulting smog decrease the air quality in the park, compounding an already existing problem.

Sequoia, Kings Canyon, Joshua Tree, and Yosemite National Parks all have higher ozone levels than allowed by EPA health standards as warmer temperatures boost the formation of ground level ozone.

Documenting, understanding, analyzing, and interpreting the changes currently taking place in both our global environment and within our national parks can provide crucial information on how we can deal with what is coming our way, what we might expect to happen, and how we can prevent or minimize the effects of climate change. This is the exact reason why it is necessary to establish and fund scientific research within the parks. We need to accumulate the knowledge necessary to formulate a comprehensive, adaptable and systemic plan to minimize or eliminate the threats to these valuable resources.

The species within the parks will not be the only ones suffering the consequences of climate change. Visitors and neighboring communities will also feel the effects. Poor air quality will decrease the number of days that people with respiratory problems such as asthma can safely enjoy the parks. Poor visibility due to smog will degrade the quality of those grand vistas in places like Joshua Tree, Great Smoky Mountains, Yosemite and the Grand Canyon. Increased natural disasters not only damage park structures but take a toll on gateway towns such as the hard hit Flamingo area just outside of the Everglades National Park. Just getting into many parks could prove to be difficult as flooding and erosion wipe out roadways into the parks and inconvenience visitors and spell trouble for neighboring communities dependent on park visitor traffic.

National parks are doing their part to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by taking advantage of solar and wind power, providing shuttle services to visitors helping to eliminate emissions from visitor traffic, converting to fuel efficient vehicles and promoting bicycle use in parks. So far there are almost 50 national parks participating in the Climate Friendly Parks program. This partnership between the EPA, NPCA, and NPS aims to educate every park employee about climate change so they can take action in addressing the problem. The program also calls for each park to reduce its emissions of greenhouse gases and air pollution as well as educating the public about the effects of climate change on park resources while encouraging them to reduce their own greenhouse gas emissions.

It is clear that global warming is a global problem. We all must become more aware of our contributions to this problem and take steps as individuals to reduce the effects of climate change on our world and in our national parks. We must begin now before the things we love disappear forever.

Monday, August 17, 2009

An Interview at Mount Rainier

I recently took a little day trip up to Mount Rainier National Park to see what I could find out about what research they are doing and if any of it was spurred by climate change. I had planned on interviewing some people in the park but I did not arrange them in advance. Judging from my experiences in other parks I felt it was best to have the element of surprise working for me as the responses I get are usually a little more candid and open than any I have gotten from scheduled-in-advance interviews. Here is my story.

The trip itself was fabulous. There was an unprecedented heat wave in Seattle and I was excited to get into the mountains where the temperatures were cooler and the air smelled sweet with fir. I made it in record time from my home in Ballard and pulled into the park in less than two hours armed with my annual pass.

As the ranger at the entrance station checked my I.D. I questioned him as to the whereabouts of their resource management department. He seemed a little stunned and dumbfounded and confessed to me that he did not know where it was but he would call his boss and ask. As the cars began stacking up behind me, I waited patiently while he obtained the requested information from the other end of a telephone line. While I waited I wondered to myself why a park employee did not know where one of the most important departments in the park was located. I wondered if he even knew that the park had a resource department. I also wondered if he might be a new employee that had only been there for a few weeks and was still getting acquainted with everything. The sound of him returning to the window pulled me out of my contemplation whereupon he relayed, without conviction, the whereabouts of the department and bid me good day. I pondered this encounter while thankfully pulling out of the entrance station just in time to be ahead of a rental motor home the size of an ocean liner.

The road quickly narrowed as it wound through massive old growth Douglas-fir (pseudotsuga menziesii) dwarfing even the gigantic rented motor home behind me. I quickly forgot about my encounter at the entrance station as I became mesmerized by my surroundings and rolling all the windows down, I breathed in the sweet fir essence I had been longing for. A mile or so into my journey I passed a couple of people in orange safety vests, clipboards in hand, bent over looking at plants along the roadside. As I wondered what they were doing I came to my first of many construction zones. Road repairs were being made to the stretch of road from the Ashford entrance to Longmire. As I sat in line waiting my turn through the construction area I thought to myself “So far, so good! Research and much needed road repairs and I have only gotten 4 miles into the park.” After a few more delays for road repairs, I rolled into the parking lot at Longmire to search for the resource management department. The landmarks and instructions the entrance station ranger had given me were proving to be hard to follow and after searching for 45 minutes I decided to bag it and head on up to Paradise and surprise some unsuspecting personnel there.

