National Parks protect a tremendous variety of natural and cultural wonders. The cliff dwellings of Mesa Verde, the thermal features of Yellowstone, the canyons of Canyonlands – these and other parks present opportunities for visitors to explore features that often don’t exist anywhere else in the world.
National Parks also present unique opportunities for scientific research. Of course many scientists study the various wonders for which parks were established, but that’s not all. Many parks prohibit activities like hunting, grazing, mining and off-road vehicle use that occur elsewhere on public and private lands. These regulations create a "control" area to which scientists can compare the affects of these activities elsewhere. This is especially important in the American west where parks often serve as the best model for what an undisturbed landscape should look like. For example, in order to assess soil fertility around an old copper mine, one would need benchmark values from a similar environment where no mining had occurred. National Parks can make establishing such benchmarks easier.
Over the years, Canyonlands has served as an outdoor laboratory for a variety of scientists. Given the landscape, it is no surprise that much of this research focuses on geology and soils. From the Island in the Sky’s Upheaval Dome to the Grabens area of the Needles, Canyonlands possesses many uncommon landforms. The fact that over 200 million years of geologic history are visible in the park draws scientists from all over the world.
Soil science has been a dominant research topic at Canyonlands for years. Since the 1970s, researchers have been uncovering the role biological soil crusts play in the high desert ecosystem. Since topsoil erosion and fertility have become issues of global importance, understanding the mechanisms which maintain healthy soils in deserts might benefit areas all over the world.
Much of the soil research has focused on the impacts of grazing and exotic grasses, especially the invasive cheatgrass (Bromus tectorum). This European import has overcome rangeland throughout the western United States. Animals rarely eat it and it appears that native grasses cannot compete with it. Scientists at Canyonlands are studying how changes in soil chemistry affect the ability of cheatgrass to transform a landscape.
In addition to such far-ranging benefits, research in Canyonlands also aids park managers. Much like a physician monitors a patient’s heartbeat and blood pressure for diagnostic purposes, National Park Service officials need accurate information about the resources in their care. Specifically, they need to know how and why natural systems change over time, and what amount of change is normal, in order to make sound management decisions.
Scientists have been implementing an integrated inventory and monitoring program. The first phase of the program is to verify records of what plants and animals exist in Canyonlands. To accomplish this, teams of scientists are conducting inventories of plants, mammals, reptiles, amphibians and birds.
The second phase of the program is the development of vital signs monitoring. Vital signs are measurable, early warning signals that indicate changes which could affect the long-term health of natural systems. Canyonlands, along with other parks, is planning a program to monitor biological and physical resources like air quality, water quality, exotic species, soils, and threatened and endangered species
The files below contain descriptions of the research done in the park for the last several years. These files require Adobe Acrobat Reader for viewing.
2010 Research Summary
2009 Research Summary
2008 Research Summary
2007 Research Summary
2006 Research Summary
2005 Research Summary
2004 Research Summary
2003 Research Summary
2002 Research Summary
2001 Research Summary
For more information or to apply for a research permit, visit the NPS online Research Permit and Reporting System.
Did You Know?
One animal uniquely adapted to life in the desert is the kangaroo rat. This rat lives its entire life consuming nothing but plant matter. Its body produces water by metabolizing the food it eats. More...