Keynote: Using Science in Decision Making

A career ranger, who began his career as a seasonal interpreter in D.C., Jarvis took the helm of an agency that preserves and manages some of the most treasured landscapes and valued cultural icons in this nation.

Jon Jarvis portrait
Jon Jarvis

National Park Service Director Jonathan Jarvis delivered the opening keynote at the 11th Biennial Scientific Conference on the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem on October 9, 2012.The article that follows is based on an edited transcription of his remarks at the conference.

Jonathan (Jon) B. Jarvis became the 18th director of the National Park Service on October 2, 2009. A career ranger of the National Park Service, who began his career in 1976 as a seasonal interpreter in Washington, D.C., Jarvis took the helm of an agency that preserves and manages some of the most treasured landscapes and valued cultural icons in this nation. Prior to becoming the national director, Jarvis served as the director of the Pacific West Region, with responsibility for 58 units of the National Park System in Washington, Oregon, Idaho, California, Nevada, Hawaii and the Pacific Islands of Guam, Saipan, and American Samoa.

Jon Jarvis moved up through the National Park Service as a protection ranger, a resource management specialist, park biologist, and chief of Natural and Cultural Resources. He served as superintendent at Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho and at Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaska. He became the superintendent of Mount Rainier National Park in 1999.

Jarvis served as president of the George Wright Society, 1997–98, a professional organization that sponsors a biennial conference on science and management of protected lands around the world. Mr. Jarvis has published and lectured on the role of science in parks at conferences and workshops around the United States. In his previous positions, Jarvis obtained extensive experience in developing government-to-government relations with Native American tribes, gateway community planning, Federal Energy Regulatory Commission relicensing, major facility design and construction, wilderness management and general management planning.

An Early Introduction to Supporting Management with Science

When I became superintendent at Wrangell-St. Elias National Park and Preserve in Alaska in 1993, the caribou herd was widely thought to be in a predator pit. About 98% of the calves were eaten by bears or wolves within the first three or four days of their lives. All the cows were getting old and not reproducing; there was no recruitment coming into this herd which was essential to the native Alaskans there. It was a subsistence community and if they missed a generation of young peo- ple able to harvest caribou, they would lose a big chunk of their culture. Kurt Jenkins, our wildlife biologist, said, “You have a management question that you have to deal with, and I have a science question that I have to deal with, and we’ll bring those two together and figure this out.” There was an interesting research question that needed to be answered but also I had a problem, and we worked it through.

The National Park Service went through some tumultuous years in the 1990s with the removal of scientists who ended up in the U.S. Geological Survey, and then the launchof the Natural Resource Challenge. But we haven’t yet taken the body of knowledge that we have created through the inventory and monitoring program and the Natural Resource Challenge and converted it into decision making.

In my 36 years in the Park Service, I have always been interested in how we incorporate science into decision making, and how we discipline those who ignore the existing science and wind up getting us into trouble.

When I became director of the National Park Service in 2009, one of the first things I did was hire a science advisor, Gary Machlis, whom I see almost daily to help with the issues that I deal with. And we’ve added other scientists as well: Leigh Welling, to serve as our climate scientist, and Stephanie Toothman as the associate director for science in the cultural field.

We need park superintendents who understand science and how to apply it in the decisions they’re making. During my seven years as the Pacific West Regional Director, I hired 52 superintendents, putting particular emphasis on their ability to understand both natural and cultural resources. We had a series of meetings with scientists to talk about climate change in the Pacific Islands, the Northwest, and California. Jeremy Jackson, a marine scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, gave a presentation on “The Coca-Cola Ocean and the Rise of Slime” at a superintendents’ meeting in San Diego—the concept that the biota of the oceans are going to be replaced by giant bacterial mats that, as they get to the coastlines, get aerated in the ocean waves and make the coasts uninhabitable.