As I came around the last turn before arriving at Paradise I was stunned to see a large area of scarred land on my left. It is always strange to see any construction in a national park and I felt myself beginning to recoil from such a blemish on the pristine scenery. It is like taking a sharpie to the Mona Lisa to adorn her with a mustache. Since it was a weekday and I am an early riser the parking lot at Paradise was only about half way full. Normally one has to make a few laps scavenging like a turkey vulture watching to spot a family walking to their car to leave, then wait while they pack everyone in, all the while ignoring the growing line of irritated and jealous people behind you, just to score your much coveted place in the lot. I got a prime parking spot, gathered my notebook and camera and made my way over to the Paradise Lodge to see if I could find an unsuspecting soul to engage in conversation. No luck. But I did pause for a moment to snap some shots of the inside of the lodge.

My next stop was the Jackson Visitor’s center, a short walk from the Lodge. On my way along the path I took note of the areas that were roped off for vegetation recovery. Many visitors to Paradise often trample the alpine meadows trying to get those perfect shot of the flowers in bloom with the mountain standing majestic in the background. This is not a new addition to the scenery at Paradise. I have never made a visit to this place without seeing these areas roped off from foot traffic with signage stating the purpose of their partitions. What I did find both slightly amusing and more irritating was a family of five completely ignoring the ropes and signage to hastily make a short-cut to their car, all the while trampling sensitive vegetation. I wondered what they thought as they climbed over the ropes and skidded down the hillside to their car. For a brief moment, I even considered pointing out to them the signage and giving a little speech about fragile ecosystems. I decided that my intentions would most likely be ill received and decided to continue on to the visitor’s center.

Once again I was compelled to stop and take in the grandeur of Mount Rainier and noticed a new addition to the scenery. Some trail repairs had been made and the new addition of a stair case was placed along the Skyline trail. The stairs were nothing remarkable however inscribed in them was the words of John Muir expressing his feelings about the park from a visit long ago.

After pausing for more pictures I finally made it to the visitor’s center. I could hardly contain my excitement at discovering it was a new facility that had only recently opened to the public. This explained the rubble pile I had noticed on my way in, which was the remnants of the old visitor’s center, something for which I had scolded myself a little in not realizing sooner. As I walked into the visitor’s center I was greeted by a whiteboard giving me the weather forecast and informing me of the ranger led programs scheduled for the day. I was ecstatic to see “3:15-Climate Change”. I reigned in my excitement, barely containing the urge to sprint over to the desk to talk to the rangers and continued my exploration of the new visitor’s center, dropping a few dollars into the donation bucket along the way. After watching a short movie about the park in their little theater, which I am pleased to report, was at capacity, I finally made my way to the desk to begin my inquiry. This is what I learned.

There were two rangers working the information desk that day and I was quickly befriended by one of them, a gentleman I will call Mr. Ranger out of respect for his privacy. After introductions, Mr. Ranger and I began by talking a little about the new visitor’s center. He informed me that the new steep A frame center was much more energy efficient and climate friendly than the old circular one had been using hundreds of gallons less fuel than the old design. He also told me that by taking down the old visitor’s center they were afforded the opportunity to study artifacts found under the old site, there was even a display to show some of the things they had unearthed during the construction process. Sadly, I did not get a picture of the display but it is something worth checking out on your next visit. Next I asked Mr. Ranger to tell me all he knew about any research or programs being conducted in the park regarding climate change and resources. He informed me that the park does studies on light pollution, noise pollution, and air pollution and that the air quality is monitored and can be seen in a display in the visitors center. Mr. Ranger also informed me that at 3:15 every day, as the white board located in the entrance explained, there was a film about climate change and national parks with two people from Mount Rainier making appearances in the video. He confided to me that the film was sometimes difficult to introduce to the public because a lot of the public does not believe that climate change is happening. He also gave me the names of the two resource personnel from the video and suggested I contact them for further information regarding their studies, very helpful indeed. He stated that he was not aware of much of the research being conducted within the park but did say that those two orange safety vest clad people I spotted on the way in were most likely studying the vegetation near waterways to determine soil qualities and characteristics as well as plant migration statistics. We ended our conversation by reminiscing about all the parks we have had the privilege of visiting and working in and I filled my notebook with his recommendations for future visits to parks I had yet to discover. I headed upstairs to check out more displays and sat for an hour watching climbers make their way up and down from Camp Muir as a thunder storm rolled in.

