On-line Book
cover to America's National Park Service: The Critical Documents
Cover Page


Table of Contents


The Early Years,

Defining The System,

The New Deal Years,

The Poverty Years,

Questions of
Resource Management

The Ecological Revolution,

Transformation and

A System Threatened,

Summaries of
Lengthy Documents

About the Editor

America's National Park System:
The Critical Documents
Chapter 8:
A System Threatened, 1981 - 1992
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Committee on Improving the Science and Technology Programs of the National Park Service National Academy of Sciences, 1992


In conducting this study of science in the national parks, the National Research Council's Committee on Improving the Science and Technology Programs of the National Park Service originally set out to evaluate the scope and organization of current NPS natural and social science by performing a peer review of NPS research activities. However, the committee soon determined that the crucial problems in the NPS research program are not at the level of individual projects. Instead, they are more fundamental, rooted in the culture of the NPS and in the structure and support it gives to research. Thus, the committee concluded that the real need was for an assessment more broadly focused on the research program and its place within the agency.

The call for change made in this report is not new. But given the lack of response to so many previous calls for change, how can the present report succeed in inspiring action? The members of the committee believe that increased funding or incremental changes alone will not suffice, and they call instead for a fundamental metamorphosis. It is time to move toward a new structure—indeed, toward a new culture—that stresses science in the national park system and guarantees long-term financial, intellectual, and administrative support. There are three key elements:

  • There must be an explicit legislative mandate for a research mission of the National Park Service.
  • Separate funding and reporting autonomy should be assigned to the science program.
  • There must be efforts to enhance the credibility and quality control of the science program. This will require a chief scientist of appropriate stature to provide leadership, cooperation with external researchers, and the formation of an external science advisory board to provide continuing independent oversight.


  • To eliminate once and for all any ambiguity in the scientific responsibilities of the Park Service, legislation should be enacted to establish the explicit authority, mission, and objectives of a national park science program.
  • The National Park Service should establish a strong, coherent research program, including elements to characterize and gain
  • understanding of park resources and to aid in the development of effective management practices. To provide a scientific basis for protecting and managing the resources entrusted to it, the Park Service should establish, and expand where it already exists, a basic resource information system, and it should establish inventories and monitoring in designated park units. This information should be obtained and stored in ways that are comparable between park units, thereby facilitating access, exchange, integration, and analysis throughout the park system and with other interested research institutions. The NPS should support and develop intensive long-term, ecosystem-level research projects patterned after (and possibly integrated with) the National Science Foundation's Long-Term Ecological Research program and related activities of other federal agencies. The ways resources are used and appreciated by people should be documented. In addition, National Park Service researchers should have more input into the development of resource management plans. Effective interaction between research results and resource management plans cannot take place without both a strong science program and a strong resource management program.<
  • The National Park Service should also establish and encourage a strong "parks for science" program that addresses major scientific research questions, particularly within those parks that encompass large undisturbed natural areas and wilderness. This effort should include NPS scientists and other scientists in independent and cooperative activities. The goal is to facilitate the use of parks for appropriate scientific inquiry on major natural and related social science questions.


  • The National Park Service should revise its organizational structure to elevate and give substantial organizational and budgetary autonomy to the science program, which should include both the planning of research and the resources required to conduct a comprehensive program of natural and social science research. The program should be led by a person with a commitment to its objectives and a thorough understanding of the scientific process and research procedures.
  • The National Park Service science program should receive its funds through an explicit, separate (line item) budget. A strategic increase in funding is needed, especially to create and support the needed long-term inventories and the monitoring of park resources.


  • To provide leadership and direction, the NPS should elevate and reinvigorate the position of chief scientist, who must be a person of high stature in the scientific community and have as his or her sole responsibilities advocacy for and administration of the science program. The chief scientist would work from the Washington office and report to the Director of the NPS, provide technical direction to the science and resource management staff at the regions and in the parks, and foster interactions with other research agencies and nongovernment organizations. In addition, the chief scientist should establish a credible program of peer review for NPS science, reaching from the development of research plans through publication of results.
  • To help the NPS expand the science program and increase its effectiveness, the Park Service, in cooperation with other agencies, should establish a competitive grants program to encourage more external scientists to conduct research in the national parks. The program should include scientific peer review that involves both NPS scientists and external scientists.
  • The National Park Service should enlist the services of a high-level science advisory board to provide long-term guidance in planning, evaluating, and setting policy for the science program. This independent advisory board should report to the director, and its reports should be available to the public.


To build a science program that fulfills its potential—that meets the needs of resource managers, helps the public understand and enjoy park resources, and contributes to understanding our changing world—the Park Service must give the science program immediate and aggressive attention. Pressures on these national treasures are increasing rapidly. It is shortsighted to fail to organize and support a science program to protect the parks for future generations. And it is a waste of a unique resource if the parks are not used, with proper safeguards, to help address the scientific challenges faced throughout the biosphere. The current Park Service leadership has expressed its recognition of the need for a reinvigorated science program, as well as the importance of the parks in a broader scientific context. It is time to translate that recognition into action.

The conduct of research is fundamentally different from that of most other NPS functions. It operates on a schedule not determined by the calendar of Congress, but on the calendar of the natural or cultural phenomena being studied. Products from research come with answers frequently surrounded with small or great uncertainty. The design of an experiment and the interpretation of the results often depend on the scientific process as it is conducted in another discipline or in a different part of the world. If the NPS is to meet the scientific and resource management challenges of the twenty-first century, a fundamental metamorphosis must occur within its core. This committee's vision for the NPS science program is ambitious but obtainable. The national parks are, after all, simply too valuable to neglect.

Washington, D.C., National Academy Press, 1992, 9-13. Reprinted with permission of the National Academy of Sciences.

NEXT>Appendix: Summaries of Lengthy Documents
Alaska National Monument Proclamations, 1978


Last Modified: October 25, 2000 10:00:00 am PST

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