A few years ago I wrote a paper called, with apologies to Al Gore, “The Inarticulate Truth,” which was about how inarticulate we are about climate change. The public’s belief in climate change as a fact is in decline yet the science is in the upswing.

Revisiting the Leopold Report

In 2011 we established a committee under the National Park System Advisory Board to revisit the 1963 Leopold Report (officially titled “Wildlife Management in the National Parks”). A. Starker Leopold went out to the field and talked to the states, to wildlife agencies, to the National Park Service, to scientists, and others to produce that report, which has been the National Park Service guide since the mid-sixties. It said that our job is to create a reasonable illusion of primitive America using the utmost skill, judgment, and ecological sensitivity—that this should be the objective of every national park and monument. Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall liked the report but George Hartzog, director of the National Park Service, did not, and tried to get rid of it. Udall told him to implement it, but it took many years for it to be adopted into the culture of the organization. It became my bible, and I had an original copy that I carried around for many years.

I asked the “Revisiting Leopold” committee to incorporate human impacts, climate change, and cultural resources, and keep the report to 23 pages, which they did. Here is an excerpt from the result, “Revisiting Leopold: Resource Stewardship in the National Parks:”

“Monitoring stations show that the soil is warming earlier in the season. High temperatures and several years of low rainfall have caused the now widespread nonnative grasses to dry into fire fuels more rapidly than in previous years. Wildlife studies document an elk herd increasing in number and exceeding estimates of what the valley can sustain. Surveys show early season visitation to the park is at an all-time high due to changes in school calendars and an increased population of seniors. Educational programs on local history, based on research, are attended by enthusiastic tourists. Field biologists have documented alpine flowers blooming days earlier than previously recorded, a trend that began over a decade ago. Ecologists note that pica populations are moving several hundred feet higher in elevation in response to increased summer temperatures. Glacial ice is declining, exposing a new moraine. The scene shifts from just a moment in time, or portrait, to a moving record of a dynamic and continuously changing system, and it is one we do not yet fully understand.”

It’s fairly easy to visualize vignettes of primitive America; you can say this belongs and that doesn’t, and this needs to be brought back (wolves and fire, for example) and get rid of that (nonnative plants and animals). But to take on the paradigm the Park Service is facing now is a challenge. “The overarching goal of NPS resource management,” according to the report, “should be to steward the NPS resources for continuous change that is not yet fully understood, in order to preserve ecological integrity and cultural and historic authenticity, provide visitors with transformative experiences, and form the core of a national conservation landand seascape.”

We want to have conversations with the scientific community as well as our partners, cooperators, employees, and resource managers so that we can understand how to bring this vision into our culture. It is an affirmation of the work that many are already doing in Yellowstone—working at the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem scale and taking on the challenges of climate change, the restoration of trout, the return of the wolves, brucellosis, and the decline of whitebark pine.

Three Tenets of Decision Making

Science does not always rule the day in the issues we face. If it did, the question of brucellosis or winter use would have been answered a long time ago. Politics are a reality, and I live in that bus lane pretty much every day and would be glad to show you the tire tracks across my back.

My three tenets of decision making are: use of the best available science, accurate fidelity to the law, and the longterm public interest. We rarely have all the science we need so we’re always making decisions with an incomplete picture, but we can use the best available.

Accurate fidelity to the law means that as a manager you need to understand the law under which we are making decisions, not letting somebody else interpret it for you. It’s great to have solicitors’ advice; they help us understand the legal risks we are taking. I always encourage managers to read the law themselves and understand what the intent was. I do not consider the opinions of our elected officials as fidelity to the law. They have their opinions, but the law is in the right, is what passed in statute, and that’s what we need to refer to.

The third tenet is that we are in the perpetuity business. We’re not in this for short-term political or economic gain; we’re here for the long-term public interest. And you should add the precautionary principle to this: decisions need to be conservative in terms of the resource. That’s sometimes frustrating because it can slow down the decision-making process.