What did I learn? From my previous impromptu interviews at other parks and from Mr. Ranger I have confirmed my suspicions that information is not shared among park personnel, either within the park or among other park units. This lack of information sharing is troublesome to me. Perhaps my mental model suggests that park rangers at an information desk should have all the answers to the questions the general public may ask regarding the park and its resources. Maybe I am expecting too much. In defense of all the rangers I spoke with regarding these topics I must say that I do understand that the NPS probably does not have appropriate funds to train all of their employees to respond to public inquiry about climate change. What everyone I spoke with was able to give to me is a brochure entitled Climate Change in National Parks published by the National Park Service U.S. Department of the Interior. This small, yet informative brochure explains that some of the parks are involved in “Climate Friendly Parks” workshops to do what they can to reduce their greenhouse gas emissions by using solar and wind energy, fuel cells, electric and hybrid cars, and in areas of high visitation using mass public transit. The brochure also gives links to places where the public can learn more about climate change, but ironically fails to provide the link for the Climate Friendly Parks website. The link can be found here:

At this link one can peruse various presentations (mostly PPT) that were held in various “Climate Friendly” parks. In my exploration of this site I found a publication entitled Climate Change Response also published by the National Park Service and U.S. Department of the Interior which on page 7 states: “While efforts to date are significant –the NPS is not yet positioned to assess the affects of climate change and prescribe management actions that are suitable for parks.”
What does this mean? Are they not yet in a position due to insufficient funding, lack of personnel, lack of understanding, is it because their resource and research system is fragmented and no one can agree on its direction, or could it be that some of the personnel within the parks are those who do not believe climate change is happening. Diving deeper into the website I found a list of parks that are on the Climate Friendly Parks (CFP) roster. Of the 391 National Parks only 49 are listed as members on the CFP page. 22 of these parks have yet to apply to become “Climate Friendly” and 15 are members, meaning that they have filed an application, developed a greenhouse gas (GHG) emission inventory in their park, and completed a GHG action plan. The remaining 12 parks are still in this process.

It is clear that there are personnel within the National Park Service that are aware of climate change and its impacts on the park system. There are also those who are devoted and determined to do what they can to help reduce GHG emissions in the parks and educate park personnel, enabling them to engage with the public about such issues. It warms my heart to know that these people are out there, however more must be done, much more. Ultimately what I learned from this interview is that I have many more questions than answers, that I need to continue my research and efforts to track down sometimes hidden information, and that support and funding for the National Park Service is very much needed in order to understand the impacts of climate change and find ways to prepare for and respond to it.

