Marc Albert, Boston Harbor Islands Stewardship Program Manager
Interviewed by Tara Weaver 10/30/2008
What was the benefit of using a symposium format to exhibit Boston Harbor Islands’ research projects?
The format is great because it brings together a lot of people who are working in the field on different days in different places into the same room to share information. It brings together researchers, volunteers, students, interested members of the public, and also park managers, and provides a single place and time for all those folks who were interested in what’s going on to get a more comprehensive view. All you had to do was show up and listen and you got a pretty good snapshot of the science going on throughout the park.
How does science relate to the mission of the National Park Service and the Boston Harbor Islands?
The mission of the National Park Service has two main elements. One is to protect the natural and historic resources at the parks, and the other is to provide for the enjoyment of the park for this and all future generations. Science relates to both of those components of the mission. In order to protect the resources we need to understand what those resources are. At a very basic level, science is a systematic way of understanding the world around us, and thus science in the park is a way of understanding the worlds within the park—the "microwilderness" within the park that is explored by the ATBI project and all the other features we learned about too.
The Park Service has a varied history of science-based decision making. Long ago, bear shows were part of interpretation, and hunting of predators was thought to be a way to protect the resources that the visitors wanted to see, like large herds of grazing animals. Thanks to the pioneering efforts of people like George Melendez Wright, who was at the forefront of encouraging Congress and the Park Service to think about management of the resources of the parks in a scientific context, NPS now must use the best available science to make decisions that will meet our mission to protect resources. The research we heard reported on at the symposium can help us make management decisions to protect and restore the historic and natural resources, and natural processes, in the park.
The second part of the mission is providing enjoyment of the parks. Part of providing enjoyment is simply having protected open spaces, trails and views that provide contemplative experiences. The other part of it is providing educational and interpretive opportunities that relate directly to the resources at the park. The information we collect through the ATBI project for example, has been used to create posters, the “PredatOR-Prey” game, and curriculum–based educational programs.
At the Symposium scientists listed the following as some of the park's most alluring attributes: over 5,000 insect species; proximity to the city; and a clustering of individual ecosystems within minutes of each other. What more do the islands have to offer to scientist who wish to conduct research? Why should they come here?
The proximity to the city and the geography of the park—the urban wild-land interface—is the first piece of that. We are within minutes of a heavily developed area, and park lands have a long history of different land uses by different human groups, which reflects most of the metropolitan areas in the United States. Increasingly scientists are trying to understand the relationship between human activities and the natural world. There is a great opportunity here to research the ecology of human-influenced landscapes, ecosystems, species, and communities. We also saw multiple presentations that referred to island biogeography, which is one of the fundamental theories within the science of ecology relating to the diversity and distribution of species. Boston Harbor Islands is an archipelago of islands of varying sizes, varying distances from the mainland and varying land use histories. In a way that’s a perfect laboratory for island biogeographic analysis, again on multiple scales; the genetic scale, populations of individual species, and the community and landscape scale.
Just to clarify, are these areas that have already been tapped into, these areas of study?
Yes, but it’s almost unlimited. Island biogeography theory provides general testable hypotheses to which you can apply individual systems or individual species or groups of species in any category; birds, mammals, insects, etc. Really, the more research that’s done in one area, the more value additional research has because it can be placed in the context of the former research. In this case, the more groups of species we can asses according to island biogeography theory, the better we can understand and explain how species distribute themselves in coastal urban wild-land interfaces.The Partnership
For members of the Partnership who did not attend the Symposium is there something that came out of the event that they might find particularly interesting?
In general what the Symposium reflected is that the thirty-four parcels that comprise Boston Harbor Islands national park area are being utilized as a cohesive unit of study. The fact that the Partnership works collaboratively to plan and manage the whole park provides researchers, students, and citizen science volunteers an opportunity to think broadly about what they can do in the park, and not think about which island is owned by whom, or the administrative or logistical components of the park. I think the breadth of talks we heard and the fact that no one really reflected on any administrative challenges reflects well on the Partnership doing a good job of presenting the park as a unified entity that is attractive both for visitors and for scientists.
How do you see the Partnership benefiting from the research?
The individual partners that are land owners benefit by learning more about the resources that they are directly responsible for managing. In addition, perhaps as much as any other aspect of park work, science is inherently an open ended, non-political way of thinking about the world, which can underscore the collaborative nature of the Partnership.
How has the presence of island research projects encouraged a sense of community in the park?
The citizen scientists, professional scientists, and students that are participating in these projects form a community of people that are discovering the park together. One of the goals for the Park Service in the park is to promote citizen science and community stewardship of park resources. The citizen scientists who monitored birds in the early mornings for the coastal breeding bird protocol, the students and volunteers who collected the insect traps or participated in the overnight studies as part of the ATBI—they have the deepest visitor experience possible in the park in that they experience the place while also directly contributing to our understanding of it.