Science in Alaska National Parks: Challenges and Opportunities for the 21st Century

By Robert A. Winfree and Suzanne K.M. Marcy
Native Chukotkan dancers performing at the 2003 Beringia Days International Conference.
Native Chukotkan dancers performing at the 2003 Beringia Days International Conference.

Photograph courtesy of Gregory Gusse

The need for scientific understanding of natural and cultural resources in national parks across the nation is increasing as the world continues to change around us. Nowhere in the National Park Service is this need greater than in Alaska's national parks, preserves, and monuments. Passage of the Alaska National Interest Lands Conserva­tion Act (ANILCA) in 1980 greatly expanded the acreage managed by the NPS in Alaska. The size and remoteness of these new parks make management challenging and ongoing scientific study essential to understanding these areas.

The use of science by the NPS has recently been a topic of considerable interest (e.g., NPS 1992, NPSAB 2001, NRC 1992, Sellars 1997). The history of science in Alaska parks prior to ANILCA is covered separately in this issue (see Norris article). Subsequent to ANILCA, major challenges and opportunities for the NPS science pro­grams emerged. By the early 1990s there was a consensus among many that the NPS needed additional and better scientific research and monitoring to understand and manage potential effects from new resource issues (NPS 1992, NRC 1992, Sellars 1997).

A common thread among them was a recommendation that the scientific capac­ity, and use of scientific information, need­ed to be greatly strengthened. At the same time, a major setback to the biological research programs occurred in 1993, when many NPS research scientists were moved into a new agency, the National Biological Survey, which later became part of the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS). Even with the long-term advan­tages of having an independent biological science agency in the Department of the Interior, the migration of its core researchers to another agency severely truced NPS's capacity to study and manage natural resources. Although many USGS scientists continued to conduct research of great value in parks, NPS leadership and Congress soon realized that there was a need for additional research capacity.

Congress responded by passing the National Parks Omnibus Management Act of 1998 (NPOMA). The Act included a clear research mandate and an expectation that park management would have available and use a "broad program of the highest quality science and information" (Public Law 105-391). The Act specifical­ly authorized scientific studies in parks that were ... consistent with applicable laws and National Park Service management policies; and ... pose no threat to park resources or public enjoyment derived from those resources ... In addition, Congress included provisions to maintain the confidentiality of some types of information when release could result in "unreasonable risk of harm, theft, or destruction of the resource." The Act also authorized and directed the NPS to establish several important new scientific programs, which complemented existing efforts. These broadly increased production, utilization, and communication of scientific data and information.

Changes to NPS Science Programs in Alaska during the 1990s

During the 1990s, the NPS initiated the Natural Resource Challenge and the Bering­ian International Heritage Park Program in Alaska. These programs, and their compo­nents described here, will be central to an NPS Alaska Region Science Strategy now under development.

In 1990, after many years of planning by scientists and officials in two countries, U.S. President Bush and Soviet President Gorbachev announced their intention to establish a Beringian International Heritage Park to celebrate contemporary, historic, and prehistoric links between both sides of the Bering Strait. This launched what today is the Beringia Program, which supports international scientific, cultural, and educa­tional projects, and organizes annual con­ferences to present project results. The program has been a major success in establishing a strong link between the land­scape and cultural change across the Bering Strait, and is a testament to the value of partnerships and close cooperation with Native peoples.

In 1999, one year after passage of the NPOMA, NPS Director Robert Stanton announced the launch of the Natural Resource Challenge a new science initiative. The goals of the initiative are to identify and document park resources, determine their condition and trends, assess the implications of natural or human influenced changes, and report the findings to managers, scien­tists, and the public. In order to implement the Challenge, funding for science and natural resource management has increased every year since fiscal year 2000. By 2005, the funding base for natural resource and science reached S78 million more than lev­els prior to launching the Challenge (NPS 2004). In Alaska, goals were shaped into three primary objectives:
  1. to document and monitor the condition of critical park resources;
  2. to substantially reduce the backlog of resource management problems and scientific needs; and
  3. to attract scientists outside of the NPS to work in parks.