Thursday, August 13, 2009

Science In Our National Parks

When national parks were first established there was little understanding of the resources they contained. Park boundaries often failed to include the complete ecosystems and often did not encompass enough land to support critical habitats. Over the years this lack of understanding has led to resource management issues, loss of resources and in some cases small problems have turned into large ones.
It is unquestionable that the mandate of 1916 that established the National Park Service and protected irreplaceable examples of our nation’s ecological, cultural and historic heritage, but the current science and research program of the national parks is fragmented and lacks the direction that it needs in order to research, understand and preserve these national treasures. The current science program in the park service also has to share its funding with the resource management division. This collective management approach often discounts or reduces the importance of one or the other of these very valuable activities, research and management.
The current Park Service research and resource management practice is divided into three levels as follows:
I. In the Washington office
II. In 10 regional offices
III. In individual park units
The Washington office develops policies and standards, sets priorities, and coordinates research programs. The 10 regional offices conduct and coordinate most of the research that take place within each of the individual park units leaving us with not one plan but ten different plans, each one different in every way. Through contracts and agreements some parks arrange to have research conducted with parties outside of the park system often including universities or independent researchers, while in other parks most of the research is conducted by park personnel. The National Park Service maintains a smaller research staff than any other federal agency making it almost impossible for park personnel to conduct the necessary research.
In the early 1960’s, when the first assessments of the NPS science programs were being conducted, two reports gave significant recommendations regarding the current science program. Both the Leopold report (named after A. Starker Leopold) and the Robbins report (named after William J. Robbins) recommended strengthening the science program. The Robbins report of 1963 states:

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.

Although this report clearly stated the inadequacies found in the current science program there was little done to address the recommendations made in the report. Later in the 1970’s the parks were still plagued with the problems of inadequate funding and argument over who would direct such work. Again in 1977 another report, the Allen and Leopold report, recommended that the NPS give science and research more say in planning and policy making, and again little action was taken. Groups such as the National Parks Conservation Association and The Conservation Foundation published more reports criticizing the management plan and drew widespread public attention on the threats to the parks. Then in 1980, under congressional pressure the NPS conducted an extensive and comprehensive assessment of the parks and their threats. This report documented serious, extensive problems in the parks and recommended these actions: conduct a comprehensive inventory of park resources; establish accurate baseline data and conduct monitoring to detect changes in resources and ecosystems; focus attention on threats associated with adjacent lands; and improve the ability of park managers to quantify and document the effects of various threats. Ironically these were the same suggestions made by previous independent reviews of the parks management plan. Nine years later another report known as the Gordon report criticized the NPS for not fulfilling its obligations to the management and research of their resources. In all over a dozen major reviews over a period of 30 years had all suggested the same thing, and all met with little or no efforts to implement the recommendations.
Our parks today are faced with a myriad of threats. Often the unique qualities, attributes, and resources that led us to preserve such parks are being destroyed. They are subject to a diverse array of human influences, damage to air and water quality, noise pollution, erosion, and an array of inappropriate activities that threaten the aesthetic characteristics and jeopardize the integrity and stability of their ecosystems. For example, the Exxon Valdez oil spill of 1989 severely damaged coastal habitats in Kenai Fjords and Katmai national parks. The extent of the damage is unknown because inadequate research, understanding, and cataloging of park species and ecosystems had not yet been conducted. These are but some examples of the importance that research and science plays in understanding our parks and their resources. It is critical to understand cause and effect relationships within our parks in order to understand if a change to that system is a natural fluctuation or if it is an unintended consequence of something else. The concept that parks are isolated and removed from adjacent human influences is faulty. Boundaries alone will do nothing to ensure the health of our parks. We need long term monitoring, research, data collection and critical and systemic analysis of information in order to understand the threats to our parks. Our world is dynamic and ever changing, we need a plan to include science and research in our parks that is able to adapt and change with our world.
The National Parks Conservation Association’s Center for State of the Parks program was developed in 2002 to assist the parks in assessing threats to the parks and understanding their resources. They frequently conduct studies within parks to determine threats to the parks and to advocate for more funding for research. These studies are then made public and can be viewed at The reports and database created by these studies makes available critical information for congress and the public in order to provide up to date and accurate information needed for decision making and funding.
Since the national parks are our canaries in the coal mine and often are the first places that experience quantifiable information about environmental changes and threats they provide critical information regarding global environmental change. It is obvious that our parks have the potential to enlighten us about our natural world, yet this potential has yet to be realized and tapped. This is why it is vitally important that they develop a thorough, comprehensive, and ongoing research plan that involves NPS researchers and scientists as well as independent scientists in order to ensure its longevity and accuracy. The time has come to realize the potential that our parks have to offer for our understanding not only of the parks themselves but of our changing world and its natural processes. It stands to reason that if the National Park Service was created and charged to protect our most treasured natural resources science should play a crucial role in that process.