Examples of Good and Bad Decisions

A good decision we were recently involved in was the protection of more than one million acres around the Grand Canyon from uranium mining, the maximum the secretary of the Interior could authorize. The increased interest in rebuilding nuclear power brought a sudden upswing in interest in uranium mining, but we don’t know much about its long-term effects. After many discussions with the Bureau of Land Management, the U.S. Forest Service, and the U.S. Geological Survey, we made the decision based on the precautionary principle—the lack of information about the potential impacts. The existing mines have valid rights, so it’s not as though we have stopped all uranium mining. But we’re going to invest in research to better understand the water transport of nuclear radioactive material through these springs.

Radioactive Waste and the Grand Canyon

Uranium mining has been actively carried out in the area in and around the Grand Canyon since the mid-1950s. When an earthen dam released 1,100 tons of radioactive waste material from a historic mine site into the Little Colorado River in 1979, concerns were raised regarding the toxic tailing’s effect on the natural resources and the health of the peoples who live on the Colorado plateau. In 2006 an increase in the price of uranium led to resurgence in mining claims and activity. As a result of this, on January 9, 2012, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar, ordered a 20 year ban on mining claims that drain directly into the Grand Canyon and the Colorado River. Steve Martin, former Grand Canyon National Park Superintendent said, “There should be some places you just do not mine. Uranium is a special concern because it is both a toxic heavy metal and a source of radiation. I worry about uranium escaping into the local water, and about its effect on fish in the Colorado River at the bottom of the gorge, and on the bald eagles, California condors and bighorn sheep that depend on the Canyon’s seeps and springs.” Despite the ban imposed under Secretary Salazar recent challenges to the ban are being challenged and Energy Fuels Resources, a Canadian Company, has plans to reopen its mine six miles south of Grand Canyon Village. Dave Uberuaga, current Superintendent of Grand Canyon National Park says, “My number one challenge is protecting this place. We can’t take it for granted.”

A second example of a good decision is in the Everglades. The best piece of advice I got was to go down to the Everglades and sit in a room with just the scientists—no managers—just scientists. They gave me the big picture and helped me understand what was needed to begin real restoration of the Everglades. I believe we are on the right path now, letting the park’s team of scientists drive the restoration.

The Elwha Dam removal is another project that we’ve been working on for some years, with the positive outcome evident in the photographs on the Web. The steelhead are already in the upper watershed, and they are moving up. It’s a project driven by science, engineering, and great dedication.

Now a few examples of regrettable decisions, starting with overflights at the Grand Canyon. We were on a good path, and the park staff was doing an excellent job of understanding the science of noise transmission, but we were overruled by Congress. The delegation drew the line and said, “It’s quiet enough,” and I think that was a loss for us.

An issue that is especially near and dear to me is the oyster farming at Point Reyes National Seashore. I think it is one of the ugliest issues that I’ve been involved in my entire career. The National Park Service bought the oyster farm in Drakes Estero 40 years ago for $80,000 and gave the operator a 40-year permit to continue to operate. Seven years ago, that operator sold the remaining years to a new operator who announced his intention to stay forever. That reservation of use and occupancy expires on November 30th of this year. However, congress put a rider put on the appropriations bill that allows the secretary of the Interior to extend the permit for an additional 10 years.

an additional 10 years. The National Park Service has wanted the Estero to return to its natural state, with oysters no longer raised there. There’s documentation of disturbance to the harbor seals from the oyster operation. The seals come in to pup in the estuary, which is too shallow for sharks. The science would guide us in the direction of Estero restoration, but there are deep precedents on all sides and science is just one part of it. The mariculture industry has determined that if they can win this fight to grow commercial oysters in a unit of the National Park System, in an area that has been designated as potential wilderness, then they can win anywhere. So they’ve attacked not only our science but our scientists, and attempted to discredit some NPS employees through filings of scientific misconduct, data quality violations, and requests for Inspector General Investigations. The fight is close to being over but it’s not over yet and we’re fighting back strongly on that.

strongly on that. In November 2012, Secretary Ken Salazar denied the Drake Bay Oyster Company an extension on its lease, citing the NPS policy on commercial operations in parks and 1970s legislation that designated the site as potential wilderness. The oyster farm continues to operate while it appeals the decision. A lawsuit supporting the oyster operation has also been filed by the Alliance for Local Sustainable Agriculture based in Marin County.