To achive these objectives, three programs were implemented in Alaska nation­al parks: the Inventory and Monitoring Program, Cooperative Ecosystem Studies Units, and Science and Learning Centers.

Inventory and Monitoring Program

To meet the first objective, a national Inventory and Monitoring (I&M) program was implemented. By creating 32 networks nationally, parks were grouped into bio­geographic regions. In this way, compre­hensive natural resource status and trends are provided to park managers, looking across park boundaries. In Alaska, four net­works were created - the Central Alaska Network established in 2001, Southwestern in 2002, Arctic in 2003, and Southeastern in 2004. Denali National Park and Preserve's pilot long-term ecological monitoring pro­gram, which began in 1991, was folded into the Central Alaska Network in 2004.

An early inventory objective was to doc­ument 90% of vertebrate animals and vas­cular plants in each park unit. Baseline data collection and mapping are also underway for soils, geology, water resources, water quality, air quality, and climate.

I&M scientists and data managers are developing comprehensive natural resource bibliographies for the parks, and also gathering information from historical records for relevant data to populate a series of databases. Network scientists are adopting, adapting, or developing strate­gies for long-term "vital sign" monitoring, and building conceptual models linking biotic and abiotic resources and natural and human-influenced processes. Vital signs are carefully selected indicators of environmental change and resource condi­tion, such as climate, air and water quality, and the distribution and abundance of indicator plant and animal species.

The Murie Science and Learning Center is a quiet log building nestled under coniferous trees.
Murie Science and Learning Center

National Park Service photograph

Cooperative Ecosystem Studies Units

Partnerships are a key element of the Natural Resource Challenge. To facilitate collaboration with non-federal agencies, universities, and other institutions, the NPS developed agreements with the USGS and 11 other federal agencies to establish a national network of university-based Cooperative Ecosystem Studies Units (CESU). By 2004, more than 180 universi­ties and other non-federal cooperators had joined the expanding system. Each of the 17 CESU is organized around a major bio­geographic region. Alaska parks are served by two CESU-north and west Alaska and Pacific Northwest United States, which includes Southeast Alaska. In addition, since the NPS is a cooperating agency in all 17 CESU, Alaska park managers have full access to the entire CESU system of experts with special experience or knowledge.

The CESU are intended to foster part­nerships in research, education, and techni­cal assistance. The NPS supports numerous park-oriented research and technical proj­ects in the biological, physical, cultural, and social sciences by university faculty and graduate students through the CESU. The CESU help to organize and implement sci­entific workshops and conferences focused on topics important to parks and other partner agencies. This creates opportuni­ties for students to gain valuable experience working with the parks, an opportunity that sometimes launches new career paths.

Science and Learning Centers

Alaska national parks preserve some of the largest and most pristine natural areas in the United States. The daunting size of these areas (Alaska contains more than half of the acreage in the entire National Park System) and the absence of convenient road access to most sites complicates the task of outfitting and supporting field research (see Stottlemyer article, page 40). To ad­dress the remoteness and other challenges, the Natural Resource Challenge envisioned a national system of laboratory facilities, with capabilities for temporary lodging, computer and Internet access, logistical support, research grants, opportunities for collaboration, and other benefits to the scientific community.

Two research and learning centers have now been established in Alaska, each with unique capacities. The Ocean Alaska Science and Learning Center (OASLC), located at Kenai Fjords National Park, focuses research on coastal and marine ecosystems in part­nership with the Alaska SeaLife Center ( e.g., harbor seal research) and others such as the Smithsonian Institution (e.g., research on early human use of Kenai Fjords). These studies and more are featured in the Kenai Fjords issue of Alaska Park Science (Volume 3, Issue 1). The Murie Science and Learning Center (MSLC), established in Denali National Park and Preserve in 2004, is oriented towards Alaska's inland parks. The MSLC has part­nered with the Denali Institute to provide science-based learning opportunities for park visitors. Similar opportunities for chil­dren are being offered in partnership with the Denali Borough school system.