Works Cited:
States., United. Science and the national parks. Washington, D.C: National Academy, 1992. Print.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The Establishment of the National Park Service

About thirty years after the historic expedition of Lewis and Clark travelers were exploring the western region of the United States. Most were seeking fur or riches but another traveler, George Catlin had another agenda. Catlin’s focus was on the studies of the native tribes that lived in the region. As Catlin proceeded throughout the Great Plains he was struck by the great beauty of the region. He knew that this area would soon change as the settlers came to claim their stake and felt that it should be safeguarded and preserved. It was George Catlin who in the early 1830’s first presented the idea that America should create “A nation’s park containing man and beast, all in the wild and freshness of their nature’s beauty!”1 At the time no one really gave much thought to Catlin’s idea but finally in 1864 Congress ceded the Yosemite Valley and the Mariposa Big Tree to the state of California protecting it from land claims and logging. Later in 1872 President Grant signed the Yellowstone Park Act reserving more than two million acres from “settlement, occupancy or sale” and reserved it “as a public pleasuring ground for the benefit and enjoyment of the people.”2

Even though national parks such as Mount Rainier, Sequoia, and Crater Lake were being established they were still not protected. Advocate, inventor, nature lover and preservationist John Muir saw the need to protect these areas and with others pushed President Woodrow Wilson to sign the National Park Service Act in 1916 creating the National Park Service that we know today. John Muir is often referred to as “the Father of the National Park Service”.
Why were our national parks established and what was the purpose behind the creation of the National Park Service? Before these questions are answered let’s explore the Antiquities Act of 1906. Many areas in the Southwest, especially native ruins, were being looted for treasure. Many saw the need to protect these places and urged Congress to pass the Antiquities Act which allowed the president to set aside these places as “national monuments” and imposed strict penalties for those who looted, disturbed or destroyed prehistoric ruins on federal land. It was this act that allowed President Theodore Roosevelt to create such places as Devils Tower and Montezuma Castle and later President William H. Taft and Woodrow Wilson proclaimed more monuments such as Mt. Olympus and Dinosaur National Monument. The Antiquities Act allowed areas of cultural and historic value to be protected just as the national parks were. Up until this time the areas set aside as parks were areas with exceptional beauty or extraordinary landscape qualities or monumental scenery. Now areas with cultural and historical value were also on the list of areas to preserve and protect. The coordination of efforts to protect these parks and monuments was set in stone, or at least on paper, with the creation of the National Park Service Act in 1916. To this day the mission statement of the National Parks Service has not changed. It states "the Service thus established shall promote and regulate the use of Federal areas known as national parks, monuments and reservations . . . by such means and measures as conform to the fundamental purpose of the said parks, monuments and reservations, which purpose is 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."3 The rules, policies and agenda were set for the service but providing the funds and manpower to carry it out proved to be a very challenging task.
Even today our national parks are struggling with preserving their resources and keeping up with maintenance within the parks. Policies and procedures that were made over 90 years ago have not changed to adapt to our changing world, a myriad of environmental stresses, and growing visitor use. The management plan for the parks did not take into account these changes and stresses. It is becoming clear that a static management plan cannot be effective in a dynamic environment. It is time to take a closer look at the current management plan for the parks. This does not mean that we must abandon the plan entirely but it does mean that we must develop a plan that is more effective, systemic, and dynamic for our changing world in order to meet the special needs of the preservation of the wild, scenic, historical and cultural treasures that are found in these places. It is this topic that my next post will be dedicated to. Please remember to support your National Parks by visiting them, purchasing an annual pass, and voting for increased funding…and as always please tread lightly in these most special of places.