Reconnecting People to Nature

About three weeks ago, I led the U.S. delegation to the World Conservation Congress in South Korea. There were about 4,000 people there, including 150 leaders of national parks who met together for eight hours. I keynoted that group and we developed a declaration that we all signed, which was unusual. The State Department said, “Don’t sign it— we don’t sign anything.” But I signed it to assert that national parks and equivalent reserves have a responsibility to use these resources to reconnect people to nature.

We have these places for citizen science, for contemplation and inspiration, and we need to use these assets to elevate public awareness of issues like climate change. That’s a charge that we took seriously. We are working toward the 2014 World Parks Congress, which will be in Australia, where the park CEOs and scientists and others will gather to assert that protected areas are essential to conservation, particularly in light of global climate change. A population that is increasingly disconnected from nature is of deep concern to all of us, not only here in the United States but around the world as well.

The National Park System’s 100th anniversary in 2016 is an enormous opportunity for us to engage the American public. The Organic Act says that the National Park Service shall regulate and promote its parks so that they will be unimpaired for future generations. We’ve done a pretty good job on the “regulate” but we haven’t done much on “promote.” And I don’t necessarily mean promote as in visitation. It’s more about elevating the awareness of the American public about these assets that were set aside for them for an explicit purpose.

So about a week ago, after a long process through the National Park Foundation, we hired a Madison Avenue marketing firm, the Grey Group ( The concept behind the 2016 campaign, for which the Foundation has put up $1 million, is that there are many stories to be told about our national parks, whether they are the stories of César Chávez and the United Farm Workers movement, Martin Luther King, the Latinos in the Civil War, or women’s rights. There are also stories of climate change, species migration, and the habitat changes that we are seeing. There’s a huge 22(1) • 2014 Yellowstone Science 17 population out there, the unaware non-users that need to hear these stories. And we need professional help in telling those stories in compelling ways, using social media, talking to youth, talking to communities of color that don’t know the National Park Service exists but would love to know.

We need to build advocacy beyond the traditional advocates for the sustainability of these ecosystems. We have a tendency to talk to ourselves way too much and not to communities of color, communities of religion, the folks out there that are motivated for other reasons. They’re your neighbors, they’re your friends, probably some of your relatives, whom we need to engage and build a much broader constituency because in many ways it is all about long-term human sustainability. And if we can incorporate that into ecological sustainability, we can build a lot of allies over time.

The core of the effort is to raise awareness not only of the national parks but of other things that the National Park Service does. We set up 13,000 low-income housing units in the last few years; we administer the historic preservation tax credit program; we do billions of dollars of urban renewal projects around the country; we’re active in 99% of the counties in the United States. Nearly every city, county, and state park has a Land Water Conservation Fund grant that we oversee. We administer the National Register program; we have a curatorial collection that is second only to the Smithsonian’s.

The other area that we’re investing significantly in is the parks’ role in public health. Someday the FDA is going to come out and say that we’ve just discovered this fantastic new drug, an antidote to diabetes and obesity and cancer and emphysema and heart disease. It’s your national parks. If we could just get a thimbleful of the money that is spent on public health in this country—it’s 18% of the gross national product. Some countries have figured this out—Australia, Finland, and others are all over this. But there’s a body of research that needs to be done. We just held big meetings at Clemson College with a group of medical researchers who will be helping us fund a quantitative look at the role that parks of all sorts play in public health. This could be a major shift for all of us in building a constituency that recognizes the value of these places in terms of clean water, clean air, exercise, and just being outdoors.