Looking Forward Into the 21st Century: A Regional Science Strategy for Alaska National Parks

Since its creation under the 1916 Organic Act, sustaining the values of national parks in perpetuity has been at the core of the National Park Service mission. Alaska park managers are in the enviable position of having stewardship over some of the most intact ecosystems and cultural sites that exist in the world today. Even so this will not protect these resources from change. While new programs implemented under the Natural Resource Challenge and Bering­ian International Heritage Park Program are already providing a significant base for scientific research in Alaska parks, the need for a strategic approach to science is reco­nized as a positive avenue for ensuring that the data collected today will inform the decisions needed in the future.

Thus, during the fall of 2004, the Alaska Regional Office began a review of science issues, opportunities, and challenges that are expected to affect parks in the coming decades. The intended outcome of this effort will be: a strategy for expanding scientific capacity through better coordi­nation among existing programs; increas­ing cooperation with scientists in other agencies and institutions; identifying short and long-term scientific information needs; organizational and infrastructure improve­ments needed to support data collection; and synthesis of scientific information for use in decision-making. The strategy will take a multidisciplinary approach, and will consider both terrestrial and marine (Davis 2004) ecosystems.

Early in this process, a series of inter­views and focus group meetings were held with scientists, resource managers, educa­tors, and senior leadership to identify key issues. Although open-ended questions resulted in a rich array of input, main themes were remarkably consistent across disciplines and staff roles. Fiive major issues of concern were voiced (Table 1), making it clear that remoteness and low human populations cannot be relied upon to buffer Alaska parks from challenges such as climate change, transported contaminants, natural resource development in adjacent areas, and population growth in the state. These and other pressures will place NPS natural and cultural resources at potential risk in ways for which historic approaches to resource management may not suffice. Placing a "virtual fence" around park lands cannot protect their values, nor can legislative mandates (like ANILCA).

As Alaska parks increasingly face chal­lenges such as these, the need for more deliberate and successful use of science through adaptive management will also increase (NPS 1999). A regional science strategy should create new approaches for maximizing existing capacities and attracting new opportunities and partners that help us meet our goal for sustainable systems. Implementation of that strategy should help the NPS to meet its mission to preserve the nation's natural and cultural resources and ensure their enjoyment by the American people now and in future generations.

Davis, Gary E. 2004.
Maintaining unimpaired ocean resource and experiences.
A National Park Service Ocean Stewardship Strategy. National Park Service. Washington, DC.

Dilsaver, Lary M., ed. 1997.
America's National Park System: The Critical Documents.
Rowman & Littlefield. Lanham, MD.

National Parle Service (NPS). 1992.
National Parks for the 21st Century: The Vail Agenda.
National Park Service. Washington, D.C.

National Parle Service (NPS). 1999.
Natural Resource Challenge.
The National Park Service's Action Plan for Preserving Natural Resources.

National Parle Service (NPS). 2004.
Funding the Natural Resource Challenge.
Report to Congress, Fiscal Year 2003. National Park Service. Washington, D.C.

National Parle System Advisory Board (NPSAB). 2001.
Rethinking the National Parks in the 21st Century.

National Research Council (NRC), Committee on Improving the Science and Technology Programs of the National Parle Service. 1992.
Science and the National Parks.
National Academy Press. Washington, D.C.

Sellars, Richard W. 1997.
Preserving Nature in the National Parks: A History.
Yale University Press. New Haven, CT.

Public Law 105-391. 1998.
National Parks Omnibus Management Act
(16 USC 5931-5936).

Part of a series of articles titled The Legacy of ANILCA.

Last updated: October 23, 2021