1 George Catlin, Illustrations of the Manners, Customs and Conditions of the North American Indians, 2 vols. (London: H.G. Bohn, 1851), 1:262.
2 John Ise, Our National Park Policy: A Critical History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins Press 1961), 53.
3 National Park Service, The National Park System Caring for the American Legacy,

Photo credits:
National Park Service US Department of Interior Museum Management Program, John Muir, Library of Congress. LC-USZ62-52000 DLC. Digital #cph 3b00011
Wikipedia, George Catlin,

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Laying the Foundations

I have spent the past week learning about the creation of the National Park Service (NPS) and the National Parks Conservation Association (NPCA). I have also been learning a lot about the structure of the NPS, how it allocates its funds, where most of the money goes, and as a result, what problems arise due to the current structure although this will come in a future post. Granted this is not as exciting as getting to talk about some of my favorite parks and show pretty pictures from my hikes, but it is quite important to understand the inner workings of the NPS to better understand what changes need to be made in order to create a sound, stable platform from which they can operate and function now and the future.
In 1864 congress ceded the Yosemite Valley to the state of California to be protected “inalienable for all time.” (Miles, 4) This action was spurred by George Catlin who fell in love with the West and recognized that as more settlers like him came into this new area the entire scene would change. While most settlers saw the West as a land of endless resources and opportunities, Catin saw it as a magnificent landscape that needed protection if it was to endure. This idea ultimately became the basis for the creation of the first national park. Yellowstone National Park was created in 1872 by Ulysses S. Grant. Unlike Yosemite, Yellowstone was to be administered by the federal government rather than by a state. Right away administration became a problem for the new park and ultimately congress appointed the U.S. Army as its protector. Yellowstone did not even have legislation protecting wildlife until 1894, more than ten years after it became a park. The stage was set for a myriad of problems that would plague the parks then and now: “incompetent and political concessions (private entrepreneurs providing services to visitors for a fee); threats of inappropriate development; boundaries inadequate to protect resources, especially wildlife; and an inadequate budget to the job mandated by the act creating the park.” (Miles, 6) A short time later Sequoia, Mount Rainier, and Crater Lake National Parks were founded by congress, however there were no funds to manage or protect them and once again the military moved in to do what they could. It was clear that the designation of boundaries was not enough and as John Muir and the Sierra Club were quickly finding out, there were lots of opportunities and work for citizens interested in supporting the national parks. These parks were all clearly appropriate examples of magnificent national parks, but in the early 1900’s the creation of three new national parks raised issues with many park advocates. The creation of Wind Cave, Sullys Hill and Platt became the butt of jokes in congress. For example, Platt National Park was created to honor a deceased senator from Connecticut and its main feature was a group of springs, however these springs were polluted by runoff from an inadequate sewage system in a nearby town. It was becoming evident that there was a need for the establishment of some sort of criteria for what should or shouldn’t be a national park as well as the development of a systemic, comprehensive management plan to protect them.

After the civil war Americans were becoming more concerned about the destruction and degradation of natural beauty and wildlife and the conservation movement began. The conservation movement divided into two branches early on. The conservation branch, led by Gifford Pinchot, felt that resources should be used, consumed and sometimes depleted. The preservation branch, led by John Muir, felt that resources should be protected and not depleted and that some resources should simply be left alone and in the case of the national parks they should be preserved. Many organizations, such as the Sierra Club, the National Audubon Society, the Mountaineers and the American Civic Association were founded with conservation and resource protection in mind. The United States Forest Service was established in 1906 under the leadership of Pinchot who was a true conservationist at heart. J. Horace McFarland, a leader of the American Civic Association and a preservationist, envisioned a similar bureau that would unify the management of the national parks. McFarland allied himself with Muir to oppose San Francisco’s proposal to build a dam that would flood the Hetch Hetchy Valley in Yosemite and as a result became a major advocate of the national parks. The battle over Hetch Hetchy and the conflicting views of preservation and conservation illustrated the need for a centralized administrative system for the national parks. In the early 1900’s McFarland and the American Civic Association along with his alliances with the Sierra Club, the Appalachian Mountain Club, Society for the Preservation of National Parks, and John Muir pushed for a national park bureau or service.
In 1910 Secretary of the Interior Richard Ballinger asked McFarland to confer with him about the creation of a national park bureau. Ballinger’s successors Walter Fisher and Franklin Lane continued to support Ballinger’s proposal. Amongst severe opposition McFarland and his allies pursued their campaign and in 1912 President Taft urged congress to create such a bureau. Pinchot and the Forest Service adamantly opposed such a bureau believing that the Forest Service should have control over the national parks and their resources. While McFarland and his allies set about pushing the creation of the National Park Service, the Department of the Interior was trying to work on some sort of coordination for the parks. Secretary of the Interior, Franklin Lane, brought Adolph Miller on board as an assistant and gave him the responsibility of unifying the administration of the parks. Miller recruited Horace Albright as his assistant and was soon introduced to Steven Mather. Together with McFarland and his allies they pushed for the signing of the National Parks Service Act and on August 25, 1916 against powerful opposition President Wilson signed the National Park Service Act and the National Park Service was created.