We met with the chief medical officer of Health and Human Services several years ago on this issue. She wasn’t so sure that the outdoors was all that good for you. She had not seen that in the research yet. She said, when you think about bugs and animals and sunburn and things like that, maybe it is better to stay indoors. I need to take her on a hike.

Inspiration for the Future

I know what Aldo Leopold said—“to be a biologist is to walk in a world of wounds”—but I’m optimistic about the future. One reason is that I’ve spent a lot of time with young people, and there’s a high degree of optimism out there in those I talk to, particularly when you get them outdoors. We had an incredible number of children yesterday at the opening of the César E. Chávez National Monument in California, at the national headquarters of the United Farmworkers of America. They were so excited that this icon of their community was being recognized by the National Park Service. This is a project I’ve been working on for a decade, and it was great to finally get a designation that honors someone who was in many ways a pioneer environmentalist. César Chávez took on the challenge of pesticides in the Central Valley with the United Farmworkers as an environmental justice issue.

Two people on the beach of a very large lake with snow-capped mountains in the background.


This is a project I’ve been working on for a decade, and it was great to finally get a designation that honors someone who was in many ways a pioneer environmentalist. César Chávez took on the challenge of pesticides in the Central Valley with the United Farmworkers as an environmental justice issue.

We have a passionate workforce in this organization, very mission-driven, and our cadre of partners also gives me great inspiration. When I get back out to the field, it rejuvenates me to listen to our partners, our scientists, our cooperators, our volunteers, our relationships with federal agencies like the Forest Service, the U.S. Geological Survey, and the Bureau of Land Management, which recently asked Gary Machlis to help them design a science program. I think that is an enormous step in the right direction and we’re going to do everything we can to help the BLM in this effort because they have some incredible lands and they’re our next-door neighbor in many places.

We also continue to have a great foundation of good will among the American people. I hear it every day. I worry that there are folks out there that don’t know who we are or what we do, but I think we can build that awareness. We’ve just got to give them a bit of exposure to these incredible places. Dr. Milton Chen, who is on our advisory board and was the executive director of George Lucas’s foundation, says the National Park Service is the largest informal education institution in America, when you think about the reach that we have, the hundreds of millions of visitors and kids.

During the bioblitz in Rocky Mountain National Park last August, I was out in the field with a bunch of fourth graders. They were running back and forth to a creek, scooping out aquatic insects and putting them into little trays. When I asked a girl, “What do you have?” she said, “Oh, it looks like a chironomid.” A budding biologist there. My one criticism of the second century commission report [Rethinking the National Parks for the 21st Century: A Report of the National Park System Advisory Board, July 2001] is that the word “fun” doesn’t show up in there anywhere. This is fun and should be fun and we should never forget that.

A person kneels and examines a carcass in a snowy landscape.


The work of the National Park Service extends way beyond the park boundaries, beyond even the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem. We have in aggregate a responsibility to this country. I like to say that the National Park Service speaks for those who do not have a voice. We bring voice to those who have passed, the Harriet Tubmans, the Dr. Martin Luther Kings, and others whose voices become our responsibility to carry forward. We speak for the animals: they don’t send me emails, they don’t complain, but somebody needs to speak for them and that’s something we do.

We have an optimistic piece of legislation that says we are to take care of these places unimpaired for future generations. So we must be thinking about how they will judge us. We have this stewardship responsibility that has been bestowed upon us as keepers of the cultural memory of the country, and it’s an honor as well as a responsibility. So we need your support, your active engagement, and your involvement. We need your brains and your brawn and your sweat and your report writing and your prodding to the managers of the National Park Service to do the right thing, to apply the best available sound science to the decisions that we make, because we are doing it for the next generation. Thank you.

Last updated: February 26, 2018