Science for Parks

Two people consult books during plant identification
Identifying plants in the field.

NPS/R. Weissinger

How do we know what we know? And how do we know that we can rely on what we know?

The Northern Colorado Plateau Network was created to help solve a problem: too often, park managers lacked the information they needed to make scientifically sound decisions about park resources. Basic questions—“Which plants and animals are in this park?” “Has the park’s water quality changed in recent years?”—could be hard to answer without a consistent, long-term data record. Scientific research was being done in parks, but it tended to be project-based, intermittent, and performed by many individuals with different goals and methods over inconsistent time periods, making it difficult to compile and compare results.

To make sure park managers had access to basic information about key resources in their parks, Congress instructed the Secretary of the Interior to create the Inventory and Monitoring Division in 1998, “to establish baseline information and to provide information on the long-term trends in the condition of National Park System resources.” Today, 32 inventory & monitoring networks serve hundreds of National Park Service units throughout the country, helping to turn “I don’t know” into “Let’s look at the reports.”

By itself, long-term monitoring is not research—it does not answer a pre-determined question and does not have an end date. Long-term monitoring is a regular, ongoing check of abundance, diversity, and appropriate functioning. However, the information we gather can lead to specific questions that require more in-depth research.

Last updated: June 11, 2018