The creation of the National Parks Service was a monumental accomplishment, yet there was still more work to be done. In 1917 Mather decided to hold a national conference aimed at getting congress to appropriate support for the development of the parks. Mather underwent a great deal of stress advocating for the parks and during this conference had a nervous breakdown. Many felt that Robert Sterling Yard was the logical choice for Mather’s replacement but the young ambitious Albright would take Mather’s place until he could return. Albright was named “acting director” of the NPS until Mather’s return and Yard was appointed as chief of the Educational Division even though there was no official appropriation for that division. Yard’s salary was paid out of Mather’s own pocket! Yard saw the need to increase interest in education of the national parks and promoted them through articles and other publications. What Yard found was little interest in public education of the parks which ultimately led him to create an organization outside of the government. He gained support for his idea from scientist and secretary of the Smithsonian Charles Walcott as well as Henry Macfarland and together they began the formation of the National Parks Educational Committee. In the next two years they would gain support and in 1919 the committee had 72 members. They felt they could create a partnership with the NPS by letting the NPS develop and administer the parks while they provided public education of the parks. In 1919 the Educational Committee proposed their idea of the creation of the National Parks Association with Mather. Mather wholeheartedly agreed that such an organization would benefit the NPS and urged its creation at once and pledged $5000 to help it get running. Yard and Macfarland worked tirelessly to create the National Parks Association and on April 9, 1919 scheduled a meeting in Washington DC to discuss its creation. The response was positive and on May 19, 1919 the National Parks Association was created.

What was the responsibility of this new organization? Yard, Mather, Macfarland and many others knew that the NPS needed more funding and thought that their priorities might not be entirely correct. The NPA created a document that set the agenda and objectives for the organization which is prefaced with this:

As Congress conceives the National Parks only as concrete properties and appropriates only for their physical protection, improvement and maintenance, there is no governmental provision for their study from any other point of view, or for their interpretation, or for preparing the public mind for their higher enjoyment. To accomplish these objects is the fundamental purpose of the National Parks Association. (Miles 24, 25)

The National Parks Association also created four objectives. The first was “To interpret and popularize natural science by using the conspicuous scenery and the plant and animal exhibits of the national parks, now prominent in the public eye, for examples.” The second stated “To help the development of the national parks into a complete and rational system.” The third objective was to “thoroughly study the National Parks and make past as well as future results available for public use.” The final objective was “To encourage travel in every practicable way.” The NPA wanted to attract people to the parks, yet they also realized the need for education and the sharing of information as well as resource protection. They saw themselves as the defenders of the National Parks and realized that public education is essential to public support.
I have long been a fan of the National Parks Conservation Association (they added the word conservation in the 70’s when the environmental movement emerged), but until recently I never knew their origin. I have also known that the NPS and the NPCA frequently butt heads on issues regarding the parks. Now I feel I have a much clearer vision of why the NPCA was created in the first place and I am glad they are still there advocating for my favorite places. There is still much to be done but I am hopeful that it can and will happen. I feel that their mission to educate the public about our national parks is vital to their public support. Please vote for increased funding for our national parks and support them by visiting them taking only pictures and leaving only footprints on the trails of course.

Works Cited
Miles, John C. Guardians of the parks a history of the National Parks and Conservation Association. Washington, D.C: Taylor & Francis in cooperation with National Parks and Conservations Association, 1995. Print.